Open Access Article Availability -- An Alternative to ILL?

It is no secret that open access has become an important resource for scholarly research in recent years, as an alternative to costly print and electronic journal subscriptions, and service and processing fees incurred (by you or by your agent library staff) through copyright and resource sharing operations. It is a controversial subject in the world of academic research, and a concern for the librarians who work to support the needs of researchers. Insofar as it is related to interlibrary loan services (the need for or lack thereof), I would like to offer some experiential advice from the perspective of library resource sharing.

First of all, you want to be sure your access is completely free of charge and legal, so I will not be guiding you to sites or services that cross this line (or even mention them by name). And secondly, your search efforts may result in uncovering different versions of the same cited article, primarily...

* Preprint -- the original draft submitted by the author(s) to the intended journal publisher before peer-review
* Postprint -- the accepted draft after peer-review
* Publisher Version -- the final version as published in either print or electronically

The last of these is probably the one you will find most valid and useful for your research, but I would leave that up to you to decide.

You will want to begin your pursuit with the aid of Google Scholar. You can use this search engine in any browser, but it works best with Google Chrome. Optionally, you may wish to install the Google Scholar Button extension if you are using Google Chrome, for easier access. The "head with mortar board" icon appears in the upper right corner, if you have done so successfully. Simply click on the icon, then copy and paste your citation into the search window and then click on the search ("magnifying glass") icon. The results list will appear in the upper right corner window, and you may click on the principle link (or additional citation links, as well as any possible "all version" links), which will transfer to your main browser page.

You can frequently locate access to articles free of charge just by searching Google Scholar, with no further assistance. However, you should be careful to observe whether or not the articles appearing in your search results are actually the ones you want, and not any with similar titles (e.g., beginning with the same string of words but not an exact match) or by different authors. The first entry appearing in your list of results is usually for the article you want, and any further below that are progressively less likely to be so.

Also, if the institution from which you are working has already purchased access to the electronic subscription for the journal in your citation, Google Scholar usually will indicate that you can download the PDF without cost from your campus IP address (or VPN connected) workstation. Of course this is not exactly "open access", but it is still an indicator that interlibrary loan service would be an unnecessary step toward obtaining your document. You may also encounter articles accessible through ResearchGate, which is a social networking site where you must first register (free of charge!) in order to gain such access.

Next you will find that your search may also result in pages (i.e., "paywalls") indicating that you can purchase or rent access to the articles for a specific fee. In such a case it is evident that your institution does not already have free access available to you, and that the publication you need is not already "freely open access". To help get around this, you can investigate making use of the following two services discussed below. To an extent, you will then be able to further uncover true open access, in conjunction with your Google Scholar searches.

Open Access Button provides a site that has its own search engine, but if you are using Google Chrome, you may also wish to install the extension to your browser. A "combination lock" icon appears in upper right corner if you have successfully done so. After searching your citations (e.g., with Google Scholar), simply click on this icon (the "button"), and wait for it to verify potential open access. After a period of "spinning", your results should appear in the upper right corner of the page. (Don't migrate away, or it will stop searching.) If the left square of the window indicates "Open Article" (in blue), click on it and it will open either to the document itself or to a page from which you may download the article file. Be aware that sometimes Open Access Button can still report "false positives" -- i.e., it may indicate "open access" articles that still turn out to require an access fee or private login to obtain. Also, if the results do not show any open access, you are given the opportunity to submit a request for the article.

Please also note that you may use the Open Access Button site in browsers other than Google Chrome. Just enter your citation information into the search engine window, and the results will similarly indicate whether or not open access is available. If not, it will also suggest initiating a request for your article.

Unpaywall, on the other hand, is a service that has proven to be fairly reliable by comparison. You can use it only with either Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, and you must install the extension for it to work. A "padlock" icon will appear in the upper right corner, if done successfully. You then simply perform your citation search, presumably in conjunction with Google Scholar or the Google Scholar Button extension. When you open any linked pages appearing in your results list, a larger "padlock" icon automatically shows up in the right margin of the browser window, in one of the following colors and thus signifying:

* Gray, locked -- no open access
* Bronze, unlocked -- free read-only access on page, but toll-access to download
* Green, unlocked -- access from a preprint server or in a repository
* Gold, unlocked -- fully open access from a publisher site

Please be aware, however, that either of these resources may not respond to certain types of pages (such as Google Books, for example), or may produce "false alarms" (as previously mentioned). Still, they do potentially offer another significant avenue for obtaining direct real-time access to the articles you need for your research. In any case, remember that interlibrary loan services will still be there when you need them.

As always, hope this discussion has been helpful.

Questions about ILLiad or Interlibrary Loan Services from Kelvin Smith Library? Contact our staff by phone at 216-368-3463 or 216-368-3517, or by e-mail at


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