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I live in a third world country. I barely make ends meet so I cannot afford to go to college. However my passion for academics never died so I kept self learning with online materials. However beyond a certain level, free material is not sufficient and is hard to find so I end up relying on sci-hub and other websites. But sometimes the latest articles are not available even there so I have to search for hours in my spare time.

While sacrificing my sleep time and searching I found [a twitter post by Dr. Holly Witteman] that reads as follows:

That $35 that scientific journals charge you to read a paper goes 100% to the publisher, 0% to the authors. If you just email us to ask for our papers, we are allowed to send them to you for free, and we will be genuinely delighted to do so.

This post gave me hope that I could finally get my hands on articles that I was interested in. I found emails of four writers, politely asking them for a copy of their article. However I didn't get a single reply. I tried other email services because I thought my email might be blocked by spam filters. But that didn't change anything. Eight months later I have yet to hear back. Is the practice of freely giving out papers limited to the area Dr. Holly Witteman majors in? Is this not common at all and the doctor is a generous outlier? Is it that professors are so busy that they don't respond to random people's emails?

Also why do people write for journals in the first place if they really don't make a single penny out of their work and contribute to filling the pockets of greedy publishers and more paywalls? Is publicity so important that it is worth giving up all financial incentives?

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    (a) to have a career in science, you need funding. (b) to attract funding, you need to be perceived as an excellent researcher in the respective field. (c) to be perceived as an excellent researcher, you need to publish in the "top journals" and have a high citation count. (d) many top journals are not open access, and do not share income with the authors. (e) at the same time, citation counts tend to be higher for freely available articles. (f) point e makes putting papers on personal web pages or providing them on request attractive.
    – DCTLib
    Aug 29, 2023 at 20:17
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    I am sorry that you are having trouble getting a response. It is in fact perfectly normal to ask researchers to share their work. You are not breaking any kind of academic norm by doing so, and it is reasonable to expect an answer. It's difficult to speculate why you are not successful. I suspect overeager spam filters may be the main culprit. If not, are you emails short and to the point? You should not need more than 4 or 5 sentences to state your request. Do they have an informative subject line? Are you sending them to one person rather than emailing 5 co-authors at the same time? Aug 29, 2023 at 21:17
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    I have gotten these types of requests before. If it's from an educational domain, I take the 20-30 seconds it takes to fulfill the request. However, if it's from some random domain, I have always assumed it's some sort of scam / spam effort (IE, if I respond, I'm going to get 500 more emails inviting me to a "conference"). I personally would be more likely to respond if you very succinctly convince me that you can't access the paper, that you are truly interested in the work, and that you won't send 5 more emails if I comply. Best of luck.
    – Ian
    Aug 29, 2023 at 21:40
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    Try sending your article request via ResearchGate. Some like me will oblige you on ResearchGate rather than responding to an 'unknown' email. Aug 30, 2023 at 7:18
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    Before emailing the author to ask for a copy, check the author's web site to see if a copy is already available there.
    – GEdgar
    Aug 30, 2023 at 9:49

9 Answers 9

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Yes, people do send other people free copies of their articles that are published. Authors make nothing on published papers, as the post you reference states. Often authors have a specific agreement with the journal that says they retain the rights to share individual copies of their work with people; other times they just share them, it's unlikely a journal will come after them for breach of contract unless they're very blatant about it, like posting the articles for public download rather than emailing copies to individuals.

However, that doesn't mean sending a free copy is free to the sender: it does take them time and energy to respond to an email, to dig up a copy of the PDF (remember that they may be reading email on a phone or other device), etc. The time investment may increase for older papers, and over time even papers that you've written yourself (maybe especially papers you've written yourself?) get to be stale and boring. You might also get better responses from a student who published the work than a professor who supervised it. Professors in particular get a lot of email. It's very easy to intend to respond to a request and then to forget about it, or to simply triage and pay attention only to the most pressing matters.

I think academics are much more likely to respond when interest is coming from someone they know or are otherwise eager to share their work with (e.g., another academic), and when the work is new. Unfortunately, your position doesn't really fit well with that mold, so you may struggle to get attention. I don't think there's much of a solution to this, being more pestering will just get you labeled as a pest. You might have better luck outside the busy and vacation times of year: summer, beginning and end of semester, key holidays, are all times when it's harder to get responses from academic emails. You might also format your email in a way that makes it easy to respond to and increases confidence that it's worth someone's time:

  1. Keep it very short and to the point.

  2. Identify the paper clearly, with a full citation, and make your request clear (like "can you email me a PDF of..."). If you're emailing Dr. King, "King et al 2023" might describe several papers.

  3. Explain very briefly why the paper is important to you/convey in as short a phrase as possible that you're familiar with the field (short meaning less than a full sentence, ideally). "I'm studying Underwater Basketweaving and am not able to access full text of your paper on delicate weave morphology..." Try to sound like a human, if you copy-paste the title or something from the abstract here, you'll look like a bot.

