Browse Past Paywalls And Get Open Access To Research Articles For Free

Suppose you have been spending time searching around, and finally found that perfect article. You click in, only to be blocked by a notification that asks you to pay some money before you can read the article. Welcome to the world of article paywalls.

Luckily there are ways to bypass them. Here, we explore various methods that can unlock access to research articles, ensuring that vital information is accessible to you, and a broader audience. 

How To Bypass Paywalls And Get Access To Research Articles

MethodDescription
Try Incognito ModeUse incognito mode in browsers to avoid cookie tracking by paywalls.
Try Reader ModeReader mode may remove paywall overlays, working best with soft paywalls.
Preprint ServersServers like arXiv, bioRxiv, or SSRN may have preprint versions of articles.
Login With Institutional AccessUse your institutional access to bypass paywalls by logging into your university’s library system.
ResearchGate, Academia.edu Or Google ScholarSearch for paywalled articles on platforms like ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and Google Scholar.
Ask Authors DirectlyContact authors directly for a copy of their paper, as many are willing to share.
Try Browser ExtensionsUse extensions like Unpaywall and Bypass Paywalls Clean to access paywalled content
SciHubSci-Hub offers access to research papers regardless of paywall status, but operates in a legally grey area.
Anna’s ArchiveActs as a mirror for a load of different services for free research articles

What Is An Article Paywall?

Paywalls in academic publishing exist mainly because publishing is costly, and journals need funds to maintain their operations. Scholarly articles go through extensive peer review and editing processes, and the costs are traditionally covered by subscriptions. Many publishers use paywalls extensively, including:

  • Wiley,
  • Elsevier,
  • Springer,
  • Sage, and
  • many more.

Fortunately, there are ways you can try to get access to these articles, without having to pay out an arm and a leg. 

1: Try Incognito Mode

Some websites with soft paywalls track the number of free articles you’ve read using cookies. When you reach the limit, the paywall activates. However, if you browse in incognito mode, the site doesn’t recognize you, potentially allowing you to read more articles without paying.

In incognito mode, your browser doesn’t store cookies or your browsing history, which paywalls often use to track how many articles you’ve read.

To use this method:

  1. Copy the URL of the paywalled article
  2. Open an incognito window in your web browser
  3. Paste the URL into the address bar.

This simple step might bypass the soft paywall, allowing you to read your favorite articles. It’s worth noting, though, that this trick mainly works with soft paywalls. A hard paywall, which require a login or subscription to access any content, are less likely to be bypassed this way.

2: Try Reader Mode

Reader mode simplifies the webpage by stripping away most graphics and ads, focusing on the text of the article you want to read.

Interestingly, this can occasionally remove the overlay of a paywall, granting you access to the content behind it.

To try this, when you hit a paywall, look for the ‘reader mode’ icon in your address bar or in the browser menu. This icon often looks like an open book or a small ‘A’ next to a larger ‘A’. Clicking this will switch the page to reader mode.

In some cases, the text of the article, which was blocked by the paywall’s overlay, becomes readable.

This technique tends to work better with soft paywalls, which are designed to limit the number of free articles you can view, rather than hard paywalls that lock content behind mandatory login or subscription.

This isn’t a foolproof method though. Some sites have started designing their paywalls to counter such bypasses. Plus, using reader mode doesn’t always guarantee full access, especially with complex web pages or sites with advanced paywall technologies.

3. Preprint Servers

Preprint servers host versions of academic papers before they undergo the peer-review process. This means you can access the latest research, often the same studies that are behind paywalls in major journals, without paying.

Let’s say you’re searching for a specific article and find it behind a paywall. Your next step should be to check preprint servers like:

  • arXiv
  • bioRxiv, or
  • SSRN.

Simply copy the title of the article you want to read, and paste it into the search bar of these servers. More often than not, you might find the preprint version of the article available for free.

Lets say a groundbreaking physics paper published in a journal like the Physical Review Letters might be available for free on arXiv. Similarly, if you’re looking for a paper in biology or medicine, bioRxiv could have the preprint copy.

While preprint versions are not peer-reviewed, they often contain the same core research as the final published version.

This access is especially useful for individuals who don’t have subscription access through a university or research institution.

4: Login With Institutional Access

If you’re affiliated with a university, college, or research institute, you likely have a wealth of resources at your fingertips, often without realizing it. 

