Most of the articles published in scientific journals report publicly funded research. You can see this in the acknowledgments section, where the authors list their funding sources, which will often include the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, etc. (this is obviously a US-centric list, but most countries have similar funding mechanisms). Even if the work isn’t supported by a government grant, much of it is done at public universities, meaning that the facilities and possibly researcher salaries are government supported. And government-supported means taxpayer-supported.
So when I write about an article published in the peer-reviewed literature, chances are good that you, as a taxpayer, paid for part of that research. You should be able to read it. If you can’t, you have only second-hand accounts to tell you what it says:
Say you think I’m full of it. Or Larry Moran is. Or ScienceNews, or Scientific American, or PhysOrg. One of us has written about a peer-reviewed paper, and you think maybe we’ve misrepresented it, or cherry-picked the bits we like, or you just want to read a more complete story. There’s good reason to be skeptical: news organizations (and bloggers) misunderstand, misrepresent, or exaggerate scientific studies all the time.
Even PZ Myers has trouble accessing paywalled articles:
I don’t know any of the details, though, because it’s behind a paywall, and my university doesn’t have an institutional subscription (universities don’t automatically get every journal, and the ones we do get cost the institution an arm, a leg, a pound of flesh, and a bucket of blood). I could pay for it personally, but Nature would charge me $32 for a pdf.
I have outlined a few options for avoiding paywalls: Arxiv and BioArxiv, Google Scholar, ResearchGate, Academia, and just emailing the corresponding author. Now there are a couple of new tools that streamline the process of finding and accessing paywalled articles. Unpaywall is a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that finds free, legal versions of published articles.
As John F. Wilkins reports over at the Ronin Institute, Unpaywall doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do on your own, but it does make it easier:
Many authors post their articles on academia.edu or researchgate, or even on their own websites…If you’re just a little bit ambitious with your web searches, you can typically find these, but it does require an extra step or two, which can fell like a bit of a drag…Enter unpaywall, a new browser extension currently available for chrome and firefox that will tell you if there is a free version of the article you’re looking for somewhere out there, even if it is formatted differently (like an arXiv preprint).
Another option is Open Access Button, which has both a web interface and a browser extension.
Open Access Button does more or less the same thing that Unpaywall does, and it goes a step further. If Open Access Button can’t find an archived version of the article you’re looking for, it will email the corresponding author and request a copy for you.