How To Read (Almost) All Scientific Papers for Free
Learning is exhilarating, and science is one of the greatest accomplishments of modern civilization.
While these are not terribly exciting points to make, it is curious how much of a barrier there is between the public and the scientific papers which are the products of science.
Or rather, how much of a barrier there was.
Whatever obstacles there were in place, the Internet has burned them to the ground and fundamentally changed the informational inequalities that the old system promoted.
In the past, if you were not a researcher or a student, there was no way for you to read scientific papers. For all the lip service payed to science and having a scientific mindset, people have not had until recently the opportunity to see for themselves what it is that scientists actually do. The relationship between the public and science has always been mediated by the media and whatever popularizing activites scientists make, either through general audience books or lectures.
With the way that the system was structured, there was what could be called a state of informational inequality, whereby a select few have access to the repositories of the world’s scientific knowledge while the large majority of people did not and had to contend themselves with whatever morsels they were fed by the gatekeepers.
Today, that inequality is no longer in place.
While the same incentives that created it are still with us, they can no longer put up much of a fight against the curious mind. Anyone who wishes to read the latest scientific results, or the classics that have defined a field, can now do so. The ideas and insights from some of the brightest minds in the world about everything under the sun are now accessible to everyone with a curious mind and a connection to the Internet.
The truth of the matter is, we have it good these days. If there is any paper we want to read we can do so with no trouble.
Everyone with access to the Internet has free, immediate access to virtually every piece of scientific research that has ever been published. The only issue is that most people, even academics by my experience, have no idea that this is true. They have not been made aware that times have changed and that the gates have been blown wide open.
In this blog post I want to show you how to take advantage of this new paradigm so that your curious mind is never again prevented from filling itself with the sweet pleasures of knowledge.
Let the torrents of knowledge flow freely!
It is somewhat anticlimactic to note that this post can be boiled down to two words:
Sci-Hub has been the greatest influencing force towards a world of informational equality. Started in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazakhstani programmer, the goal behind Sci-Hub is to make information available to all those who wish to access it. To do that, it uses the user accounts of supporting researchers to get inside the networks of universities around the world to download papers that it then makes available for anyone to read.
If it’s true that information wants to be free, then it has found a powerful ally in Sci-hub.
If there is a paper you want to read it is very unlikely you won’t be able to find it with Sci-Hub. An analysis from 2018 studied how the repository amassed by Sci-Hub until 2017 stacked up against the access provided by the University of Pennsylvania and concluded that Sci-Hub provided a much greater coverage, containing approximately 70% of the 81.6 million scholarly articles that are registered with Crossref. Things can only have gotten better since then.
Sci-Hub is so good that researchers worldwide, the very people who are supposed to be the ones with the exclusive access to the research literature, use it regularly because it is that much better than what their university provides.
So, if Sci-Hub is so good, how do you go about using it?
Using the website:
1 - Copy the URL of the paper
2 - Go to www.sci-hub.se
3 - Paste it there and have fun learning about the world.
It’s that simple. And it can be even simpler by creating a bookmarklet in your browser that automates the entire process. To create one, follow these steps:
Creating a bookmarklet in Firefox:
1 - Right-click on the bookmarks toolbar and choose “New Bookmark”.
2 - In the Location prompt copy-paste the following:
3 - Save it.
Creating a bookmarklet in Chrome:
1 - Right-click on the bookmarks toolbar and choose “New Page”
2 - In the URL prompt, copy-paste the following:
3 - Save it
What this bookmarklet does is replace the URL of the page you are in (which would be the page of the paper you want to read) with the the Sci-Hub version of it. Instead of having to copy the URL, travel to the Sci-Hub page, and paste it there, this bookmarklet does all of that automatically. You just click on the bookmark and it will take you there (If for some reason the website is blocked, substitute where it is written ‘sci-hub.se’ with ‘sci-hub.tw’)
For almost any paper, Sci-hub will be enough. The remaining tips I have will help if by an unlucky draw of the cards the paper you want to read is one of the few that Sci-Hub does not have.
