Since I started my life in Academia, I sometimes found that there are some seminal papers to which I cannot get any access.

Either they are very old, and the journal that published them charges for it, or they are simply not to be found anywhere in the internet. I have to admit I never went to look for the physical copy in the library, but I'm not sure they would have it either.

When I asked a labmate about a reference he had in his paper and I could not find, and that seemed to be ubiquitous in any other paper in the area, he mentioned me he had never read it, but that reviewers usually demand that you should put that seminal reference.

How do you try and solve this problem?

  • 9
    Mail the author(s), visit JSTOR, ask your library about inter-library loans options, or visit one of those illegal sites that have access to more things than most universities ;-) Feb 5 '13 at 8:21
  • 7
    @Leon I think I remember you saying you worked for a very well funded lab :)
    – F'x
    Feb 5 '13 at 8:25
  • 1
    @F'x This problem arises with very old papers, to which my University does not have access (I tried in UCLA also, to no avail). I probably have access to 99% of the references I search, this is a very specific case. Feb 5 '13 at 10:38
  • 2
    @Leonpalafox well, even if you don't have full access, you can usually pay for access to a specific paper
    – F'x
    Feb 5 '13 at 10:39
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    I have to admit I never went to look for the physical copy in the library — "Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this."
    – JeffE
    Feb 6 '13 at 3:47
  • Search the web for it: open archives, search engine, authors webpages, whatever (you've probably done that already…)
  • Ask the contact author for a copy, which she'll usually be very happy to provide. I regularly get such requests from other researchers in my field, and it feels very good to know that people are actually interested in your work.
  • If the contact author doesn't respond, try the senior author, then other authors.
  • Try your local library. Look into their database, and also ask the librarian there if the document might be available through loan from other libraries. I've never had much success doing that, but you never know…
  • Ask a few colleagues at different institutions if they can get it for free (see this question). If you have friends at large/famous/well-funded US universities (Princeton, Harvard, …), they probably have a more comprehensive access than you.
  • If it's a really important paper, pay for it!

Whatever happens, make sure you make a copy for others in your lab/group, and archive it. When I started my PhD, there was a folder (the heavy paper type, not the computer type) labeled “important but hard to find papers” that the group had accumulated along the years. It was the most treasured object in the whole lab.


Assuming your school participates (and most do), you can get scanned copies of articles through interlibrary loan. You should be able to get access to just about any article ever published in a journal that way.

More generally, talk to your librarian. It's what they're for.


When looking for a paper I first look on line to see if it is available. If it is available for free I download it, if not I then look in my library's on-line catalog. If it is available on-line, but not in my library's catalog I request an inter-library loan (ILL). I have never been unable to obtain an article via ILL that was available on-line, but if I wasn't able, I would just buy the article. If it is in my library's catalog I go to the library and photocopy it.

If the article is not available on-line, I look in my library's on-line catalog. If it is available in the library catalog, I go to the library and photocopy it. If it is not available in the catalog I file an inter-library loan request. The success rate of these requests is lower than I would like.

If the article is not available on-line, in my library, and ILL failed then things get difficult. The first step is to email the authors. The second step is to talk to the reference librarian and see if you can find a library which is not part of the ILL service which has the paper. If you find one, talk to the librarian about how to obtain it.

My field also has a number of email lists where hard to find paper requests are not uncommon, it might be worth trying these. Similarly, you can ask colleagues directly if they have a copy. It might be worth doing a reverse citation lookup to find colleagues who have cited the paper (most people try and read what they cite).


Some countries have library networks with a common catalogue that you can search to find out which libraries have it. This is what your favorite librarian uses to get the paper for you. However, it could also tell you, which friend or friendly lab you could ask.

  • E.g. the German and Austrian libraries' journal data base will tell you which 6 libraries have the 1930 "Sprawozdania z posiedzeń Towarzystwa Naukowego Warszawskiego" where Łukasiewicz and Tarski published the "Untersuchungen über den Aussagenkalkül" and whether it is available via inter-library loan.

  • A similar catalogue exists for books

(feel free to edit and add more such catalogue links)

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