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Stop beating your head against the paywall

I don’t remember exactly where I was when I encountered my first paywall, but I remember how I felt. The year was 1999, digitized journal archives were new, and the world was shaping up to be a boundless cornucopia of shareable scientific content. I was doing research for my undergraduate thesis (so, granted, I may have been a little drunk), and I clicked on a link to an article from a fairly obscure journal.

“Well this can’t be correct,” I thought when the site denied my request. “I’m being asked to pay $38.99 just to read the article! Clearly a mistake has been made. The article is just words and pictures. Things you can’t touch don’t cost money. At least, that’s what I’m learning from Napster.”

I wanted to type, “Um, hi, website. So, you’re probably used to nefarious individuals trying to read your articles, but I’m a scientist. Maybe it’s a glitch, but you seem to want my credit card number in exchange for letting me see stuff. Can I just read the paper for, like, an hour? I’ll give you some pizza.”

As you may have guessed, I never got my hands on the article, and that little slice of knowledge never entered my thesis.

In this particular case, it didn’t really matter, as my thesis was probably read by a total of three people—one of whom graded it, and two of whom were my parents. Now, though, working at a small biotech company, hitting a paywall is a bigger deal. Many times, when that pay-to-proceed message pops up, I have to decide whether it’s really worth the money, or whether I can glean what I need from the abstract. Even more frustrating, I might pay to access an article, then read it and learn that it’s not helpful. And we're not talking about small amounts of money, either—I could either read one paper, or I could buy dinner for my family of four at Red Lobster. Sure, scientific knowledge can save the world—but so can those hot cheesy biscuits.

I should acknowledge the irony of lamenting the existence of paywalls in an article written for an organization whose financial model relies on subscriptions. I think some of that money comes to me. So, of course, I understand why the paid subscription model exists. Without your dollars, Science can’t publish science, or commentary, or news, or this article and others like it in Science Careers; AAAS can’t run its programs, and meetings, and seminars, and fellowships; and my children would be raised by wolves, at least during working hours.

But as a researcher, when I just want to see the data, my interest is binary. To express it as an outdated cat-and-cheeseburger meme, it’s either “I CAN HAS ARTICLE” or “I CANNOT HAS ARTICLE.” Hitting a paywall is annoying.

Which is why I was intrigued to learn about a new online plugin called Unpaywall. It’s free and quick to download, and it tells you at a glance whether the article is available without a subscription. It’s not magic or illegal. If a free full-text version can’t be found, Unpaywall doesn’t make one up or steal one. But it saves you the time and angst of dissecting each journal’s policies to figure out how to access something that you don’t yet even know whether you actually want to read in the first place.

Here’s how it works. After I open Chrome and perform a Google Scholar search (which I use instead of PubMed—please don’t accuse me of being a millennial), I get a little tab next to each article I click on. If the tab is green, then Unpaywall’s bots successfully trawled the web to find a free copy of the article—for example, from an author’s webpage, a preprint server, repositories such as PubMed Central (which funders are increasingly requiring), or even from the publisher itself—and I can blithely move forward and do science. If the tab is gray, then I know right away that no free version exists, and I will have to make the impossible choice of knowledge versus cheesy biscuits. If no tab appears, then I must be using Internet Explorer, which I only ever do by accident.

Now that I’ve added Unpaywall to my arsenal, why stop there? Why not develop a suite of new plugins to make research easier? Such as:

  • Uncite: Strips a paper of all irrelevant citations the authors only threw in to appease collaborators
  • Untitle: Removes unnecessary words from scientific article titles, bringing the average title from 85 words to three
  • Unauthor: Eliminates authors who didn’t actually contribute to the paper
  • Untext: Deletes all text, leaving only figures, which are the parts you really want to see anyway
  • Unmethod: Strikes through the procedures in the Methods section that you won’t be able to replicate in your lab
  • Unconclude: Gives the authors a “do over” to reinterpret their data because they screwed it up the first time
  • Uncorrespond: Withdraws the email you sent to an article’s corresponding author asking about a missing fact right before discovering that the fact is in the next paragraph
  • Unread: Purges your brain of a poorly written paper you’ve just read
  • Unununennium: Gets rid of all references to Element 119, which is—let’s face it—a ridiculous element

Hopefully Unpaywall will make literature searches easier, and maybe it will even help you save some money on your future research. That's a lot of cheesy biscuits.

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