I'm surprised you're having such trouble with the latest articles! For newer articles, the trend in publishing is tending towards open-access rather than subscription models, so it's more likely you'll find newer articles than older. Another trend in publishing is towards preprints like arXiv: these may be identical to the published article, or may be slightly different but are still suitable for your purposes. Many academics also just post .pdfs of their paywalled articles on their own personal websites, whether or not they are technically allowed to do so. Look for all these alternatives before you make a request.

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    Once upon a time this is what those reprints were for. You'd get a nice postcard in the mail in a semi-standard format requesting a copy of one of your papers, and you'd send it to them. In the mid-80's I spent a summer at IBM Research with someone who used the declining number or reprint requests and the countries they still came from to map out the spread of copy machines around the world vs year. No, that was not their primary research goal...
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 29, 2023 at 22:25
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    @JonCuster I've still received paper reprint copies from a journal as recently as... oh, 2014-ish maybe? Has definitely become more of a curiosity.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 29, 2023 at 22:36
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    Yup, and they now just sit in a file. Some folks routinely had to order extra reprints because they knew they would get >100 requests for most papers.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 30, 2023 at 1:15
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    Maybe sending a physical postcard would actually work. Surely will get the necessary attention.
    – DonQuiKong
    Aug 30, 2023 at 15:53
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Well, OP has been asking and not getting papers. So, it seems like they need a bit more explanation. I did expand the answer a bit in response to some helpful comments.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 31, 2023 at 23:35
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This is only a supplement to the nice answer of Bryan Krause who has answered all but the financial questions you ask at the end.

People publish without pay because it enhances their career and earns them advancement through the academic ranks. That comes with increased salary and also, in many cases, opportunities for grant funding for the research that leads to those papers. The benefits may not be financial, but they are definitely a benefit to a career.

Moreover, it isn't that publishers are necessarily "greedy", though some disreputable ones are. There are costs associated with publishing. Most especially for print journals, but also for online publishing in maintaining web sites and their infrastructure, with a promise of "perpetual" availability. That cost must come from somewhere since governments don't, in general, give much support to it. And, like any business, investors have a fair claim on profit, as long as it isn't exorbitant. It might seem exorbitant from someone from your location, I realize, but the costs are real.

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    "Moreover, it isn't that publishers are necessarily "greedy", though some disreputable ones are. There are costs associated with publishing." Sure, but are they really that high? Sci-Hub, for example, has to maintain a similar web site and infrastructure, but is funded entirely by donations. Further, Sci-Hub claims "The running of Sci-Hub website costs a few thousand dollars per month."
    – Vaelus
    Aug 30, 2023 at 5:04
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    Arguably, most authors are paid to publish their papers - as part of whatever salary they receive from their university/institute. One might then ask why the university is willing to give the fruits of its employees' labour away for free - but perhaps that's easier to understand as being aligned with a general mission to educate and inform the public, as well as being good 'advertising' to attract new investment.
    – avid
    Aug 30, 2023 at 6:49
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    @Vaelus Journals have things like software developers (for things like the peer-review software, API tools, etc), IT staff, copy-editors, typesetters, customer support staff, marketing staff, managers to manage those things, HR staff, etc. Plus the cost for commercial work space. Just directly hiring a copyeditor for one of my articles would probably run $100-200. My understanding is that Sci-hub is run just by a single person trying to provide file access, which is just a small part of what journals do.
    – anjama
    Aug 30, 2023 at 11:09
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    @Vaelus SciHub is just a database, not a journal. It scrapes already published articles from other sources and hosts them in one place. Simply hosting the finished article sidesteps the vast majority of the work that goes into scientific publishing. Aug 30, 2023 at 13:01
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    There are costs associated with publishing yes: the order of magnitude is between $200 and $1000 per article (depends on field, size of journal, rejection rate and so on). The big publishers charge more than that, either to the authors (APC) or the readers (library contracts). Elsevier (sorry I mean "RELX") has profit margins between 20% and 40% depending on the year, way above the average private company.
    – KFK
    Aug 30, 2023 at 13:45
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On Researchgate, a networking platform for academics that some do not particularly like but that I personally find useful (see other questions here on this site for more info on that), there is a feature for each added article where you can ask the researchers who put an article up there for a copy of it. They receive a notification (on researchgate) that someone asked for their research and can then easily send the PDF of the article (that they have perviously uploaded to research gate) to the asker. Sharing research is less tedious this way, but requires the person(s) you ask for their research to be logged in there every once in a while at least.

I have both received requests for my papers there and asked others for theirs and in my experience the success rate of receiving papers is quite substantial (I would say about 50%), so I would suggest to try this route. Often, you will not receive the final print version but a less well formatted draft version of papers, as this is less of an issue with copyright, but the content will be the same.