Institutions typically pay for subscriptions to a wide range of academic journals and databases, granting their members free access to countless paywalled articles.

If you’re looking for an article from the Journal of Advanced Research, you might find it behind a paywall if you search through a regular browser. However, accessing the same article through your institution’s library system or portal can bypass this paywall seamlessly.

To use this method:

  1. Log in to your institution’s library website or portal with your credentials.
  2. Search for the article directly within the library’s search engine
  3. Sometimes you can use tools like proxy servers or VPNs that your institution might provide.

These tools route your internet connection through the institution’s network, making it appear as if you are accessing the content from within the campus, thereby unlocking access to subscription-based content.

In some cases, institutions also have browser extensions or plugins that simplify this process. For instance, when you land on a paywalled article, the extension can automatically check if your institution has access and redirect you to the login page for immediate access.

5. ResearchGate, Academia.edu Or Google Scholar

Navigating through the maze of research article paywalls becomes much simpler with platforms like:

  • ResearchGate
  • Academia.edu, and
  • Google Scholar.

These sites are treasure troves for academicians and curious minds alike, offering alternative pathways to access scholarly articles that are typically behind paywalls.

ResearchGate and Academia.edu are networks where researchers share their publications and connect with peers. When you find an article you want to read on a journal’s website but hit a paywall, head over to these platforms.

Simply search for the article or the author’s name. You might find the full text of the article uploaded by the author themselves. Researchers often share their work here for wider dissemination, bypassing the paywall restrictions of traditional journals.

Google Scholar, on the other hand, indexes a vast range of scholarly articles and often provides links to free versions hosted on university websites or personal pages of researchers.

While you browse through search results on Google Scholar, look for links that say [PDF] on the right side of the article title. These are usually direct links to free full-text versions of the articles.

6. Ask Authors Directly

One effective and often overlooked method to access paywalled research articles is to directly contact the authors. Many researchers are more than willing to share their work with interested individuals, especially if you explain that you can’t access their work due to a paywall.

Authors typically retain the rights to distribute their own articles for educational and research purposes.

So, if you find an article you want to read but it’s behind a paywall, you can often find the author’s contact information on the same page or by a quick Google search.

Send them a polite email, expressing your interest in their research and your difficulty in accessing it through usual channels.

In many cases, authors are happy to provide a copy of their paper, as it helps increase the reach and impact of their work.

7. Try Browser Extensions

There are extensions can help you access articles that are typically locked behind paywalls. These are usually available for many web browsers, be it Chrome, Firefox, or Edge. Some popular extensions include:

Unpaywall: This is user-friendly tool that can lead you to legally available open access versions of paywalled articles. When you visit a website with a paywalled article, Unpaywall automatically searches for an available free version and provides a direct link to it. 

Bypass Paywalls Clean: this extension works on a broader range of sites, including major news outlets. It allows you to read articles from sites that usually require a subscription. Once installed, this extension helps bypass soft paywalls by manipulating web browser settings.

However, it’s important to use these tools responsibly. While they can provide access to content, they can also raise ethical considerations about the rights of content creators and publishers.

If you frequently find yourself needing access to paywalled content, consider supporting the publishers and authors through subscriptions.

8. SciHub

Founded by Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-Hub provides free access to millions of research papers, regardless of their paywall status. When you encounter a paywalled article, simply:

  1. Go to Sci-Hub’s website
  2. Enter the URL or the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) of the article
  3. If available, Sci-Hub will provide you with the full text.

The platform sources its content through various means, often using credentials donated by academics or university networks to access and distribute the articles.

While Sci-Hub has been a boon for researchers, students, and academics in countries or institutions where access to scientific literature is limited or expensive, its legality is highly controversial. The site has faced numerous legal battles and is often blocked in several countries.

It’s crucial to understand that while Sci-Hub provides an easy way to access articles without paying, it operates in a legally grey area. The ethical implications of using such a service should be carefully considered. 

Unlock and Browse Paywalled Articles For Free

While paywalls serve a purpose in the academic publishing world, they need not be a roadblock in your quest for knowledge. Utilizing tools like institutional access, browser extensions, preprint servers, and direct author communication can effectively bypass these barriers.

However, it’s essential to balance these strategies with ethical considerations and support for the scientific community. By exploring these avenues, you can access the rich world of academic research, contributing to a more informed and educated society.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.