13

A lot of research ends up behind expensive paywalls and not accessible to the public.

How should we deal with this? Here's a few options:

  1. We could have no preference for publicly available materials. Keep in mind that the answer could quote the pertinent part of research that's hidden behind a paywall. We could even require that a paywalled reference be quoted.

  2. We could encourage or require people to cite publicly available materials wherever possible and only cite publicly unavailable sources when when they're the only resources that support the answer.

  3. We could strongly encourage or ban any use of publicly unavailable references. An outright ban may have the effect of banning important research.


As an aside, I'd like to add that no matter what the source, it's good practice to quote the important pieces, both to save the reader time as well as to protect against link rot.

  • 2
    I don't see the difference between a pay wall and link rot as both prevent someone from getting the information. – Joe W Apr 6 '15 at 3:59
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    @JoeW If the pay wall is because it’s a journal that isn’t free, this is very different from link rot. The journal is published. It can be purchased. It can be found in a library. An abstract is available on PubMed (see my answer below for more on that). The author can be contacted. Etc etc etc. – Susan Apr 6 '15 at 4:37
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    @Susan if a user goes to a site and hits a pay wall then it means that they can't get the information from that link. How is that different from link rot which prevents them from getting the information? There is no excuse for posting information here that people have to pay to get. One of the biggest points of the stackexchange networks is easy access to free information not information behind a pay wall. – Joe W Apr 6 '15 at 4:44
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    The difference is that a paywall at a journal looks something like this. Now I would just be repeating everything I said in the prior comment. The point is that there are authors and a publisher standing behind the research. (And honestly, the abstract itself is probably more informative than many links that are "not behind a paywall.”) Unsubstantiated claims are freely available ad infinitum. I don’t need more links to that. – Susan Apr 6 '15 at 4:58
  • Related: What are reliable sources? – kenorb Apr 6 '15 at 13:05
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    How does Wikipedia handle this? – Pacerier Jun 3 '15 at 21:15
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While I agree that research hidden behind paywalls is annoying, to disallow reference to anything that is not available for free is to disallow some of the best research available. I realize we are on a website here, but we live in the real world, and in the real world scientists submit papers to journals based on the topicality and reputation of the journal mostly without regard to whether the paper will be made freely available.

In my opinion, citing papers in academic journals should be done by way of PubMed. This is a central repository run by the NIH where pretty much everything related to the bio-medical field is indexed. There is also an abstract for nearly all primary data. The abstract summarizes the point of the trial, the basic methodology, and the findings. The availability of the full text on PubMed generally falls into three categories:

  • Available in full from the journal: Here is an example of a paper I recently cited. You’ll notice that on that page there is a link to free full text from the journal. That’s because it’s an old article, and NEJM makes old things available.

  • Available in full from Pubmed Central: Here is a (randomly chosen) example. Some journals make all articles immediately available this way. Others choose a few articles (based on mostly mysterious criteria) to publish immediately in Pubmed Central, and others get added later. If you see a Pubmed Central button like the one below, click on that preferentially rather than the journal button. The latter will lead to a paywall in many instances.

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  • Available only via paywall or library access: For newer papers, you may see something like this. This links to the journal itself, where you are prompted to pay or log in. If you are unable to do either, you can’t see the full text. However, note that the abstract is still available. An abstract usually contains sections like Background, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. If an SE answer is using the paper to make a point consistent with its main findings, the abstract will provide confirmation of the data cited on SE as well as context.1 Also, if you click on “author information” in PubMed you can usually find an email address (see below).

If you want more details than those provided in the abstract, there are several choices:

  • Ask the answerer. I’ll go on record as more than happy to provide additional info if queried in comments, or to add it to the post if people find that lacking.
  • Email the corresponding author.2 This works remarkably well. Just be respectful, explain why you’re interested and your lack of access to an academic library, and ask politely for a copy of the article or more specifics about the data than available in the abstract.3 Most of the time, the author will just send you a pdf. Emailing this sort of request to a corresponding author is not going to surprise or offend (most of) them.4

  • Look on academia.edu. Many authors upload their papers here.

