How to Get Academic Papers for Free

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 25, 2011 in How-To,Resources

Redated from 12-23-2009.

research papers pc

Philosophy is a massive enterprise that happens almost entirely in writing. The most important of that writing happens in academic books and papers.

But online repositories usually charge outrageous amounts, $15-$30, for academic papers, which may be as short as 5-15 pages! This is prohibitively expensive for the independent researcher.

So today I’m going to share my tips on how to get these papers for free.

Search Google Scholar and Philpapers. These sites will often have a direct link to a PDF of the paper you are looking for.

Get some library cards. Most libraries subscribe to many online journal databases like JSTOR. Check the libraries around you to see which databases they subscribe to. My rural library back in Minnesota where I grew up subscribes to a better set of databases than the L.A. Public Library! (But the San Francisco or New York public libraries are better.) Get some library cards, visit their websites, punch in your number, and presto! – you now have access to thousands of papers from the comfort of your own home.

Check the author’s home page. Many, many philosophers publish full or pre-print versions of their papers on their university or personal websites. Some examples: William Lane Craig, Keith DeRose, Nicholas Everitt.

Visit a nearby university. Visit the main research library of a local university, sit down at a computer, and do a Google Scholar search for the papers you want. Since the university probably subscribes to many of the databases that Google Scholar links to, you’ll be able to download them to your flash drive directly. Some universities will even modify the Google Scholar results page with extra links to find the papers you want in their own databases. You don’t even need to be a student of that university or even have a library card! Just walk into the building, sit down, and download to your hearts content. This is the single biggest tip I have. When I figured out I could do this, it massively increased the number of articles I had access to.

Check for anthologies on Google Books. Search Google Books to see if the paper you want has been reprinted in an anthology that has been scanned by Google Books. The whole book won’t be viewable, but if you’re lucky then all the pages of the particular article you want will be viewable. You can even download the pages containing the article you want with Google Book Downloader or similar tools.

Check for downloadable anthologies on the web. Use Library.nu and AvaxHome and Library Genesis, some of the most amazing sites on the web. Here you will find tens of thousands of incredible academic books for you to download. If you already know the paper you want appears in an anthology, that anthology may be available on one of these sites.

Google search for phrases. For example, the Springerlink page for Peter Railton’s “Probability, explanation, and information” has a first-page preview of the article, but no full-text PDF unless you’re on a university campus. So I did a Google search for a random phrase from that first page – “discussions of both problems run the risk of degenerating” – and up popped a link to a full copy of the article that somebody had scanned!

Search Google for Conference Papers. Papers presented at conferences often do not appear in any journals, but sometimes they are available at a university website. You can search with the author name, some words from the title of the paper, and then use “site:edu” to restrict the search to university websites (ending in .edu). For example, here’s a search that finds a 2005 conference paper by Thomas Nagel on secular philosophy. (Thanks to Rob for this tip.)

Find an anthology at a library. You may be able to find an anthology containing the paper you want at a nearby library, or request it through interlibrary loan. If you can’t check the book out, you may be allowed to photocopy just the pages you want. If not, you’ll have to do your research on the paper while sitting in the library with the anthology.

Find the journal issue itself at a library. Call around to nearby libraries and ask if they have – or can request from storage – the exact journal issue in which the paper you want was originally published. You probably won’t be able to check it out, but you should be able to photocopy the pages you want while at the library, or at least do your research while sitting in the library.

Contact the author. If all these methods fail, I will sometimes email the author (check their university page) and say something like “I’m researching X lately and I’d like to read your paper “Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah,” but I don’t have access to it through any of my own resources. Is there any chance you’d be willing to send me a copy of it? I’d really love to read it. If not, I understand. Cheers!” I’ve gotten my hands on over a dozen papers this way, after all the above methods failed.

Use your friends. If you are friends will fellow researchers, they may have resources that you can’t find anywhere else. But don’t abuse the relationship. If you absolutely can’t find a particular paper you need to read, it might be better to buy it than to use your friend’s valuable time and resources in tracking it down. Personally, I have never used this method.

If all else fails… and you really need the article, you’ll have to pay for it. Use Google Scholar to find the online database that has a copy, then buy the individual article for whatever it costs – probably $15-$30. (But some databases, like Philosophy Compass, charge much less – more like iTunes for academic papers.) Otherwise, you might have to purchase the back issue of the journal itself that contains the article you need.

Happy researching!

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu December 23, 2009 at 6:15 am

Thank you Luke. I find this post very useful.

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Haukur December 23, 2009 at 7:43 am

Excellent post, Luke, and of course it doesn’t just apply to philosophy. Adding my two cents:

Photocopying: Very often it’s much faster and cheaper to digitally photograph pages than to photocopy them. I’m surprised how few people have caught on to this – even with a mediocre camera and mediocre camera skills this is easy and practical. Sometimes a librarian will give you a funny look but this is usually not forbidden (and is unobtrusive enough that you can often do it without anyone noticing).

Google Books: If you’re located outside the US you’ll have access to significantly less material on Google Books. But going through a suitable proxy server gives you the American IP you need to get to the full goods. The proxy server I currently use is http://www.proxican.com/ but proxies typically have a very short lifespan so you’ll need to switch every few months. Proxies are also potentially useful for limited preview and such but I don’t have personal experience with that. I hear they’re also great for trolling atheist blogs.

Amazon: Amazon gives you a limited preview of books if you have purchased something from them. Sometimes a useful complement to Google Books.

Friend: Sometimes this is just invaluable. I have physical access to the best libraries in my field and my friends often benefit from that. I don’t mind photographing an obscure article every now and then – usually the stuff my friends are interested in is interesting to me too.

