How to Access Science and Medical Research without Paying an Arm and a Leg for It

In past articles, I’ve mentioned that I spend much of my career poring over scientific and medical research.  This is equally parts invigorating and frustrating.  On the one hand, the Internet makes it possible to track down just about any research paper imaginable, whether it’s a paper from the turn of the century or one in pre-publication stages.

Unfortunately, this excitement is often tempered by frustration because access to most research papers costs a ridiculous amount of money.  More and more journals are adding free, open-access options, but many of the big hitters (Science, Nature) continue to charge exorbitant amounts for one-time access to individual articles.  As an example – I clicked on the first article from this month’s issue of Nature: “Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain.”  This sounded like an interesting article, the kind of thing many laypeople would be interested in, especially parents and teachers of teens.  Unfortunately, the cost for accessing that article is $32 USD.  For that price, you may as well buy a 330-page non-fiction book on the topic (which was published late last year, so it’s even up-to-date).

Sadly, $32 is reasonable compared to some journals.  I’ve seen journals that charge more than $50 USD per research paper – even for ones 20+ years old!

Thus the impetus for this article.  There are a number of ways to legally access scientific and medical research without paying ridiculous per-paper access fees.  I’ve accumulated a lot of these strategies over years of trying to track down papers for FDA regulation purposes.  Some might be obvious (especially to grad students or other researchers), but I still think it worthwhile to mention them.  My hope is to help people – especially those researching medical issues – find the information they need without spending thousands of dollars to do it.

Note: potentially illegal methods of accessing journal articles, including torrenting, Usenet, and other file-sharing techniques, will not be discussed or endorsed.

Step 1 – Finding relevant articles

Before doing anything else, you must first locate papers relevant to your research topic.  As someone who has skipped this step before, let me warn you – few things are more frustrating than spending hours tracking down a research paper, only to find out it doesn’t actually discuss what you want.

In my experience, the best place to start is almost always PubMed.  PubMed is a free research database service provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.  PubMed is incredibly comprehensive; as of October 2011 it has indexed more than 21 million records going back to 1809, with another half-million articles added every year.  Because PubMed is so comprehensive, many other science and medicine search services use it to fuel their own engines (EBSCO, Google Scholar, Ovid, etc).

The PubMed homepage has a search bar at the top – type the topic of your search there, then hit Enter to see what turns up.

Sample PubMed search for Alzheimers Disease
Here is a sample PubMed search for "Alzheimers Disease." Make note of the "5580 free full-text articles in PubMed Central" box on the lower-right.

PubMed works like Google or any other search engine – generic search queries will return many articles; more targeted search queries will return a shorter, more relevant set of results.

As with a Google search, you can freely peruse PubMed’s list of articles, but I tend to go straight for a particular box on the right-hand side – the one titled “free full-text articles in PubMed Central.”  Clicking on the “See all…” link at the bottom of that box will refine your search results to show ONLY articles whose full contents are available for free.  (Note: a shortcut way to do this is to select “PMC” from the drop-down box on the PubMed homepage.  However, the two clicks required to change the drop-down box is actually more cumbersome than a single-click of “See all…” on the search results page.)

PubMed Central, or PMC, is an awesome subset of PubMed that deals only in free full-text research articles.  PMC is an outgrowth of the National Institute of Health’s goal to make all publicly funded research available to – imagine this – the public.  Originally, researchers funded by the NIH were encouraged (but not required) to make their research publicly available.  This changed in 2007, when H.R. 2764 was passed, requiring NIH-funded research to be made publicly available within twelve months of publication.  I try to avoid political commentary on my site, but I’m not afraid to say that H.R. 2764 is one of the few unilaterally great pieces of legislation George W. Bush signed into law.

If you find what you need at PMC, great!  You’re all done.  Unfortunately, while PMC’s article database is growing at a steady rate, it won’t always have exactly what you need.

For that, we need to turn to something a little broader.

Step 2 – Google Scholar

Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) is a specialized version of Google’s regular search tool.  Google Scholar indexes research articles from standard indices like PubMed, then cross-references those articles with Google’s massive database of regular web pages.  This cross-referencing comes at a trade-off – on the one hand, it will generally return many more articles than a comparable PubMed search.  However, a lot of those extra discoveries will be irrelevant websites, questionable corporate marketing materials that sound like research, alternative medicine books, and an occasional patent or legal opinion.

The big advantage Google Scholar has over PubMed, however, is if a free copy of a research article exists anywhere on the web, Google will usually be able find it and associate it with its actual paper.  Let me demonstrate.  Below is a screenshot from a Google Scholar search for “Alzheimers Disease Coffee.”  I chose this search term because a growing body of research has associated coffee intake with a reduced risk of Alzheimers Disease, and I wanted to learn more about it:

Sample Google Scholar search
Google Scholar results for "Alzheimers disease coffee."

If you look to the right of the search results themselves, you’ll notice that two lines have a additional light blue link.  The first says “[HTML] from oxfordjournals.org” and the second says “[PDF] from indiana.edu”.  These little boxes are Google’s way of notifying you that they think they’ve found a full-text version of this particular article.

