I'm currently at an institution that has a phenomenal library system. I think every journal article or book I've ever needed, no matter how old or obscure, was available to me. I consider myself very fortunate, and always try to hold on to resources that I may not have access to in the future. I may be transitioning to a new institution soon, where a colleague of mine tells me the library is significantly smaller, and has far less access to journals, especially to those in science/engineering, which can be pretty pricey.

I'm concerned that in the future my manuscripts will be rejected because my literature searches will be limited to only the journals I have access to.

I was trained to never cite articles that I have not read, understood and could justifiably show are relevant to my work; I agree with that philosophy, so picking citations as "filler" is not something I am comfortable doing. If all that is available is an abstract, I know that can help, but it's no substitute for the article itself.

I know that reviewers and editors are supposed to consider your contribution as a whole, and not just look at whether or not you cited the articles they think you should have, but the world is an imperfect place.

For those at institutions with limited journal subscriptions/small library systems, how do you justify your literature searches that are missing articles that the reviewers and editors feel are necessary? Aside from your research contribution itself, assuming it is sound, worthwhile, and well-written, is it just the case that, those at institutions with fewer resources inherently have to publish in more accepting (less competitive) journals by default?

UPDATE Thanks for everyone's interest and suggestions. The answers so far have focused on how to get those tough-to-find sources, but I'd really like to see some suggestions on how to handle the other side: communicating reference shortfalls to reviewers when the aforementioned suggestions don't pan out. Thoughts?

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    Does the future institution library have inter-library loan arrangements with one or more larger libraries? Feb 14, 2016 at 23:55
  • @PatriciaShanahan Yes, but the system as a whole is still pretty small.
    – iwantmyphd
    Feb 15, 2016 at 0:15
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    Have you tried using only 'open' sources? google scholar is pretty handy to show you an open pdf preprint of a closed source... Feb 15, 2016 at 0:29
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    Sci-Hub, LibGen, #icanhazpdf, if such sources are compatible with your morals. Feb 15, 2016 at 10:08
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    The physical library may be smaller. However, you could inquire about their electronic subscriptions. At my institution we eliminated the paper journals years ago but I can access all of them, and many more, sitting in my office. The only downside is that on-line searches can return far more results than one might like...
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 15, 2016 at 16:23

8 Answers 8


You have several options - but they'll all take a bit more time. For one, check if your university can get access to articles "on loan" which usually just means another university sends you the pdf. Alternatively, check the corresponding authors university website. Often, they'll put their publications there, or on researchgate. Finally, if you can't find it via other methods, just email the corresponding author. A quick email letting them know you want to cite their work, but your university doesn't have access to the journal/book, and they'll usually be more than happy to email it to you (we all want to increase our citation counts!).


See if you can hold on to some affiliation at your current institution.

4 years later, I still have a visitor status at a previous institution. I use it to access journals even though my current institution usually has access. I can get Google Scholar's library links to work better with my old institution, so the number of mouseclicks is fewer.

Otherwise, Google Scholar will generally work and often provide a link to something not under paywall. If that's not available, and it's not 50 years old, you can usually email an author. Worst case - keep good relations with someone at your current institution and send an occasional request for a paper.

Aside - everyone should think about this issue when they decide whether to submit to an open access journal or not. Want to have impact/citations? Make sure more people can read your work.


If you know that a paper is relevant, you can probably get it in one way or another. The bigger issue are those papers you are unaware of.

I'm currently working as a computer scientist at a genomics institute that does not subscribe to the conference proceedings published by Springer and IEEE. As a result, I don't have direct access to most papers in my subfield.

When I need a paper I don't have access to, the first thing I do is a regular Google search. More often than not, I can find the paper on arXiv, the authors' websites, or institutional repositories. Sometimes the publicly available version of paper contains errors or omissions not present in the "published" (paywalled?) version, but that's just unfortunate. The blame goes to the authors, who are intentionally distributing misleading versions of their papers.

If I can't find the paper on my own, I ask our library for it. They're quite efficient at obtaining papers, typically responding to requests made during office hours in a few hours. The requested papers are not free, even though I never see the price tag myself, so I only request papers if I'm fairly sure they're relevant. In the rare instances our library can't get the paper, I have resorted to emailing the authors.