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Matt McCormick December 23, 2009 at 8:07 am

Hi all. I’ve been teaching a university course on atheism for a few years (one of only a couple in the U.S.) and doing a lot of academic research on the topic. I’ve got an extensive bibliography of the most important works in philosophical atheism here: http://atheismblog.blogspot.com/2009/06/philosophical-atheism-bibliography.html

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lukeprog December 23, 2009 at 8:17 am

Thanks, Matt.

Which are the other university courses on atheism that you know of?

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Bill Maher December 23, 2009 at 8:44 am

there is always college :-P. If someone is going to a school that is part of a university system, then their school probably lets them access databases like JSTOR for free.

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Robert Gressis December 23, 2009 at 9:22 am

At California State University, Northridge (where I teach), our library subscribes to something called “mylibrary”. It’s a database that gets digital copies for many books from the best academic presses from 2007 (or so) on. I haven’t done too much fiddling with it yet, but there is a feature called “download multiple pages” that would presumably let you download them to your flashdrive. You should ask around at your local university libraries to see if they have it.

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lukeprog December 23, 2009 at 10:31 am

Robert,

Do you need to have a university library ID to use ‘mylibrary’, or can you do it from any machine on campus?

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Ryan December 23, 2009 at 11:05 am

Excellent Advice Luke. I’ve stumbled on to several of the same methods you’ve listed, and they are all very useful.

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John D December 23, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Good stuff, I would say author homepages and contacts are the best methods. It is pretty easy to get them to send stuff to you if you claim to be a PhD student who can’t locate their work anywhere else. Remember, academics like to be read.

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John D December 23, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Also check out http://www.ssrn.com. Not sure how good it is for philosophy of religion, but it is a top-notch resource for economics and law.

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John D December 23, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Also, how does one sign-up for gigapedia? I’ve clicked on the registration link and have been told that is disabled.

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Reginald Selkirk December 23, 2009 at 1:55 pm

lukeprog: Thanks, Matt.Which are the other university courses on atheism that you know of?  

Cornell had one for a few years, but I hear the instructor retired.

There was a seminar a few years ago at U. Michigan, but I don’t know if it was comparable to a full semester course, and I don’t know if it’s still taught.

U. Chicago had a course, but that was way back in 2004, and one of the instructors, Sean Carroll, has moved since.

The New Atheism seminar at St. Louis U. (a Jesuit university, so I don’t know the approach taken) looks to be current.

Atheism can be mentioned in comparative religion courses, but it is rare that it gets the focus of a full course by itself.

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Robert Gressis December 23, 2009 at 6:13 pm

lukeprog: Robert,Do you need to have a university library ID to use ‘mylibrary’, or can you do it from any machine on campus?  

I believe that at our campus library, at least, there are several computers that you don’t need to have an ID to use and then you can download it from one of those.

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lukeprog December 23, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Huh. Maybe Gigapedia registrations are closed for now? I didn’t know they did that.

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Anthony December 23, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Luke, in addition to Avaxhome, I recently started using Ebook30 Simply type in the search criteria for what you are looking for.

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Rob December 24, 2009 at 6:59 pm

This is very good advice. (I’m an academic librarian.) An additional strategy I often use when searching for copies of papers presented at conferences, but not yet published, is Google’s Advanced Search, restricting the domain to edu. Also, I like to scour this rss feed for all new papers absorbed into PhilPapers:

http://philpapers.org/recent?dg=10365tMB5qAj31rVnoGr9FMTD4oMFvm9p4jFxn5aa19dt8KWGodBf3499Cm4Trek&format=rss&in_a=on&in_b=on&in_j=on&in_l=on&in_w=on&jlist=all&latest=1&nosh=1&onlineOnly=on&proOnly=on&tz_offset=-240

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lukeprog December 24, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Cool, Rob. Can you link to an example Google search that brings up a conference paper?

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Rob December 25, 2009 at 7:57 am

An example relevant to the concerns of your excellent blog is Thomas Nagel’s essay “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament.” It has finally appeared in his most recent collection of essays (ISBN: 9780195394115), but I found it several years ago in an earlier form (there are some interesting differences between the two):

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&as_q=nagel+&as_epq=secular+philosophy&as_oq=&as_eq=&num=10&lr=&as_filetype=&ft=i&as_sitesearch=edu&as_qdr=all&as_rights=&as_occt=any&cr=&as_nlo=&as_nhi=&safe=off

Constantly on the hunt for quality scholarship on Nietzsche, I regularly find drafts using Google Advanced Search and restriction of domain to edu (and, sometimes, even restricting format to pdf). I’m also finding that PhilPapers is doing a nice job of absorbing a lot of material philosophers are making available from their home pages.

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mohamad amiri January 15, 2010 at 6:57 am

lukeprog: Robert,Do you need to have a university library ID to use ‘mylibrary’, or can you do it from any machine on campus?  (Quote)

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Mike Magee February 19, 2011 at 10:54 am

Gigapedia seems to be up again, on a new site, but the old link you gave here redirects you. I just registered. This page and website is useful.

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Mr. Philosophical March 17, 2011 at 9:19 am

Absolutely great information, I had never heard of philpapers before, thanks for the headsup!

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Garren March 25, 2011 at 6:26 am

Google searches for known phrases, then refining the search a bit is my primary method for building these search links:

http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/p/anthologies.html

I’m applying for a Library Science grad program with a focus on academic libraries. One of my pet projects will always be making academic papers more accessible to the interested public.

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daniel April 6, 2011 at 9:37 am

Library Genesis is amazing! library genesis + kindle= orgy of scholarly activity

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mtraven April 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

Wow, library.nu is great, thanks!

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Keri April 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Thanks SO MUCH for this list! It’s so frustrating to come across a juicy research title only to slam into a paywall. Bookmarked =)

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