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How do paleontologists access the (non-open access) literature?

It is no secret to those who know me that I am strongly supportive of open access (OA)–published data and personal experience alike show that OA is strongly beneficial to science. That said, it’s not as if we can ignore the “non-open” (call it paywalled or subscription based or whatever) literature. Some really great research is published there, and it is often necessary to get access to it one way or another.

One thing I have been really curious about is how paleontologists and paleontology enthusiasts access the non-OA literature. Is literature access even a problem for most people? If you don’t have institutional subscriptions, what other methods work?

Mostly for my own curiosity, and partly so I can be better informed on the issues, I put together an informal, non-scientific survey. The survey asked questions about how people access the literature, the kinds of journals they can access most easily, and basic demographics. I advertised the survey via Twitter and Facebook. I wouldn’t count it as a scientific sample by any means, but I do feel that I got reasonably good coverage of various types of paleontologists at various types of institutions (as well as non-paleontologists who follow the literature). 115 individuals responded, during the course of about a week. I’ll be exploring these results in the this and a few upcoming posts.

How do you access the literature?
The first survey question focused on the methods that people use to access the literature–institutional access, personal subscription, requests via social media, etc. The question was specifically worded as, “In which ways do you electronically access full text articles from the scientific literature that require subscription?”

Which methods do you use to access the literature? Results from a recent survey.
Which methods do you use to access the literature? Results from a recent survey. Note: “Author-posted PDF” includes sites like

These results show that people, as a whole, use a whole variety of options to access “paywalled” literature. There’s a surprising amount of variety–but which methods are most commonly used? To assess that, I asked the same question in a different fashion, asking survey-takers to indicate the three methods they most commonly used.

Most commonly used methods to access literature.
What are the top 3 methods you use to access the subscription-based literature? Results from a recent survey.

This, I think, is a much more informative set of results. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “institutional subscription” was rated as one of the top methods for accessing literature by 76% of those who answered the question–after all, 60% of the respondents indicated they were at a college or university.

was a bit surprised by the next most highly rated category–author-posted PDF (as worded, the question included authors’ personal websites, institutional websites, and external sites such as A full 40% of respondents indicated this as frequently-used. More on the implications of this below.

The third most-indicated method was requests over social media–Facebook, Twitter, and the like, selected by nearly 30% of those who responded.

There are also a few interesting “mismatches” between the two survey questions, suggesting that some methods are widely but infrequently used. This would include contacting authors for the PDF and getting PDFs from colleagues with subscriptions, in particular.

What does this mean?
So, with this information in hand, what can we do as scientists and other folks interested in the paleontology literature? If there are cases where we have to (or feel we have to) publish in non-open access literature, how can we maximize availability of our work?

1) Don’t assume that an institutional subscription will necessarily get your work into the hands of interested readers. Nearly a quarter of the respondents don’t list this as their primary source of literature access! In an upcoming post, I’m going to talk about access to specific journals, which will illuminate the issue even more. Without giving too much away, some choices are far better than others.

2) Author-posted PDFs are quite important for distribution of scholarly literature. So, if you’re an author, get that PDF out there! And if the journal doesn’t allow it, consider another journal (read your publication agreements–once you sign that piece of paper, you may not have all of the rights you think you do!).

3) A large percentage of people use “unauthorized” methods (i.e., those explicitly not allowed by journal terms of use and publication agreements) to access literature. This includes requests over social media, bumming PDFs from colleagues with access, and internet forums. One could argue that these folks should just use “legitimate” methods like ILL, writing the authors, etc., but the reality is that people don’t, and this is at least in part a factor of convenience as well as necessity (once an author dies, it’s hard to get in touch with them). As an author I would much rather my work be convenient and easy to access than not. I’d also rather my work be convenient, easy, and legal to access by multiple methods.

Coming Up…
Which subscription-based journals are most widely available? Which journals most guarantee that your work is hard to find? The answers may surprise you.

Final note…source data will be posted once I’ve concluded with the series!

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