I have recently read an interesting article on number theory, published in a well-known mathematics journal. As a keen amateur mathematician, I have tried to develop some of the ideas presented in the paper. Surprisingly, I have come to a remarkable conclusion that might be worth publishing. Naturally, I first wanted to make sure that this has not been published before, so I tried to find papers that referenced the original article.

The issue is that websites that index or catalog scholarly material are off-limits to non-academics. In particular, in order to find references to certain papers or authors, one must first log in with an institution's credentials, which obviously I do not possess. What are my options? Do I:

  • write up my research anyway and try to publish it, with the risk of wasting everybody's time if a similar publication has already been made,
  • waste the original author's time by asking him to send me a list of references to his article (with a high probability of having my request immediately discarded), or
  • pay a high subscription fee to these cataloging websites in order to find what I'm looking for?

Is there another way for me to go about this?

  • 13
    There's sci-hub... you have to evaluate the legality and morality of it yourself.
    – nengel
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 8:36
  • 3
    The answer from JayFromA and the comment from nengel address how to get papers but not how to get access to citation databases, which is the main question as I understood it. Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 8:45
  • 5
    Your local library is your friend. So is Google Scholar.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 12:42
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    @Pickle https://sci-hub.tw/ is still up (also with .tv, .la and .hk). Wikipedia's sci-hub page keeps track of which urls are still valid.
    – Zenon
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 13:18
  • 2
    If you live near a public university (i.e. your state university, if you're in the USA) then their library will probably be obligated to help if you go in person. If they don't have a subscription to the right database, they may be able to request it from interlibrary loan.
    – workerjoe
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 16:45

5 Answers 5


Google Scholar can get you quite far.

Go to scholar.google.com and paste in the full title of the paper you're looking for. Here's one of mine:

Google Scholar "Cited by"

Click the "cited by" link (highlighted) and you'll get a list of works citing the paper you're interested in. Some of these will be papers, some won't, and Google's indexing isn't quite the same as some of the other sources. But it's close. For each of the citing papers, there's an "All n versions" link. Browsing those versions will often get you to a legitimate copy from the author's institutional repository (see the right-hand column), ArXiv, or various other sources; the Unpaywall browser extension can also help track these down.

  • 7
    Once you've located the paper, searching on the author's name + relevant terms will often find a freely available copy on their web site.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 19:10
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    Don't forget arXiv...
    – user541686
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 5:02
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    Thank you, that was actually exactly what I was looking for: easy to use, and allows to fetch results for non-academics.
    – Klangen
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 8:02
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    @Mehrdad I didn't. I'm in the wrong bit of physics for it to be widely used but have found that Google scholar picks it up quite nicely
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 8:07
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    unpaywall.org could be of use to read the papers once you found them with google scholar or something
    – Nico
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 9:17

Zentrallblatt https://zbmath.org/ allows (limited) free access and if you start with the paper that you are working from, you might be able to get some information. Of course, full access to Zentrallblatt or MathSciNet is what you need but it requires a subscription. If you can go to a University library, you can explain your situation to a librarian and they might help you. If you know someone who is a student or works at a university, they can do the search for you.

Edit; You should also try Google Scholar.

An alternative less onerous to the author is to send him an email with the statement of your result and ask him if he's seen it before.

  • Thank you, that could help indeed. But as you say subscription is required if I want to view more than 3 search results...
    – Klangen
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 8:47
  • @Pickle you can do repeated searches and change the date range and cover more ground this way. Also see my edit and try Google Scholar. Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 8:49

Many academic libraries allow outsiders to go there in person and use their search facilities.

  • @Ootagu I rejected your edit. If you have a better answer, please present it yourself. Please do not use other's name to answer the question.
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 3:59
  • Libraries also have the advantage of interlibrary loan -- two librarians can use a copyright exception to share a copy between libraries. Many special librarians (ie, focused on a specific subject), join mailing lists where someone can request help finding a specific article, and others will send them a scan.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 17:26
  • Sometimes regular libraries also have academic subscriptions, i've had luck with the public library (OBA) in Amsterdam before.
    – Ivana
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 9:11

Like a comment suggests there are shadow libraries that provide articles for free but are illegal or at least in a grey area in most countries.

You could also visit university libraries near you. Many provide guest access for a small fee or sometimes even free.

Another option would be to ask academics or students if they will give you access to their account or even do it for you.


One emerging possibility for finding citation information is through Wikidata, which is a sister project to Wikipedia that structures public domain information across all fields of knowledge. That includes — as part of the WikiCite initiative — citation information from the OpenCitations project and the Initiative for Open Citations.

With currently 36 million citation statements, Wikidata is still far behind the large commercial citation databases, but beginning to be useful in some areas (mostly biomedicine — mathematics not that much yet), and tools like Scholia can help expose that information.

To search for a scholarly article there, you can type the beginning of its title into the Wikidata search bar (if you are just doing keywords, you will need to hit return and then sift through the search results). If the article is in the database (currently about 11 million are), you should end up on its Wikidata page, which will give you the Wikidata identifier for that scholarly article, e.g. Q27932040 for "A screen for RNA-binding proteins in yeast indicates dual functions for many enzymes".

The Scholia page for that same scholarly article uses the same Wikidata identifier: https://tools.wmflabs.org/scholia/work/Q27932040 and can also be accessed via the article's DOI: https://tools.wmflabs.org/scholia/doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0015499 . It provides some basic information about the article, including (incomplete) citation information from and to the paper.

Instead of starting to explore the literature with a given paper, you can also start it with a given author (e.g. https://tools.wmflabs.org/scholia/author/Q3063122 for geneticist Pardis Sabeti) or topic (e.g. https://tools.wmflabs.org/scholia/topic/Q202864 for the Zika virus) or in a number of other ways, as detailed in our Scholia paper.

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