Sci-Hub is liberating. In the Greek mythos, Prometheus stole the fire from the gods and gifted it to humans. Sci-Hub is that Promethean enterprise, setting knowledge free from the shackles it has been bound to. To say that Sci-Hub is one of the things in this world I value the most is an understatement. My life would be irrevocably poorer without its existence, and if you are only now discovering it, I am sure that you will in no time agree with me when I say that this website, created by an unassuming Kazakhstani programmer, is one of the gems of the Internet.
Let’s just hope that Alexandra doesn’t end up sharing Prometheus’ rotten fate.
Google Scholar is for papers what Google is for the Internet at large.
You can search papers by title or author, and specify what time period you want the papers to have been published in. You can also enter keywords related to things you are looking for to see if there have been papers published about it. For example, you can search for “episodic memory in animals” at it will show you papers in which those keywords appear. The traditional tips on how to use Google apply here, so using quote markers around a phrase will search for that verbatim.
What Google Scholar does that is relevant for our purposes here is that if in its process of aggregating websites it finds the PDF of paper available, it will include a link to it in the search results. The selection is not as comprehensive as Sci-Hub, but because Google Scholar is often used in an exploratory fashion when we know what we want to look for but are not entirely sure which papers to read, having those links right at hand is often valuable.
If Google Scholar doesn’t link to the PDF of the paper you want, you can try searching for it in the regular Google website. Sometimes it might happen that even though the paper is available online, it does not get indexed as such by Google Scholar. In such cases you’re more likely to be able to find it if you get creative with your use of Google by, for example, searching for specific phrases that you know appear in the text. For example, if a paper includes a quote from another paper that you can’t find, searching for that quote might turn up the paper.
I once found the PDF of an unpublished paper I wanted to read by searching for combinations of the authors’ names and keywords that I thought would appear on the title. That turned up the schedule for a conference the authors were presenting the paper in, which included a Google Drive link to a copy of the paper in it. A little bit of intuition and creativity go a long way here.
As an aside, one Google Scholar feature that I rarely see people talk about is how you can create alerts for when a paper you enjoyed gets cited by another paper, or an author you like publishes something new. Though the signal to noise ratio can be low, it is a cheap way to introduce some serendipity into your reading process and may point you to things that you wouldn’t otherwise find.
Asking people for help
If the paper you are looking for isn’t on Sci-Hub, and Google doesn’t turn up anything, the next best avenue to pursue is asking other people if they have it.
This might mean asking one of the authors of the paper for a copy, or at the very least seeing if they have one available through their website. Researchers generally do a lousy job keeping their personal websites up to date, but it can’t hurt to try.
It’s also not every day that a researcher gets a cold email from someone they’ve never met asking for something that they wrote with the expectation that it would only ever be read by the small community of other researchers working on that topic, so you are unlikely to bother them by doing so. Note that this is nothing like asking for an author to send you a copy of his or her book for free. Researchers make no money from published research, even if publishers charge people to access that research, so unless you’re terribly unpleasant in your email, you are more likely to make the researcher just a little bit happier in knowing that someone is interested in their research.
If what you’re searching for is from a long time ago and on a particularly obscure topic, then it might be difficult to get the previous strategies to work. For those special cases, as a measure of last resort, you might try sending a distress call into the void of the Internet and wait to see if a kind soul answers your beacon.
One place you might try is the r/scholar subreddit, which specializes in those difficult cases. I recall using it successfully before, but it was before Sci-hub was a thing so I don’t have any particular advice on how to use it besides making you aware of its existence.
We are now living in an age where the obstacles between your curiosity and the resources with which to satisfy it are no more. Access to knowledge has, finally, been democratized.
With this post I showed you how you can access for free and without much hassle a vast and ever increasing vault filled to the brim with the knowledge that scientists the world over have labored to unlock. There has never been this much information about the world so widely available and for so many people to enjoy, and it is my sincere hope that this will help you in taking advantage of that.
I can’t wait to see what you choose to learn with it.