7 ways journalists can access academic research for free

 
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Here at Journalist’s Resource, we’re big fans of research — especially the peer-reviewed kind. We promote academic research as one of journalism’s most important tools for covering public policy and fact-checking claims.

We also know it can be tough sometimes for reporters to find the research they need. Many academic journals keep the published work of scholars and research organizations behind paywalls. Newsrooms can’t always afford to subscribe, leaving journalists to find other ways to access that knowledge.

Resourceful journalists do find other ways. Here are seven of them:

 

  1. Visit the library.

Public libraries often subscribe to academic journals and anyone with a library card can read them. The good news for busy journalists is some libraries allow their users to access online databases of peer-reviewed research from any location. Ask a research librarian for help tracking down research on narrow or specialized topics.

Some colleges and universities allow alumni to use their libraries. For example, Northwestern University, located in Illinois, lets alumni and the public use its libraries in Evanston and Chicago, according to Belinda Clarke, director of alumni engagement at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

  1. Contact academic journals.

Some of the more popular journals give journalists complimentary access. The American Economic Association (AEA), for instance, offers reporters free two-year accounts, allowing them to read published and forthcoming articles for all eight of its journals, including the American Economic Review. You can request an account through the association’s press page.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s widely known, but it’s a message we want to get out there,” says Chris Fleisher, the AEA’s web editor. “We want journalists to know they can access our journals if they like.”

A bonus: That free AEA account also gives journalists access to the data that researchers used in their analyses.

It’s worth noting that many journals will share embargoed copies of research articles with journalists and alert them to new research on a topic of interest. You’ll need to check with the journals to find out how to sign up.

  1. Look for Open Access journals and platforms.

A growing number of scholarly journals known as Open Access (OA) journals offer their online content for free to the public. Be aware that while there are many high-quality OA publications, some engage in unethical practices and have bad reputations. A trusted source of reputable OA journals is the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Examples of top OA journals include PLOS ONE, the world’s first multidisciplinary OA journal, and BMC Biology.

Several online platforms also allow the public to access research at no cost. Unpaywall, for example, is a free database of almost 21 million free-to-read academic articles.

  1. Reach out to the people who did the research.

If you find a research article you’re interested in reading but can only find the abstract online, call or e-mail the authors and ask for a complete copy. Journal abstracts generally include contact information for the authors or, at the very least, an e-mail address for the corresponding author.

Researchers usually will share copies of their work with journalists, which the journals generally allow. Keep in mind, though, that it could take hours to days for a response. If a scholar shares a pre-published version of an academic article, be sure to ask how closely it resembles the published version and whether the findings are the same.

Another option: Researchers often post links to research they’ve authored on their personal websites. Those who work for colleges and universities tend to list their published articles on their faculty pages.

  1. Call the media relations office.

The media relations office of a university or research organization can help you track down a copy of an article authored by one of its researchers. The staff also can help you reach the authors as well.

The main drawback: While media relations offices generally are sensitive to newsroom deadlines, they may be busy helping many journalists at the same time. You’ll find it’s often faster and easier to reach out to authors directly. If you have trouble getting researchers to respond, the media relations team is usually willing to give them a nudge.

Universities also send out press releases promoting new research conducted by their faculty and research centers. Ask how you can receive alerts about topics key to your beat.

  1. Sign up for alerts from organizations that promote research.

A number of organizations send out regular emails promoting new research and press releases from a range of institutions.

For example, Futurity, a partnership among dozens of universities worldwide, highlights the work of scholars in four broad topic areas: culture, health, environment and science.

EurekAlert!, a service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, distributes embargoed reports, press releases and news related to science, medicine and technology research.

  1. Check Google Scholar.

Google Scholar is a web search engine that indexes research from various sources, including academic journals. Oftentimes, Google Scholar will include PDFs of research articles in its search results. Sometimes, the PDFs are copies of published research articles. Many of the PDFs are earlier versions of an article, including working papers. (For more on the differences between a working paper, a white paper and a research article, check out our explainer.)

While these earlier versions can be helpful, it’s important to contact the author before reporting on their findings. The findings highlighted in a working paper are preliminary and may differ substantially from those outlined in the published version of a research article.

 

If you’re looking for more tips on research, check out our tip sheets on covering health research and how to tell the difference between good research and questionable research.

 

 

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