Getting Over That Paywall: Accessing Research When You’re Not An Academic

Written by Tiro Miller, PhD

As animal behavior professionals, we should all be committed to keeping up with the scientific basis for our practices, and we want to know when new discoveries about how animals think, perceive, and learn are made so we can critically appraise them and decide how to weave them into how we work. We also know that even well-meaning popular science sites can often distort the truth in favor of a simpler or more intriguing message. Trying to access the latest research without the backing of an academic institution can be incredibly frustrating. This quick guide will suggest ways to (legally!) get around some of the barriers to knowledge acquisition.

Library services

The best way to access printed or digital material is through your local library. Even if you live in a small town, your library can still help you access books and journals they don’t have in their collections. Librarians have access to databases and programs you might not know about, so if there’s a book you really want to find, have a chat with your local librarian before you resign yourself to buying it.

Interlibrary loans

If your local library doesn’t carry the material you’re looking for, you can request it through a service called an interlibrary loan. This is where one library requests the book on your behalf from another. Although you don’t need to locate the book yourself, if you want to find out whether it’s worth requesting an interlibrary loan (i.e., if the book is available in any library at all), you can look the book up on, or Copac if you’re in the U.K. or Ireland.

Interlibrary loans are not usually free, they can take a fair amount of time to process, and the lending library may not allow you to take the material out of their building. However, they’re a great way to access textbooks that are obscure or very expensive to buy. Your local librarian can help you request an interlibrary loan.

Universities and college libraries

University libraries generally have more complete collections of textbooks and journals, and many will allow access to non-students under certain conditions. However, you may not be able to use some services like online access to academic publications if you’re not a current student, even if you’re in the library building. Some universities and colleges also provide resources for alumni, like access to JSTOR (Journal Storage); what you’re entitled to depends on the license agreement between the university and the content provider.


It’s not legal for entire books to be copied for you, but you may be able to request certain parts of a book or a journal issue to be copied and sent to you from a library, by post or secure file transfer online. Fair use copyright regulations determine how much of a publication can be copied and sent to you; these depend on the type of publication it is, your intended use for the content, the country you’re in, and how much by percentage or number of pages you’re asking for. In most cases, this is not a free service, but it does allow you to keep the copied material.

Buying books

If you want on-demand access to a textbook that isn’t available at your local library, you’re probably going to have to buy it. Thankfully there are a lot of second-hand marketplaces out there where you can pick up books for a bargain. Amazon Marketplace, Amazon Textbook Rentals, and eBay are good starting points, but there are also specific sites for students looking to offload their used textbooks like SellStudentStuff, and meta-search sites like UsedBookSearch and BookFinder. If you live in a university or college town, campuses often have used book sales at the start of a new semester, so keep your eyes open when fall comes around.

Accessing research articles in journals

Most people find the cost of getting through the paywall on any of the major journal publishing sites like Elsevier and Springer to be prohibitive, alienating them from learning about developments in animal behavior directly from the source. There are a couple of ways to access content without the cost, however.

One of the best ways to access new research is simply by emailing the corresponding author. If you’re browsing online, you can usually find their email address next to their name on the article. The corresponding author is usually easy to spot:

Then clicking on the envelope gives you:

Authors are generally allowed to send you a PDF of their own work, and the vast majority of them will be happy to do so — they really want people to read and use their work! Whether the author is able to share their article does depend on the copyright transfer agreement that they signed, however; although the majority of agreements allow this, not all of them do. See this article for a good discussion of the technicalities.

Articles in open access journals are free to read; the journal charges a publication fee to the research institution rather than an access fee to the end-user. The Directory of Open Access Journals is a good place to search for free-to-read articles. One way to check the publishing policies of a journal before you email an author to ask for a PDF is the Sherpa/RoMEO database. This allows you to search for a journal and see whether it is open access, and if not, whether authors are free to share their work. Here’s an example search for the journal, Animals.

One thing that’s worth remembering: accessing the research you need is a problem for everyone, including academics. When you search for an article and can’t find it, it’s not as simple as academics in their ivory towers neglecting real people in the world! Many institutions do not offer complete subscriptions to every journal their faculty and students might need, as this article from Science explains. In the last few years there has been a push towards making research free at the point of use. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals, for example, use a model that requires researchers pay to publish their papers so that readers can access them for free. Some platforms, like Elsevier, are offering a “hybrid” model, so some papers in a journal will be open access because their authors have paid a fee, and others will be available to journal subscribers. Open access comes with its own set of challenges, however, especially for scientists in less economically privileged countries, who worry that their work won’t get the attention it deserves if they can’t afford to pay for publication.

Other options offers a subscription service for academic articles; it’s basically Netflix for research. For about $50 a month, or $360 for a year, you can read full texts of articles published in academic journals, with no embargo period. The site also allows you to print a limited number of pages every month. If you sign up for an account (you don’t have to activate the free trial) you can access their preview feature, which allows you to read the full text of any article on the site for free for five minutes, once a day per article. Of course, that’s nowhere near long enough to critically appraise a piece of research, but it can be enough time for you to decide whether you want to commit to finding the full text somewhere else.

JSTOR also allows you to read up to five complete articles free each month, if you sign up for a “MyJSTOR” account. From there, you can also look into their paid plans, which run at about $20 a month or $180 a year for their “JPASS” collection. These plans allow you to read an unlimited number of articles, and also to download a restricted number of PDFs, depending on your subscription type.

Some journals offer free access to parts of their catalogue, including early access to new research, so it’s always worth checking if a link to an article in the news will lead you to a free download. Organizations like nonprofits, breed clubs, or lobby groups may also buy access to particularly relevant articles for their members; asking on social media is a good way to discover if you’re entitled to access a paper for free from a group you’re a member of. The IAABC Member forum or one of the IAABC Division groups on Facebook are great options to connect with people involved in research!

Tiro Miller, PhD SBA is the managing editor of the IAABC Foundation Journal, passionate shelter volunteer, and expert at finding things on the Internet.