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    Unfortunately ResearchGate sends so much email that it's hard to regard it as anything but spam.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 30, 2023 at 5:19
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    @BryanKrause You can opt out of all email notifications in your settings. I hardly receive any email from them.
    – Sursula
    Aug 30, 2023 at 5:32
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    I was about to answer OP, directing to ResearchGate, and I saw @Sursula answer. Yes, opting out of email notifications reduces, almost eliminate, receiving unwarranted emails from RG; at least for me. Aug 30, 2023 at 7:22
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    I'm told that Researchgate has a profile for me, even though I've never made an account there. E.g., I've had someone message me there for a paper (which I have no way of receiving), be disappointed, and at a later date track down my school email to tell me that. So be aware if using that channel. Aug 30, 2023 at 12:52
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    Yeah, they scrape author names, then send emails to co-authors of the paper if they're already on the platform asking to "Confirm you authored XYZ with ABC" to build up their network. Plus they search for any paper that matches your name and email it to you saying "Did you author XYZ". My name isn't overly common but I get many of these so it is a bit spammy Aug 31, 2023 at 4:46
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The very brief answer to this part of the question...

Also why do people write for journals in the first place if they really don't make a single penny out of their work and contribute to filling the pockets of greedy publishers and more paywalls? Is publicity so important that it is worth giving up all financial incentives?

... is: It's required for promotion in academia.

Traditionally, the fundamental job description of a professor in the west is to make new research discoveries and publicize them. Teaching classes is/was considered a secondary, almost accidental part of the job.

The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2021 wrote this:

The most common model, and the one that guides both of our careers as assistant professors, is 40/40/20 — that is, 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching, and 20 percent service.

Note the leading "research" component requires publication somewhere widely recognized. The publishers are arguably taking advantage of this need to publish with their copyright and paywall regimes. Recently many predatory publishers have risen, looking to scam academics who have this occupational need to publish.

Over time (speaking USA here), as college funding has shifted proportionally from the state to students paying tuition out-of-pocket, the emphasis and proportion of time professors spend on teaching has followed the same trend (resulting in the current 40/40/20 expectation).

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I live in a third world country. I barely make ends meet so I cannot afford to go to college. However my passion for academics never died so I kept self learning with online materials.

Many academics, upon hearing this, would be more than willing to send you everything they've ever written and (if they're as junior as I am) answer questions over email. I was lucky enough to have a student from Nigeria reach out to me on Twitter and ask me a lot of interesting questions about my research and future directions for their research.

This post gave me hope that I could finally get my hands on articles that I was interested in. I found emails of four writers, politely asking them for a copy of their article. However I didn't get a single reply.

There's two reasons for this: academic emails, and other life comitments. Many students are on academic emails which expire once their Ph.D. is done (or shortly after) so they can't be reached at that email. Another is that people are busy and there's no direct reason to do this besides a small amount of self promotion and making the world a better place, which is hard to justify against paying the bills and handling responsibilities. I would try to find an updated email for the authors and ping them again, sometimes they just don't respond when they see it the first time but showing continued interest will have them more likely to respond. Obviously, be reasonable and wait a week or two between emails.

Also why do people write for journals in the first place if they really don't make a single penny out of their work and contribute to filling the pockets of greedy publishers and more paywalls? Is publicity so important that it is worth giving up all financial incentives?

You have to understand that many people who have the means to pursue a Ph.D. at a research university have the means to pursue something for reasons outside of money and fame. For example, at my university many people turned down jobs that would put them in the top 5% of U.S. earners to achieve personal goals as a Ph.D. student, such as furthering their research understanding or contributing to a higher scientific cause.

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If you send it to multiple co-authors in one email, each one will think another will reply. If you send it to each of them separately, if multiple of them reply, you're wasting their time.

If you're sure you can't find it anywhere else, send an email to one email address at a time, waiting a few days in between each attempt. If one of them replies with the article you want, reply to everyone else you've already emailed to tell them you got it, so they don't duplicate their effort.

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Some researchers put very similar (same major results described) paper somewhere where it is not difficult to find. Try just putting authors and title into Google search box.

If they have done so, they may be reluctant to respond to E-mail asking for that copy, because they think that if you need it, you should find it.

Also, write a single precise sentence why do you need the copy but otherwise do not ask for other help in the same letter and avoid contacting the same professors repeatedly. The problem is, too many people try playing on emotions so researchers tend to overreact, closing E-mail as soon as they recognize.

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@vjj8919 During an online course I did a few years back, Mike Brown taught us how to use Google Scholar (not just Google), which can help you find papers. Try this search: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=life+as+we+know+it+friston Notice that there is a link "all 17 versions": click on it, and it will take you to a number of sites where you can find the paper. With luck some of them will not be paywalled. Some browsers (e.g. Firefox) allow you to install a Google Scholar toolbar. If you have that you can just select the title of a paper (from another browser tab), and get Scholar to find the paper from you. I've found it very good, but YMMV.

I realize this is sketchy: let me know if you run into difficulties.

Also, many authors post preprints to Arxiv. Your "Holly Witteman" doesn't seem to be their. I think it depends on the field: physicists and AI folk use it a lot.

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One possible reason why you haven't heard back, is that some or all of the authors' email accounts aren't active any more. In modern academia, depending on the field, there's quite some coming and going in terms of personnel. Hence, the university email of the authors of the paper might be a dead end, since they might have moved on.

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