The second full-text link – the one associated with “Managing care through the air” – is a fine example of how Google Scholar can help you find papers.  Trying to access that paper through its title link takes you to a “sign in to purchase this article” page.  However, clicking on the PDF link to the right of the title takes you to a PDF version of the paper, which happens to be hosted on a course website from the University of Indiana.

This kind of cross-referencing can help you find papers that would be almost impossible to otherwise locate.  Sometimes an author will chose to provide a modified copy of the paper on a personal website, or perhaps the corporation who funded a paper will choose to make a copy available on their corporate site.  I have personal experience with this; a paper I co-authored on vitamin D supplementation is still in the pre-publication stages, but a poster of the research (containing most of the relevant data) is available from the Science section of the company that performed the research.  Google Scholar can help you track down these “hidden” copies of research articles.

While Google Scholar is very useful, a caveat is in order.  Sometimes Google will link you to copies of a paper that may not have been obtained legally.  Oftentimes these are hosted on questionable non-English sites.  Whether or not you choose to access papers via that method is up to you.  The legality of something like that is questionable; the morality of it… well, a discussion of the morality of copyright is beyond the scope of this article.  :)  I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you choose to make use of those kinds of Google search results.

Step 3 – Contact the paper’s authors (or even better, the financial sponsor)

This step applies specifically to privately funded research.  Many times, the organization who funds or performs research will keep copies of the paper on hand for marketing purposes.  All companies I’ve worked for did this, and I’m certain others do as well.  When we were emailed questions about research we had performed and/or funded, we typically replied with a copy of the paper.  Some journals also give paper authors a set amount of free copies of their article, which the author rarely has use for.  (After all, they wrote the paper – they know what it says!)  Send that author a nice email, and you might be rewarded with shiny PDF for your trouble.

Step 4 – Try your local library

This step is very much a YMMV one, but it’s still worth a try.  Some community libraries have access deals with research journals or conglomerates like EBSCO.  These deals allow library patrons to access any research journals that are part of the library’s access package.  In most cases this is limited to the big journals, like Science and Nature; few public libraries have the funds to provide access to specialized journals.

Still, it’s always worth a try, and if the library doesn’t have what you need, a librarian may still be able to help you in your search.

Step 5 – Find a college student or professor

I debated leaving this step for last, since it’s probably the most foolproof way to access science and medical journals… but because it is contingent on knowing (or being) a university student or professor, it may not work for everyone.

While local libraries don’t often have funds to pay for unlimited access to thousands of medical journals, many university libraries do.  Again, this will vary from library to library, but university libraries are capable of negotiating very favorable access to a wide range of research journals.  This is obviously in their best interest – the more research students and professors have access to, the stronger their ability to learn and perform their own research.  Some have argued that library quality should be a major aspect of a student’s college selection.  I agree.

If you know a college student or professor, provide them a reference to the research articles you’re interested in and see if they can help you track down a copy.  If you live close to a university – especially a public one – see if the school’s library allows non-students to sign up for library cards.  Most state schools have provisions for this.

Finally, if you are an alumni of a university or college, you may still have certain access rights to the school’s library.  A phone call or email may be all it takes to get a copy of a research article for personal use.

Conclusion

We live in a golden age of scientific and medical research.  Each year, tens of thousands of top-quality articles are published in peer-reviewed journals.  Many of these articles are directly funded by your tax dollars, or indirectly funded by your patronage to a particular business or institution.

It saddens me that most of this knowledge is kept out of the public’s reach by poorly built websites and ridiculously overpriced journal subscriptions – subscription costs that don’t go toward funding more research, but paying for outmoded things like printed copies of thousand-page medical journals that will sit, dust-covered and unread, on the back of some library shelf.  It is even more frustrating that the laypeople most inclined to search through medical literature – those currently suffering from illness or injury – are often the least capable of affording what many scientific journals charge.

As a researcher myself, I am certainly interested in researchers being paid for their hard work – and they are, by the universities and companies that employ them.  When you pay $30-50 USD for a journal article, that money does not go to the researcher.  Even worse, it has even been argued that such subscription costs lead to sensational science instead of good science.  I strongly recommend reading the linked article if you are interested in the dynamics of science publication.

Anyway, I hope this article helps anyone interested in scientific or medical research.  Additional suggestions are always welcome; feel free to use the comments section or my contact page.

The Creed of Robert G. Ingersoll

“To love justice, to long for the right, to love mercy, to pity the suffering, to assist the weak, to forget wrongs and remember benefits — to love the truth, to be sincere, to utter honest words, to love liberty, to wage relentless war against slavery in all its forms, to love wife and child and friend, to make a happy home, to love the beautiful in art, in nature, to cultivate the mind, to be familiar with the mighty thoughts that genius has expressed, the noble deeds of all the world, to cultivate courage and cheerfulness, to make others happy, to fill life with the splendor of generous acts, the warmth of loving words, to discard error, to destroy prejudice, to receive new truths with gladness, to cultivate hope, to see the calm beyond the storm, the dawn beyond the night, to do the best that can be done and then to be resigned — this is the religion of reason, the creed of science. This satisfies the heart and brain.” – Robert G. Ingersoll