Fish Thinkers

5 free ways around the great paywall of academia. #Updated 2019#


Picture: Severin. Stalder CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia commons

If you do not have subscription access to academic journals through an institution then to access a large proportion of academic journals you will be charged a fee for each paper; fees of $30 or more per article are common. And if you need to access a lot of papers then the cost quickly adds up. Needless to  say many people don’t have the means to pay. Of course you could stick to open access journals i.e. free to read and download (Head to the directory of Open Access Journals for easy access to a whole range of open access journals), but by doing so you will miss a lot of what’s happening in the academic world*.

If you can’t afford to pay then you have a few options to get around the paywalls.

Here are  5 ways around the great paywall of academia;

  1. The Snail Trail (legal but painfully slow): Some journals allow researchers to archive a full copy of their paper immediately on publication, on a personal webpage or university database (others have an embargo period,typically 12 to 24 months, after which papers can be added). Many also allow the authors a certain number of free access codes. To access this option takes time. You have to personally contact authors  and hope they respond, or leave academic databases and search the web for personal webpage hosted versions, or access university databases. You can also often source the paper on ResearchGate or Academia (think academic LinkedIn if you don’t know what these are). Obviously someone relying on these methods is going to have to spend a lot more chasing up references than someone who has full subscription access. Method rating: 2/5 paywalled papers. This method is close to obsolete if you are needing lots of papers. I would always try some of the options below first. About the only plus is if you specifically want to talk to a researcher; then asking for their paper directly is a good way to start up the conversation.

2. The Open Access Button (legal): The Open Access Button instantly searches for a freely accessible version of the article or dataset you need. If unable to get access to an article you can create a request.

Rating 3.5/5. It is a little hit and miss sometimes but it is getting better.

3. Unpaywall (legal): The new kid on the block is unpaywall. An extension for chrome and firefox, it is still in beta testing with a full release date of the 4th of April…but it works now. I could source about 60% of the articles I tested. This one is a great tool and I suspect it will only get better. Combine it with the open access button and some snail trailing and you should be able to get to almost everything.

Rating 3.5/5.  Super easy to use and although its at beta stage it works really well. Like the open access button it is only going to get better. The biggest downfall with both is that the papers they are most likely to struggle to access are papers that have just been published and are potentially the cutting edge research. ##Edit – I give unpaywall a 4/5 rating now as it seems to be more efficient than when I was first testing it and little improvements like the nerd mode (see below) have been added.

If, like me, you want to know the type of open access license the paper has then choose the nerd mode option.  Read more about open access types here

##EDIT##  Google Scholar does just as good a job of finding free versions of journal articles as option 2 and 3 above (although I find those two options are still useful when reading papers on journal websites, as in that case its faster to click the unpaywall button than to go into google scholar). If a free version of an article is available, a small link to it will appear to the right of each search result in Google Scholar and all the versions available will appear under the main link too (See below in red circles). According to protohedgehog “Google Scholar also indexes a lot of content that has been uploaded in breach of copyright (e.g. via ResearchGate). Unpaywall explicitly finds legal version of self-archived articles”, so you might want to consider that as well. 

4. Sci Hub (Questionable): While Sci Hub can get you almost any paper (and often very very quickly), depending on where you are and what you are downloading you run the risk of breaking copyright laws. Called the academic pirate bay by the big publishers, sci hub obtains copies of papers by various means, including scraping of publisher sites (this is different to unpaywall and the open access button that find PDFs uploaded by the authors themselves).

Rating: In short you can get anything here, but, and its a big BUT, you are taking some risks. It may be illegal in your country so check beforehand.

Who is downloading ‘pirate’ copies of academic papers? Well according to SCIENCE (one of the more prestigious academic journals) everyone is.  Still, especially with the options at 2 and 3 available, it might be best to avoid Sci Hub (or at least use a reliable VPN) .

###Edit for reasons mostly relating to big publishers trying to shut sci-hub down through the courts, the main sci-hub pages are out of action. But its the web…so mirror sites are up faster than they can shut them down or other sci-hub servers are still functioning e.g. ) and you can find the lastest working pages at As pointed out in the comments below is similar to sci-hub.

5. #icanhazpdf (Questionable: depending what you are asking for)apparently you can also try this method…tweet the name of the paper you need with the #icanhazpdf hashtag and its likely someone will send it to you. I can’t see it being very effective for sourcing lots of papers but perhaps if you just need one that you can’t track down it could be useful.

Rating: 1/5  Not my cup of tea…if I want an authors archived version i’ll just ask them, otherwise there are better options. ###Edit: since writing this I have heard people say this method is very effective. I have even seen this recommended in one University’s official library output.

If you have used any of these options and have some thoughts or know of any other good options then feel free to throw them in the comments.



*for now anyway.  Europe for example is pushing forward with making their academics publish in open access format as the norm. Germany and Sweden are leading the charge.