Accessing the articles you need (or not)


We’re on the dawn of a new age with open publishing in science, yadda yadda, hubledydoo.

In the meantime, I just need that damn reprint.

If people at large research universities are having trouble getting their articles from certain journals, then how do you think it feels at Southern Northeastern Podunk State?

I got used to not having Web of Science when that was a necessary tool. Every year, it was on my wishlist for the library. We regularly argued for it. Two leap years passed. Then, they got Web of Science. The year I was leaving.

My current campus doesn’t get Web of Science, nor Nature or Science. I’m not concerned about that, as long as Google Scholar still exists and is free (and who knows how long that will last. I imagine once ISI loses its customer base, then Google will close up shop on Scholar or start charging big bucks. It’s funny that Google’s initial corporate sales pitch was “Don’t be evil.” Once they conquered RSS they killed Reader because the entire medium wasn’t profitable enough. Once they conquer scientific publishing databases, will they do the same?)

There are massive sweeps and suites of journals that we’re missing. We don’t get much from Elsevier, I think, but we do okay with Blackwell. (Or is it the other way around?). We get about 50% of the journals I want to access. That’s mighty horrible. I’d feel more horrible, though, if we squandered our limited resources by paying extortion to the publishers.

How to get everything we don’t get through the university? The majority of the papers get from the site of one of the authors, which is usually discovered promptly by Google Scholar. Sometimes it’s there but not indexed in Google Scholar. If it’s a new paper, I email the corresponding author, and I usually get the pdf within hours. I try to not do that, though I don’t mind the requests when I receive them.

That does leave holes. There theoretically is an interlibrary loan that could be used, but I don’t use it.

I have an research associate/adjunct appointment another university in my area, connected to my collaborations and I work there on occasion. Their library has decent access, but with lots of holes as well. By magical coincidence, the holes of the two institutions I use are entirely complementary, and I can access almost everything. This pretty much rocks, and I realize that I’m the lucky beneficiary of this arrangement.

I recognize that few people have this kind of opportunity, as most institutions have their library access locked down really tightly, so that various institutional hangers-on can’t get article access without physically being in the library.

This is a dilemma to which I don’t have an easy solution. Usually interlibrary loan requests are cumbersome, but if your institution allows it, that’s better than nothing. (That still beats what I did in grad school – pull if off the shelves of Norlin Library and photocopy it. Uphill. Both ways.) If you can’t do that, then I guess you’ll just have to contact the authors. I just feel bad being a part of the weight of another person’s email. Among the the administrative weight of email tasks, sending out reprints isn’t the worst thing, though. If your correspondent doesn’t want to deal with digital reprint requests, they should post them until they get a DMCA takedown notice from their publisher.

One of the best pieces of advice about literature research I got from my ‘intro to grad school and academic life’ class was, “Don’t mistake having a copy of an article for having read and understood it.”

You could do what most people probably do when they can’t get an article. Read the abstract and pretend that you read the entire paper.

If you have any tricks of the trade to get articles of which I’m unaware, please leave a comment.

One thing I’ve thought about doing is opening a dropbox file to colleagues with similar research interests, and we can all share there. I do with students in my lab, but I could open it up more broadly.

The “future” will solve these article access problems one way or another, I suspect, based on the hard work of academics pushing to change the industry. In the meantime, I’m tired of workarounds.

4 thoughts on “Accessing the articles you need (or not)

  1. Isn’t Medeley a similar web-based sharing platform? I seem to recall someone in my graduate research lab inviting me, but I never got into it. We had access to pretty much everything there, but not here. Luckily, I still have my old VPN I can use to get articles, but soon, I’m sure that will get taken away.

  2. I have fought to maintain my collaborations with colleagues at R1 institutions. That way, I can can usually request login access to their libraries for articles you need. It takes work to maintain, but it saves a ton of time whenever I need to comb through the literature for something.

  3. So, consensus (n=3, including myself) is that maintaining connection to a big library is key, right? No way around it? I was without one for years and it was rough.

    It looks like you can share copies of articles on Mendeley to some extent (I don’t know how much, I have an account but don’t really use it), but I bet most articles aren’t there. Anybody who posts it there, I bet, is sharing it more widely elsewhere.

  4. So far I’ve been able to maintain a connection to a large university but am trying to figure out a long-term solution. I guess by comparison to your institution, I feel pretty lucky (we have Scopus and all the Elsevier journals). But that still leaves me without access to some of the biggest journals in my field, at least through my on-campus library. When necessary, I have been pretty happy with Interlibrary loan in terms of speed although occasionally it’s a flop in terms of quality (poor B&W copy of a color article).

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