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I am writing a systematic literature review but I was wondering how to handle papers which fit the inclusion criteria but are hidden behind paywalls.

Is it ok to exclude them and state as an exclusion criterion in the methodology section "works that are not freely available are excluded."? Also some papers are accessible from my University without me noticing the paywall so should I rewrite the criterion to "... that are not freely available or included in the authors university contract"?

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    Are they available in paper format from your library, what about via ILL? – StrongBad Feb 5 '14 at 17:56
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I don't think that either of these strategies is likely to be appreciated much by reviewers.

Very few papers are actually entirely unobtainable to researchers. Most papers are either part of a university subscription, available as preprint from e.g., the author's website, or at the very least most authors forward you a preprint on personal request via mail. The purpose of a scientific review is to review, to the largest extend possible, everything that is out there.

Limiting yourself to only Open Access material, while morally commendable, means that you are not surveying the state of research, but only the state of what's available easily. This will make your literature review significantly less appealing to reviewers.

Further, I would definitely not go for

Also some papers are accessible from my University without me noticing the paywall so should I rewrite the criterion to "... that are not freely available or included in the authors university contract"?

That just seems like a lazy excuse for not finding out what licence the used papers fall under. Even if the paywall is hidden to you, you can certainly figure out whether the paper would be available without subscription.

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    Some old papers can be quite hard to come by. They might also be in foreign languages. I've once referred to a paper in Japanese, but with an English abstract, as the Japanese note by Author et al., which, judging from the abstract, appears to describe.... – gerrit Feb 5 '14 at 21:54
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    @gerrit ... that's why I said few and not no above (and you will agree that we are talking about corner cases here) – xLeitix Feb 5 '14 at 22:13
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    Thanks for the advice! Following it, we included all papers, even those that are only available inside a university subscription. The survey was accepted and, if someone is interested, is freely available at semantic-web-journal.net/content/…. – Konrad Höffner Feb 25 at 12:50
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    @KonradHöffner, Congrats on the paper, and on actually using Acadamia SE for peer review in the study design process! – Tripartio Apr 16 at 19:50

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