One of the big barriers to doing academic work when you’re not a salaried academic is lack of access to academic literature. Books are one problem, though you can often get hold of them through inter-library loans, national libraries, or (if they’re not too new) cheap second-hand copies online. But academic journals are the major difficulty.
People outside academia often don’t realise that even salaried academics won’t have access to everything. University libraries have budgets and have to decide which journals to subscribe to. Even professors sometimes need to use the techniques in this post. But those of us outside academia need to use them all the time. So, for those who don’t yet know, here are my top ten methods for getting hold of academic literature.
- Use openly accessible literature. Much of this can be found online. You may find relevant ‘grey’ (non-academic) literature through conventional search engines: anything from commercial research reports to zines. But for journal articles, I’d recommend starting with the Directory of Open Access Journals. This independent directory includes over 2 million articles in over 10,000 open access journals, more than half of which are searchable at article level, and more are being added all the time. The journals cover most topics and must be subject to peer review or editorial quality control.
- Look for conventionally published articles that are openly accessible. Publishers such as Sage, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Emerald, Wiley, and Springer are quietly making more and more content open access. Follow them on Twitter for the latest news. Sometimes a publisher will open its electronic doors completely for a limited period of time, which gives you a chance to get in and harvest pdfs to your heart’s content. More often they will offer a selection of openly accessible articles which you can find by digging around in their websites. And some have initiatives such as SpringerOpen which encompasses a range of fully open access journals in science, technology, and mathematics.
- When you search using Google Scholar, look beneath each search result for the small print that says ‘all X versions’ (X being a number). Click on that link and sometimes you will find that one or more of the versions includes a pdf you can download. This may be a pre-print or draft article, but it will be close enough to the final paper for you to assess whether you want to cite it.
- Academic social media sites, such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu, act as repositories for pre-prints and other openly accessible formats of articles which are uploaded by their authors. Anyone can sign up to these sites and they can be a useful way of keeping track, particularly of new literature by people whose work you respect.
- Google Books is a project for scanning and digitizing books. If a book is out of copyright, or the author has given consent, you can search and see full pages. Otherwise you can search and see small sections of text around the search string; sometimes this can be enough for your purposes.
- Amazon lets you ‘look inside’ some books, and again you can search and see parts of the text around the search string. Amazon is also handy for tracking down citation details as you can always look at the copyright page of any book with the ‘look inside’ feature.
- For much fuller access to academic literature, you could consider securing an affiliation with a university department. Universities can offer honorary titles such as Associate Fellow or Visiting Fellow. These don’t come with a salary attached, but they do come with benefits including access to electronic and hard copy literature, seminars, collaborations, and perhaps some mentoring. Also, it looks good on your CV. You might be asked to do some teaching or other academic work in return. If you know of a department where there are people in your field, you could ask whether they would take you on as an associate.
- Another option is to ask people you know in universities to get pdfs for you. If you’re going to do this, make sure first that the university concerned has access to the journal from which you want articles; you should be able to do this via the journal’s website, or the university library’s website, or both. It’s probably best not to ask people too often, though, as that can get annoying.
- Twitter is also a great place for sourcing articles. You can either put out a general tweet, perhaps with the ubiquitous ‘pls RT’ at the end, or you can use a hashtag such as #ICanHazPDF which will put your tweet in front of a wider audience. Do include the link for the article you want, and use a link shortener such as bitly to make more space in your tweet.
- If all else fails, email the corresponding author and ask for a copy of the article. Keep your email short, and polite, but try to say something about why you want the article and what you’ll be using it for. Authors are usually pleased if someone shows an interest in their work and will be happy to email an article to you.
However, there is a big question, for me, about the extent to which all this is ethical. And there are certainly some very unethical ways of accessing academic information, such as downloading pirated e-books – though I do realise that, in some countries, people have few or no alternatives. So next week I’ll say more about the ethics of academic publishing.