Please see also the biology.SE meta post on this topic. More recently, a related question was asked on meta.SE.


Addendum in response to another answer:

If an answer has citations and references that are behind a pay wall then it means that other users, the person asking the question especially, have no way of verifying the information presented and that in a way is worse then an answer with no citations.

In my opinion, an answer that links to a resource that is not peer-reviewed and does not tell me how they arrived at their conclusions is less valuable than a resource that has been peer-reviewed, is published in a respectable journal, and has an abstract available on PubMed.


1. From the linked paper about abstracts: «Thus, for the vast majority of readers, the paper does not exist beyond its abstract. For the referees, and the few readers who wish to read beyond the abstract, the abstract sets the tone for the rest of the paper.»

2. If not available in the author information, most university-associated academics have emails that are easily found with a google search or via the university affiliation found in PubMed.

3. In addition to what I mentioned above, that sort of email should include the full title of the paper, the name of the journal in which it was published, and the year of publication. If you really like health.SE, you could also include a link to the site where you saw their paper referenced. :-)

4. Please do not upload PDFs of articles that are not made freely available by the journal. Whether you access them through a library or are sent them by an author, they are yours for personal use only.

  • Could you make it clear that then posting that emailed PDF wouldn't be a good idea. You don't own it and the most you can do is quote it. Remember the cs by-sa 3.0 licence. – Tim Apr 6 '15 at 9:07
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    @Tim I tried to clarify. – Susan Apr 6 '15 at 9:41
  • Thanks , +1 :-) – Tim Apr 6 '15 at 9:45
  • @Susan, Do you study in med school? – Pacerier Jun 3 '15 at 21:15
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A lot of research ends up behind expensive paywalls and not accessible to the public.

Almost all research articles are currently available on Sci-Hub, free of charge.

FYI Bulk download Sci-Hub papers.

I would also point out that even in my university, which pay millions of USD every year for journal subscriptions, I do not have access to many articles. I.e., even researchers don't have access to the findings of their colleagues, unless they bypass paywalls with sci-hub or other similar services.

-1
  1. We could have no preference for publicly available materials. Keep in mind that the answer could quote the pertinent part of research that's hidden behind a paywall. We could even require that a paywalled reference be quoted.

Hmm I don't like browsing the web and having to pay for something - especially as (because of my age) I often can't pay even if I wanted to.

  1. We could encourage or require people to cite publicly available materials wherever possible and only cite publicly available sources when when they're the only resources that support the answer.

Yes. Our aim is to answer questions in the best way we can. For the OP to have their question answered, they need to be able to verify the data. This means it has to be an open paper for that. However, if they have asked for an almost impossible situation, we simply can't be saying "no private links". However, we should strongly prefer that free and open links be used.

  1. We could strongly encourage or ban any use of publicly unavailable references. An outright ban may have the effect of banning important research.

No. As you say, an outright ban may have the effect of banning important research which is never good. However, the material must, as always, be quoted not just linked to. It isn't acceptable to just answer with a link (ever) but especially in this case, a quote is needed. If I can't access a link in an answer, and it's not quoted, I down vote.

  • Is it important enough that it matters if the person asking the question and other users can't get access to it and end up having to take the poster at their word? – Joe W Apr 8 '15 at 23:45
  • @JoeW Yes. We need to have references, and a paywall reference doesn't count. – Tim Apr 9 '15 at 8:14
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I will say I disagree with links behind paywalls because as of now it looks like to me that the large part of the site's audience will not have access to those links. I asked this on meta.stackexchange and got a good answer there about how the paywall links depend on the site in question. It was mentioned that on some sites (Biology and Chemistry) that large groups of the users are in the profession or in school for it so are assumed to have access to the journals in question. However I don't think that the same can be said for this site (at least at this current stage) as the questions seem more from a general audience and not from a professional one. Maybe as the site matures and a more professional /student audience is shown to be here in public beta the stance on paywall links can change but for now I think they should be discouraged.

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