Unlocking paywalled research papers: Two big steps forward, two steps back

Two Big Steps Forward

The fun of coming across Twitter on a link to an exciting article quickly sours when you discover that the link takes you to a pay-walled article. The annoyance is usually only a temporary inconvenience for me. My university subscribes to a broad range of journals and I can get through a pay wall from anywhere in the world. Our biomedical library also has a free service to deliver PDFs of articles I might want from journals to which they don’t subscribe, usually within 24 hours. Yet, most universities where I have been a visiting professor required out-of-pocket charge for such services and it takes longer.

Many people in social media don’t have access to routes that can them behind a pay wall. The problem is particularly acute for practicing clinicians, but also for researchers and policymakers in countries without university library resources. Infamously, a public health official in an a developing country once changed important practice guidelines for perinatal HIV based on erroneous information in abstracts. He could not access the full text articles in which the results contradicted what was reported in their abstracts.

Recently two handy tools to get around pay walls were announced, an Unpaywall app and icons on PubMed.



The LSE Impact Blog of the London School of Economics announced the availability of the  free Unpaywall app.

The extension is called Unpaywall, and it’s powered by an open index of more than ten million legally-uploaded, open access resources. Reports from our pre-release are great: “Unpaywall found a full-text copy 53% of the time,” reports librarian, Lydia Thorne. Fisheries researcher Lachlan Fetterplace used Unpaywall to find “about 60% of the articles I tested. This one is a great tool and I suspect it will only get better.” And indeed it has! We’re now getting full-text on 85% of 2016’s most-covered research papers.

Unpaywall doesn’t just help researchers, but also people outside academia who don’t enjoy the expensive subscription benefits of institutional libraries. “As someone who runs a non-profit organisation in a developing country this extension is GOLD!” says Nikita Shiel-Rolle. It helps journalists, high school students, practitioners, and, crucially, policymakers, who don’t usually have subscription access to the fact-based research literature. There has never been a time when unlocking facts has been so important. So we’re thrilled that more than 10,000 people from 143 countries have installed the extension already.

The best part is it’s powered by fully legal, free, open access uploads by the authors themselves. More and more funders and universities are requiring authors to upload copies of their papers to institutional and subject repositories. This has created a deep resource of legal open access papers, ripe for building upon.

The blog post ends with a call to action.

We think Unpaywall is a really powerful example: when there’s a big “Get It Free” button next to the “Pay Money” button on publisher pages, it starts to look like the game is changing. And it is changing. Unpaywall is just the beginning of the amazing open access future we’re going to see. We can’t wait!

Install it, learn more, and follow @unpaywall. We’d love your help in spreading the word about Unpaywall to your friends and colleagues. Together we can accelerate forwards to a future of full #openaccess for all!

hilde bastian blog

Aside from an innovator in scientific publishing, Hilda Bastian is a fine cartoonist.

A Little Springtime for Green Open Access at PubMed

[Digression: Find out about Green versus Gold Open Access here.]

At PLOS Blogs, Absolutely-Maybe, Hilda Bastian announced another of her wonderful projects at the US National Library of Medicine.  This innovation makes it easier to get immediate access to open access articles, either directly from journals or through PubMed Central or one of the growing number of institutional repositories (IR) at Universities.

[You may recall a blog post where I discussed how University of Groningen (NL),  one of the universities at which I have an appointment, now requires all staff and students to deposit an open access pdf at its IR of any article as soon as it is accepted. That is radical and I hope more institutions follow this model.]

According to Hilda:

There’s a new kid on the publication access block at PubMed. It’s a little one, so you might not notice it for a while amongst the giants: a new high-profile spot for icon’s links to free full texts. The icon links to a publication that is not available for free at the journal or in PubMed Central (PMC), but is housed for free public access at an institutional repository (IR).

The blog refers to an official notice Hilda posted:

hilda announces in article

full text linksc link

Hilda notes that not many institutions have been as diligent as University of Groningen in implementing and enforcing automatic uploading of abstracts.  More needs to be done to make uploading  preprints easier and more routine.

As Richard Poynder wrote in a post raising questions about the future of IRs, “author self-archiving has remained a minority sport”:

“As gold OA accelerates so the logic of depositing papers in IRs dissipates… [T]he institutional repository is experiencing an existential crisis”.

Poynder points to the possibility of publishing industry colonization of IRs, with the University of Florida outsourcing its repository to Elsevier, for example, which also bought Mendeley and SSRN.

My perspective, and reasons for optimism, come from a different perspective. I think there’s important potential here.

People publish a lot in journals that don’t provide gold access, or do so only at unaffordable levels, for reasons that aren’t going away any time soon – like needing to be published in a prestigious journal for their careers, or because a publicly inaccessible journal is “the” one that specializes in their work. For huge numbers of people, even lower cost OA options are a problem. Even embargoed green is far better than no public access at all.

IRs have become an important way for researchers’ work to get noticed and used. Google Scholar picks up and links to full texts from IRs, and that’s a big deal. So does Wikipedia. If your IR joins PubMed’s LinkOut, that’s another big step up in visibility and accessibility: a few million people use PubMed every day.

A step backwards: For-profit publishers putting misleading links on Google Scholar

A lot of us depend on Google Scholar that this as the first place that we go to for PDFs and also for our twice a week alerts. It has its disadvantages – it provides some real junk, like honors theses that remained unpublished for good reasons and it occasionally articles in predatory journals. But Google Scholar also provides the most immediate way to access preprints that of my yet shown up in PubMed or Web of Science.

For some time, Google Scholar has had helpful links clearly marked PDF that you immediately where a PDF of a preprint or article is available was reliably available.

cambridge press example

unfortunately you do not have accessNow however, some for-profit journals, notably those published by Cambridge Press like Psychological Medicine have links on Google Scholar that take you not to a downloadable PDF by the announcement that you do not have access to this particular article and can purchase it.

I suppose if you don’t want your articles to have this link in Google Scholar, you can just find other journals in which to publish.

Another step backwards: Oxford Press hassling authors to put their preprints on ResearchGate

For-profit journals are adapting to authors’ interest in making preprints available and to institutional pressures for open access with new strategies to make money.

PLOS One will soon lose its status as the largest open access make a journal to Science Reports, a Nature Publishing Group open access journal that offers higher article processing charges (APCs) but more prestige,

Oxford Press has to allow authors complying with their institution and funding sources’ requirements that they post preprints. However, it draws the line with posting preprints ResearchGate during embargo periods

Self-archiving policy

\After the embargo period authors may:

  • Upload their AM to institutional repository or other non-commercial repositories and make it publicly available. Accepted Manuscripts may not be uploaded to commercial websites or repositories, unless the website or repository has signed a licensing agreement with OUP allowing posting. For Profit social networking sites such as Researchgate and Academia.edu are considered “commercial” platforms.

I suggest that authors don’t accept either my interpretation nor Oxford Press’ interpretation of their rights and responsibilities with respect to University repository requirements in the face of embargo periods. They should check with their University libraries and let their institutions deal with Oxford Press. Perhaps they already have a licensing agreement.

However, I think the very common practice of authors routinely uploading copyrighted published versions of articles with ResearchGate is inviting trouble.

For-profit journals interested in making money from the copyright of your work may demand that you take down your articles at ResearchGate. You might want to consider that the next time you publish in a for profit journals without open access.