When a scientist makes a discovery or completes an experiment, they communicate their results by publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This peer-review process can be quite challenging, involving months of back-and-forth editing, new analyses, and potentially rejection. These peer reviewers are usually experts in the same field as the author, and provide critical feedback to improve the manuscript as well as ensure the research is valid and original. Peer review is what maintains the integrity of the scientific process, but it’s also one reason why science articles remain so inaccessible to the general public.
Scientific journals coordinate peer reviewers (they’re volunteers, after all), edit and typeset the article, and ensure that the proper databases are updated so that other scientists can find the new article. They charge significant fees for this service and this is why most scientific articles are paywalled.
Some journals allow the authors to pay several thousand dollars to publish the research as an “open article.” And there are now open-access journals such as Nature, PLOS Biology, and Science Advances, in which authors can publish their work for free and readers can access it for free. However, the majority of journals still charge for access.
In general, scientists work at institutions that pay fees to these journals so that they may have access to the articles. If you’re not part of a larger institution like a university, you may asked to pay for access to the article you’re interested in reading.
Interestingly, most new science is funded wholly or in-part by the public tax dollars. For example, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health provide grants to thousands of scientists through out the US and world. Many of these researchers (myself included) have gone on to publish in closed-access journals.
So how do you find and read these papers when you don’t have institutional access? Read on….
When I need to do background research on a question or topic, I follow a pretty standard workflow. I begin with Google Scholar. I type in a few keywords and scroll through the results.
On the right, you’ll see “[PDF] psu.edu.” This means that the article is available immediately as a PDF from psu.edu. (It’s open-access!) There are two other articles, however, that are not open-access. I also look at the journal to check if it’s reputable, the year to see if it’s new research, and the number of times it’s been cited, which can give you an idea of how central it is to the greater research area.
If you want to read the two papers that are not open-access, there’s a totally illegal and totally awesome way to easily access it. Sci-hub to the rescue! This website has nearly 90,000,000 articles, and they make it easy to access all of them through their DOI.
Here’s how you do it:
- Click on the article in Google Scholar
- Find the DOI and copy it
- Go to www.sci-hub.st (note: sometimes this URL changes, so you may need to Google it once in awhile.)
- Paste the DOI into the search bar
- Read the article!
Here are some more pro-tips:
- If the article is relevant, look at the bibliography for more primary sources. Why do the legwork of finding more sources when someone else has done the majority of the work for you?
- Save all of the articles to Dropbox or Google Drive with the same naming convention–I use “Author(s) – Title – Year”
- If you can’t use sci-hub because it is blocked by your network (e.g. you’re living in the dorms and the University has made this site inaccessible), you can use the Sci-Hub chatbot through Telegram messenger
- Consider installing a Sci-Hub addon. This takes care of the finding, copying, and pasting of the DOI instantly:
- Firefox: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/sci-hub-x-now/
- Chrome: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/sci-hub-x-now/gmmnidkpkgiohfdoenhpghbilmeeagjj?hl=en-US
- If Sci-Hub is down, check here: https://sci-hub.41610.org/sci-hub-proxies
I hope this helps you find and access primary research articles. The truth is, I’m appalled that access to science is so difficult. I think this method is far faster and more efficient than even the legal methods (e.g. going through a library system). Sci-Hub democratizes access to high-quality scientific literature and levels the playing field for scientists who aren’t working in an institution or who live in places where access would otherwise be impossible. Just keep in mind that this is absolutely against the law and I would never encourage you to do it.