For all that is said about the wealth of information that is freely available on the internet, the fact is that most of it is incomplete, dumbed down, lacking in context or downright wrong.

Individuals spend the best part of 20 years completely oblivious to the existence of journals and the process of peer review and even then we'd be lucky if 10% of those with access to journals (usually through an institution) actually bother to invest in them.

Granted that some journals will be totally inaccessible to those without a solid background in some particular field but by and large exposure is a good thing and there are many areas of research where individuals will benefit directly from having read these.

Where does this come from?

I decided I wanted to read Popular Politics in the Late Medieval City: York and Bruge in The English Historical Review today, mainly because it looks interesting and I'm hoping to invest more time into learning about British and European History. Incidentally I also wouldn't mind tucking into Super Stable Clocks, Nature 500, 505 (29 August 2013) and a number of data analysis and big data journals in order to advance my career.

Now, not being affiliated with an institution that subscribes to these journals means that I would typically have to pay between £5 ($10) and £15 ($25) per article that I read... I could probably spend £100 just to pass an hour by.


  • What's being done to address the lockdown on 'higher' education material? I've noticed that the Directory of Open Access Journals publishes open articles and other firms are doing similar, mainly with journals in new fields?
  • How could I, as an individual outside of an institution, gain journal access without it costing so much money?
  • I should add that I was not aware of the UK government's plans to force publications into Open journals until now. This goes some way to answering my first question except that it seems the burden of costs have now been placed on the institutions publishing the work so whether or not it's a good thing overall I'm not sure.
    – dianovich
    Aug 31, 2013 at 18:10
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    most of it is incomplete, dumbed down, lacking in context or downright wrong — Sadly, this is also true of most information that must be paid for.
    – JeffE
    Aug 31, 2013 at 18:16
  • 1
    I am sure I can get most articles I want to read simply by google scholar-ing it. There is usually some cached pdf somewhere on the interwebz. :)
    – Shion
    Sep 1, 2013 at 4:58
  • @damian86 — I don't understand the "burden of costs" part. Jan 4, 2015 at 17:57
  • Even if you are a member of some academic institution, it is likely that there are many journals for which your institution does not have a subscription. Here is a question about such situation: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/7797/… I guess that at least some of the advice given there will apply to people outside academia, too.
    – Martin
    Jun 22, 2016 at 9:44

4 Answers 4


As a preamble: maintaining a publishing system has a cost. You may shift it to the authors, or to the reader, or have it financed directly by governments or supranational organizations, but there will always be a cost. It's true that in the current system, with a mixture of private publishers and non-profit ones (academies, learned societies, some well-administered professional societies), some players may be making a bit more money than we wish. Academic publishing has not yet fully adapted to the digital age, and it will get leaner by doing so. However, we have to recognize that this will always have a cost.

Now, answering your first question: there is a growing trend to go towards open access journals (and open access options in many other journals), which shift the cost onto the authors. Moreover, some funding agencies (for example NIH) have a public access policy, meaning that they ensure that publications stemming from research they fund are publicly accessible in some form (in the case of NIH, the final version of the preprint must be made available on PubMed). Now, different fields of research are moving toward this new paradigm at various speed (biology is faster, chemistry is not moving at all). In the current state of things, it must be noted that apart from a few renowned exceptions (PLOS One, for example), most open access journals are far from prestigious.

In some fields, the publication system has hoped earlier on the digital bandwagon, and it is routine for authors to publish only preprints of their work (and publishers have copyright transfer terms allowing it). For example, in mathematics and physics, arXiv.org is a very popular source of preprints. In some other fields, most journals don't allow preprints to be posted at all…

Regarding your second question, there are a few options for you to gain access to some paywalled journals:

  • Public library: if you live in a big city, the local public library likely subscribes to a few major scientific journals: Nature, Science, things like that.
  • Get a guest reader status at the closest university: some institutions allow access to outsiders in their library, either by not actually checking who gets in (as long as you behave), or in some cases by actually having an official “guest reader” status (which may require some paperwork or approval).
  • Membership in a professional society: individual membership in the American Chemical Society gives you access to their journals at a rather decent price.
  • Writing to the authors: if you see a paper you don't have access to, just write to the authors asking for a PDF.
  • Reddit Scholar :)
  • 1
    The American Chemical Society has put into place a modified open-access policy: after 12 months, authors can provide a link to their work that permits free downloads. Beyond that, upcoming changes in NSF funding policies will require some sort of movement.
    – aeismail
    Sep 1, 2013 at 4:52
  • I'm confused by apart from a few notorious exceptions most open access journals are far from prestigious. Is PLOS One considered bad (notorious meaning Widely known, especially for something bad; infamous.)?
    – gerrit
    Sep 2, 2013 at 13:37
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    @gerrit sorry, I didn't realize notorious had a negative connotation… I've edited to use renowed instead. Thanks!
    – F'x
    Sep 2, 2013 at 14:46
  • Thank you for the Reddit Scholar idea, it seems awesome! One question I have, how legal is it?
    – R. AS.
    Jul 10, 2016 at 9:51

Let me add a few point to @F'x's excellent answer. I'm going to give country-specific points for Germany. However, you may find similar structures/possibilities in your country.

What's being done to address the lockdown on 'higher' education material? I've noticed that the Directory of Open Access Journals publishes open articles and other firms are doing similar, mainly with journals in new fields?

  • One thing that changes right now is that authors will retain a right for secondary publication after an embargo period of 1 year for work that was paid for mainly by public funding.
    This will give additional freedom on the site of the authors to make their manuscripts available.
  • The DFG has a program where they provide Germany-wide access to a number of journals. This is available also for private persons (you need to be in Germany though).

How could I, as an individual outside of an institution, gain journal access without it costing so much money?

  • Sign up for the DFG Nationallizenzen
  • As universities here are usually owned by the state, their libraries are usually public. Terms for getting a library card vary (from everyone to you need to be either associated with the university or have your main residence in the respective Land).
  • I found that libraries of research institutes often allow you to go there as guest reader.
  • (Side note, the electronic journal database allows you to check which libraries have the journal (year) in question. The data base covers also major research institutions like the Max-Planck/Fraunhofer/Leibniz institutes)


  • Typically, the publicly accessibe information about a paywalled paper includes contact information to the corresponding author. You can email them and nicely ask for the manuscript. In many legislations getting a copy for private use is covered by fair use (e.g. in Germany §53 UrhG says that you are allowed to copy or obtain a copy of journal articles for private use).

  • Your local library may be able to obtain a copy for you through inter-library loan and/or document delivery services like subito. You'll have to pay for this, but the fees are often substantially lower than the direct subscription fees you cite.


Free access to costly journals and their articles are championed by dedicated hacktivists like Aaron Swartz and Alexandra Elbakyan.

As an individual outside an institution you can usually gain journal access through Alexandra's service.

  • 2
    Alexandra Elbakyan's services is Sci-Hub.
    – user2768
    Jun 22, 2016 at 10:49
  • Note that the hostname of Sci-hub changes regularly whenever a legal complaint manage to take it down. Jun 22, 2016 at 13:06
  • 1
    yes, you're right. Links from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sci-Hub are probably more reliable.
    – user2768
    Jun 22, 2016 at 15:08

Depending on the field, their may be a pre-print server available where authors upload their papers before submission. Authors will usually upload a copy either before the refereeing process starts or a final copy, with the changes made during the referee process but without the journal's final formatting. So they can be as good as the final version from a journal, but with the caveat that they may not have been fully peer reviewed yet (or at all).

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