Paywalls revisited


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. But the article is behind a paywall, and you don’t want to have to shell out serious money every time you have your doubts. So you just have to take our word for it, right? Not usually.

When I wrote about paywalls previously, there were a couple of angles I left out. To recap, you can usually read an original scientific article, even if you don’t work for a university, without paying for it. First, maybe it’s not behind a paywall. More and more articles are being published as ‘open access’, meaning that anyone with an internet connection can read them for free. Second, you can follow the ‘All [x] versions’ link on Google Scholar; often one of the versions will be accessible. Finally, if all else fails you can email the corresponding author. They will nearly always be happy to send you a pdf; scientists want their articles to be read.

There are a couple of options I didn’t mention, though. One is to visit your local university library. They’ll probably have a subscription to the journal and a computer you can use to access it. Print it out there, or save a tree and write the pdf to a thumb drive. If the school is your alma mater, you might even be able to gain off-site access by joining your alumni association. For a while after graduating from the University of Central Florida, I kept access to the university library and all of its subscriptions by paying $25 a year in membership dues.

The other option I failed to mention is ResearchGate. ResearchGate is like Facebook for nerds. Or maybe LinkedIn for nerds. Scientists set up profiles and, more importantly, post their papers. So if you can find one of the authors of the paper you’re after on ResearchGate, you can probably find a reprint. ResearchGate does require a login, but accounts are free, and you don’t have to have an institutional affiliation. There is also Academia, but if ResearchGate is Facebook for nerds, Academia is our MySpace.

Cdesign proponentsists often use paywalls as an excuse to report on secondary sources rather than dig into an original paper and actually evaluate the evidence. For example, Evolution News and Views reported on a press release (secondary source) about a paper (primary source) on animal body plans. At the end of the article, they quote the abstract of the original paper (abstracts are almost always free) and complain that the full article is behind a paywall. But I was easily able to find the full paper on the author’s website. Similarly, a post at Uncommon Descent reports on a ScienceDaily article about a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, quoting the ‘significance statement’ at the end. It took me all of 30 seconds to find the full paper on the lead author’s website.

I could do this all day.

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