Redated from 12-23-2009.
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.
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.