Yet as I said, the biggest issue are the papers I'm not aware of. As getting access to papers is cumbersome, I rarely read paywalled papers I'm not specifically looking for. Sometimes I miss relevant results because of this, but as long I'm making an honest effort at literature search, I don't worry about that too much. (Not citing all relevant work is actually quite common in computer science, where different subfields often invent the same or closely related concepts under different names.)

  • You don't need to read the paywalled paper to find out what its references are.
    – gerrit
    Feb 15, 2016 at 10:44
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    The blame goes to the authors, who are intentionally distributing misleading versions of their papers. that's incorrect in many cases where journals allow posting pre-peer review versions only.
    – Cape Code
    Feb 15, 2016 at 11:19
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    Sometimes the publicly available version of paper contains errors or omissions not present in the "published" version: and more often that you would think given the journals' prices, the available author version does not contains errors added to the published version in the copyediting process. Feb 15, 2016 at 21:48
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    @gerrit Many journals (including all the physics journals I'm aware of) restrict access to reference lists whenever the text itself is paywalled.
    – E.P.
    Feb 16, 2016 at 0:41
  • 1
    @E.P. But you can still access the references through services such as Scopus and perhaps others.
    – gerrit
    Feb 16, 2016 at 11:28

There are many ways.

Within your institution, there can be inter-library loan service that you can use. Price can vary but usually quite affordable (for me it's US$5 an article/book. Students here can loan anything free of charge.)

Also, ask if your library has joined any kind of library consortium. If it does, you can often get a consortium library card that allows you to enter the member libraries and use their services, some of which may have a better subscription profile.

Depending on regulations, some public university libraries are opened to public as well. You can ask them about the access policy.

Collaborating with other co-authors who have more comprehensive access to journal may also be a good idea.

As for your current institute, before you leave, check with the alumni office and the library if there are any alumni access to the library services. In my college, alumni can enter any libraries in the campus if they show a valid photo ID and an alumni credit card. Your current library may have something like this.

And I'd also suggest chatting with the librarians in both institutes as well. They may know of other ways


If you need papers I suggest you try Sci-hub.

You submit a doi, answer a captcha and the page hands you the paper 99% of the time.



You can simply ask someone at your present (soon former) richer institution to send you a copy of the paper. At one of my former places the group mailing list includes current and former group members. Once in a while, a current or former group member sends a message requesting a specific paper s/he has no access to. As the alumni have spread out over around a dozen different institutes, those messages are almost always answered within an hour or two. It takes me two minutes to answer such a request and I know how much time it can solve for the person asking, as I've been on both sides many times. As there's at most a couple of requests per month, I don't mind at all to help out when I'm quick enough.


I recommend that you book an appointment with a librarian at the new institution and explain your needs in detail. (You could probably do that even right now, before you're sure you move to the new institution.) Librarians should know all the resources available at their institution, including many resources available to take care of special cases which might not be public information. I have known of situations where librarians were able to arrange very specialized situations for individuals with unique needs (e.g. obtaining full access to the full range of international legal journals for one researcher who needed them, even though the university had no law school and hence no subscriptions).

On a related note, I had a problem receiving a few special articles through interlibrary loan. After two weeks, just yesterday I finally walked over and visited my university library's interlibrary loan department, where they explained the copyright complications to me. However, after they had a face to work with, they were able to get me the electronic articles I needed within two hours after my visit. Helping you get access to what you need is what librarians live for; you should take full advantage of it. They can be surprisingly effective when you talk to them in person (or over the phone).


This is an answer to your "updated" question. I don't think that reviewers/editors know what kinda of access do you have. If you get a comment/suggestion to add a certain number of articles to your literature review section, you would need to find more relevant papers to add. I guess you can utilize all your limited library resources to do so along with suggested methods posted from others. If the reviewers/editors suggest that you add a specific paper. You better of finding that paper and added (if relevant). Of course you can't always disagree with a reviewer and justify that such paper doesn't fit the manuscript. But I don't how a reviewer will feel with a reply saying that you can't access this paper due to your limited access (giving the number of ways others have suggested above to get papers from).

  • I as a reviewer certainly don't accept that as an excuse. If a reviewer suggests an article that you didn't have access to, and then in the revision you manage to include that article, then you've just proven that you CAN get access to articles when you really have to. I'm very sensitive to researchers who legitimately have very little access (I actively work with colleagues in developing countries, and I'm originally from a developing country), but unfortunately, for the sake of scholarly integrity, the literature review is flawed if it's missing important articles, regardless of resources.
    – Tripartio
    Sep 6, 2016 at 0:51

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