How to get past paywalls and read scientific studies

No need to fly the Jolly Roger, either.

a person taking cash out of their wallet in front of a computer
There are ways to read scientific studies for free. So put that cash back in your wallet. Also, that's not how you pay for stuff on the internet.Artem Beliaikin via Unsplash

Popular Science stories often link directly to scientific studies. You can get all the information you need from the articles themselves, and even more from these links, but if you get the urge to investigate further—perhaps to see the data for yourself—you'll want to read the study firsthand. Unfortunately, many academic papers are hidden behind expensive paywalls.

There's a lot to say about the academic research industry, but many believe scientific studies should be freely available to the public. Even if you find a paper that's hidden behind a paid subscription, there are ways to get it for free—and we're not talking about piracy. Often, the study you're looking for may be freely, legally available elsewhere, if you know how to find it.

Google (Scholar) it

Don't get discouraged just because one database says you need to pay for a specific study. Search for the title of the study (or a portion of the title with an author's last name) on Google Scholar, the Google-powered search engine for academic literature. If you're lucky, you'll see a result with an [html] or [pdf] link on the right-hand side of the page, which should link you to the full text of the study.

If for some reason the right sidebar link doesn't work, you can also click the "All 11 versions" link at the bottom of each result block to see more sites that offer the paper. You could also try searching regular ol' Google for the paper's title, perhaps with the filetype:PDF operator as part of your search terms. This may help you find it on sites that aren't crawled by Google Scholar.

Use browser extensions to your advantage

If you're a journalist, student, or science nerd who finds yourself regularly hunting for full-text articles, you can streamline the process a bit with a browser extension called Unpaywall. It works with Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, and displays a small padlock icon on the right side of your browser window whenever you visit a page dedicated to a scholarly article. If there's a paywall and the padlock is green, that means Unpaywall found a free version somewhere on the web, and you can click the icon to visit it immediately. In my experience, this doesn't find much more beyond a Google Scholar search, but it's a lot easier than performing manual searches all the time. Heck, even if a site isn't paywalled, Unpaywall's green icon is still easier than hunting for the "Download PDF" button on a given page.

A tool called Open Access Button does something similar. It's browser-agnostic and has been around for a bit longer, so try both tools and see which you like better. I think Unpaywall feels a bit smoother, but Open Access Button's maturity may help you find things Unpaywall doesn't know about yet.

Check your local library

books on a library shelf
Libraries are important, and this is just another reason why.Susan Yin via Unsplash

Many public libraries subscribe to academic databases and share those subscriptions with their constituents. You may have to head to the library's physical location to get a library card, if you don't have one already, but those are usually free or cheap. And from then on, you should be able to access a lot of your library's resources right from your computer at home, including scholarly journals (not to mention other paywalled magazines like Consumer Reports). If your library doesn't have access to the publication you're looking for, they may even be able to get it through an inter-library loan. If you ever feel lost, don't hesitate to ask a librarian—they probably know the process like the back of their hand, and will do their best to help you find what you're looking for.

If you’re a student, your school or university likely has access to more databases than you can shake a stick at (not to mention hordes of physical journals you can hunt through). If you aren’t a student but have a college nearby, ask them if they offer fee-based library cards—you may be able to pay for in-house access to their vast resources.

Email the study's author

Finally, if you can’t find a paper anywhere online, you might be able to get it directly from one of the people who wrote it. The money earned by those paywalls doesn’t go to the researchers—it goes to the publisher, so authors are often happy to give you a copy of their paper for free (provided they’re allowed to do so).

Finding their current email address is the hard part. Papers will often contain an email address you can contact for questions, but if this becomes out of date, you'll have to do a little hunting. Find the university or organization the researcher currently works for, not the one they worked for when the study was first published. A little Googling can usually point you in the right direction, but sites like ResearchGate and LinkedIn can also help. Some researchers have a personal website that may be up to date, as well, and in some cases, may even have their previous work available to download. But if not, shoot them a message, ask politely if they'd be willing to send you a copy, and thank them for their hard work.