Tracking Down Scientific Sources


You may have encountered this problem yourself if you’ve ever tried to track down the source of some study from a blog or a piece in a popular magazine. You go through an exhaustive google search until you finally find the article you’re looking for. You click on the link for it, anticipation mounting as you wait for the page to load up. And then, instead of seeing the full article, you see the abstract (or summary) of the article and a little box that says that you can look at the full article if you purchase it for $30 to $40. “Screw that!” you say, “I could buy ten whole magazines for that much!” And unless you have a great deal of patience, that’s where your search ends. And even with patience you might not ever find what you’re looking for without shelling out cash.

Journals are aware of this problem and are finding ways of making it easier to get access to articles. Several journals, such as PLoS One, post all of their articles free online. Others such as Nature and Science, still keep most of their content as pay only, but offer a few articles online. But here are a few tips to get past the pay wall next time you see it.

 (1) Pay the money. Just for completeness, I’m putting this here. If you think of it as a donation for science, paying the fee for the article might not be such a bad idea.

 (2) Become affiliated with a university library and use their journal access. You might be able to use your public library for this as well. Nearly all libraries have stores of journal articles in them, but public libraries tend to focus on popular and literary magazines, while university libraries are more likely to have the more obscure scientific journals. University libraries also usually have a site through which you can access almost  any scientific journal you want to find.  The “almost” is stressed though, because the way that a library gets access to a journal is by paying for it, and if a journal is small or in a strange niche, your library may not have deemed it that important.

 (3) Copy the title of the article and search for it online. This is where you start to be sneaky. Google throws a lot of links at you that you have to cull, but you can narrow your search by copying the exact title of the article and putting it between quotation marks. Often, even though a journal won’t let you see an article, the scientists who helped write it are more than happy to let you see it, and so they might post it on their website. Or it might show up on someone else’s website. Another way you can narrow the search is by using “filetype:pdf” in the search box. If you do this, google will find only pdf files for you, and most scientific articles are in .pdf form.

 (4) Search the name of the last author of the paper. It may seem strange, but the last author of a scientific article is often the most important person involved with it. If you search their name online, you can probably find the website for their lab. The website for the lab usually has a list of publications. You might get lucky and find a link for the article you’re looking for.  Even if you don’t, you might find an article that’s extremely similar to the one you’re looking for that is more available. Such an article might be even more helpful than the one you were trying to find. This can happen because often the information published in smaller articles amounts to an addendum or a further confirmation on research the lab posted earlier.

Along these lines, if the thing you’re looking for relates in any way to human health, you might go to the site PubMed, and seach for it there. There’s a small chance you might find a way to view it from doing this, but more than that, it’s much easier to find articles from the same authors or in similar subjects there. Even without you asking it to, Pubmed will list articles similar to the ones you search for, and again, they might actually give you more or better information than what you were looking for in the first place.

 (5) Look up the contact information for one of the authors and ask them for a copy of the paper. Usually the contact information is written right on the abstract for the article. At most you’ll have to do some googling to get it. Most the time, scientists will probably be happy to give you a copy through an email, though they might be curious as to what you hope to do with it. So if you’re very keen on reading an article without paying the amount you’d pay for a DVD for it, or if you found an article that you can’t even pay for, just asking one of the people who wrote it for a copy nicely cuts the Gordian knot.

Hopefully, these strategies can get you past the pay wall, and let you read the article you’re looking for.