A new and legal way to read scientific papers, even if they’re behind a journal paywall

If you’re a scientist or a layperson who’s frustrated by the inability to access paywalled science articles (even if the research was funded by the public!), this is a browser extension you need. Called “Unpaywall“, it’s a free extension (go to previous link) Chrome and Firefox. You add it to your browser with just a mouse click, comme ça (click on screenshot):

Once you’ve installed the extension, and you get to a paper that’s paywalled, do this: if it has a green tab beside it, just click on the tab and the extension searches the web for author-loaded and other open-access versions of the pdf. This will be successful, the developers say, 60-85% of the time. (FAQ here).  And it’s perfectly legal; in fact, it was developed with grants from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Try it. If you click on the green button below and have the extension, you’ll go t0 a Nature article with a free pdf (just click the screenshot below):

Again, this is legal, and the site doesn’t collect information about you or your browsing habits. You can read more about it at the Unpaywall site, or at the article about the extension published at Open Culture.

I’ve added the extension, and recommend it. Published science should be free for all readers, especially because, at least in the U.S. and U.K., most published science is funded by taxpayers who support governmental granting agencies. It’s simply unfair to charge the taxpayer to access research they’ve already paid for!

If you’d like to see other free sources for reading journal articles, go to the list and links at MetaFilter.

h/t: Greg

26 Comments

  1. W.Benson
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    What a great app! Thank you! I know what I’ll be doing after lunch.

  2. Historian
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I downloaded the add-in to Firefox without any trouble. It will take a while to find out how many free versions of “locked” articles it can find.

  3. GBJames
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Very cool! Now… maybe they can add support for Safari?

  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Take that, Elsevier!!

    • rvoss
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Yes! I thumb my nose at them as well. I used to be able to view research papers through my Portland State U. library. Now I can do so again thanks to Jerry’s help.

  5. Posted April 19, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Downloaded it, and looking forward to using it.

  6. Roger Latour
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Anybody compared that to searching Google Scholar that will indicate all copies of a PDF including any uploaded by authors on different sites?

  7. Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I just tried it on the first ten locked medical journal articles relevant to my practice that I found on PubMed and the extension went 0/10. Looks like the world of medicine has some catching up to do.

  8. Tomasz
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    It doesn’t seem like a real solution, just a convenient way to be redirected to arXiv (in the cases I checked) from the journal’s page. I think most scientist search there anyway, and it’s sort of a last resort because authors often forget to update the preprint to the version of the manuscript that eventually gets published.

    If only authors kept updated preprints there would be no need to waste taxpayers’ money on journals, but rather spend it on building a proper review network. That’s the only thing journals provide (when compared to e.g. arXiv) and they do it at a cost dictated by arbitrary profit rather than academic goals.

    So let them keep that business model and compete with scientists editing their own papers for free (as they do now), publishing the manuscripts online for free (as they do now), reviewing them for free (as the do now) and the funding going to those experts who wish to additionally undertake the job of editors – tied to research institutions and/or public repositories instead of for-profit intermediaries. Who knows, there might actually even be cash left for reviewers and authors themselves!

  9. jeremy pereira
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Published science should be free for all readers, especially because, at least in the U.S. and U.K., most published science is funded by taxpayers who support governmental granting agencies.

    I speak as somebody who has never done any scientific research much less tried to publish a scientific paper but I imagine that there must be costs associated with such publications e.g. proof reading, type setting, peer reviews and so on. Are those costs paid by the research project? Because if not, I think it would be perfectly reasonable for a journal to charge a reasonable fee for access to articles it publishes.

    • TJR
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      In the areas I’m familiar with the editing and peer reviews are by other academics, for free.

      In some high-volume areas (e.g. medicine) the journals do provide some service in type-setting etc, as I understand it.

      However, in my area (Statistics) all the publishers do is provide a web site and a latex style file, and then the academics do the rest.

      • Gamall
        Posted April 19, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        Same in Theo. Comp. Sci. The work done by publishers is minimal. And of course nothing of their — extremely large — profit margins ever flow the other way. In think it’s around 30% for Elsevier.

        • Posted April 19, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

          Someone I know from the Computing and Philosophy conferences was/is in publishing, and pointed out that (perhaps oddly) the big European academic publishers are independent businesses and the US ones are associated with universities directly, so profit is not as big a deal. (I am not sure if that accounts for Harvard or Yale UP, though.) It is certainly true that the European ones are more expensive.

          • Gamall
            Posted April 19, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

            Springer and Elsevier are the worst offenders and while, yes, they are European companies, I don’t think American researchers (at least in my field, TCS) are more equipped to avoid them than I am, given the near-monopoly they seem to enjoy on the impactful international conferences / journals.

      • Posted April 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        As someone from a non-profit scientific society, I can say that we do provide professional copyediting, proofreading, composition (typesetting), and more. We don’t have academics doing this for free, so anyone downloading our articles for free with this tool (and many other ways) does cause us concern in the long term.

  10. Teresa Carson
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you thank you!

  11. Gamall
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    A good idea; installed it, we’ll see how well it works in practice.

  12. juan
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    This is great. Thank you!

  13. Gareth
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    It works! Excellent.

    Making my way through the Internal Journal of Housing Policy rightn now /embarrassed

    I’ve noticed that the older the article/journal edition, the more likely there are to be free versions available. So if you can’t find free versions of an article that were published in this quarter’s edition, just wait it out.

    Super thanks for this, though I suspect my dropbox is going to fill up with unread PDFs again 🙂

  14. Posted April 19, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated by this (or lack of this if you will) Thanks!

  15. grasshopper
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/unpaywall/

    The add-on downloaded from this site could not be installed because it appears to be corrupt.

    Elsevier, was it you?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      It just downloaded and installed fine for me. Will see how it pans out in practice.
      (Incidentally, the add-on has appeared on the “trending” part of Mozilla’s add-ons page.)

      • grasshopper
        Posted April 19, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        Weird. I still cannot install it. I have tried both versions available. Also, I just downloaded and installed a different extension, so Firefox is not telling me everything is corrupted. The version I am trying to install is unpaywall-1.5-an+fx.xpi.

        I have emailed the creators of the extension, and I await their response.

        • Posted May 1, 2017 at 5:05 am | Permalink

          It doesn’t work with the newest Firefox version. It seems it hasn’t been updated – I have the same issue with my browser.

  16. Posted April 20, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Very cool, thanks very much sharing this!

  17. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted May 13, 2017 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. Great idea!


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