What to do about academic paywalls

As someone who likes to read academic articles and doesn’t belong to an academic institution, I often run into extremely frustrating paywalls. There’s a simple-ish way to get past the paywalls that is super legal and, in my opinion, even better than anonymously downloading directly from the website.

You can straight up ask the author for a copy. The number one desire of most authors of academic papers is to get more citations, so they love getting new readers. I’d say the worst that could happen is you get a flat “no”, but even that is extremely unlikely. If they don’t jump at the chance to share their worldview with someone (who could potentially become a colleague) by sending a 1 minute email, the message just gets buried in their inbox and they never get back to you. The best case scenario is that you enjoy the article, ask them some questions, and enter into a correspondence with a professional in the field.

Here’s a rundown of how I do it.

2015-10-13 13_49_15-The Red Sneakers Effect_ Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconf

Say I wanted to read this article about conspicuous consumption, but I can’t access it because it’s a part of a journal. I identify the first author, Silvia Bellezza, and do a quick Google search of her name to get her email address. I’m looking for faculty profiles on academic sites.

2015-10-13 13_52_36-Silvia Bellezza _ Columbia Business School Directory

Google lead me to the Columbia Business School faculty directory. Sounds about right. I double check that I found the right person by clicking through to “Research” and looking for the article I want. There it is!

This is a publically available work email so you can feel comfortable contacting them out of the blue.

My letter usually goes something like this:

Dear [Dr. Surname],

I am doing personal research about [topic relevant to the article]. I would like a full text of your paper [Full Title of the Article] for my study. I will not distribute it further. [Optional: quick description of how you found the paper] [Optional, very nice: an honest comment about how interested you are in the subject, like “I’ve been thinking a lot about marine mammal behavior, so I’m excited to learn more about the social structures of bottlenose dolphins!”]

Thank you for your time.

[Your Name]

They’ll probably say something like “please don’t distribute my paper in any way, but here’s a pdf”. Congratulations! You have a paper! Don’t distribute it! If you want use the materials in any way beyond reading them yourself, hash that out with the author. If you need this article for a particular project you’re working on, talking about that project can help you connect with the author.

Do send a thank you note (with thoughts and questions!) if you read the paper.

2 thoughts on “What to do about academic paywalls”

  1. This is awesome, Ray! Love the way you’ve creatively figured out your way around this roadblock and that you’re reaching out to the professors/authors directly.

    We are still working on restructuring out site so user information is more clear and available. Until then, I’m curious — which ALC are you a part of?

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