Tutorial 9: how to get copies of academic papers

November 9, 2010

There’s recently been a rash of requests for PDFs on the VRTPALEO mailing list.  Or maybe “plague” would be a better word.  What invariably happens is that a new paper comes out, and someone emails the list saying “Please can someone send me a PDF of this?”; then another half-dozen or so people all reply to the list saying “I’d like a copy, too”.  (The situation is exacerbated by the VRTPALEO list’s utterly advanced policy of forcing all replies to go to the whole list instead of just to the person being replied to, but that’s a whole nother rant.)

The result is of course that several thousand people get half a dozen spams.  Yes, it’s true that it only takes a couple of seconds to recognise and delete such messages.  But when two thousand people each take two seconds to delete a message, that’s 4000 seconds of time that could have been used for something useful.  In other words, to save yourself a couple of minutes’ work, you’ve wasted more than an hour of other people’s time.

Folks, this has to stop.

So what should you do when you want to get hold of a paper?  It’s a simple three-stage process.  And before you ask, yes, this is good for hobbyists as well as professionals.

Step 1: Google

Just search for the title of the paper.  You’d be surprised how often it just turns up.  Sometimes  it’s in an open-access journal, such as Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palaeontologia Electronica or PLoS ONE.  Sometimes the author has posted a copy, as for example I do with all my stuff and Matt does with his.  Sometimes, there just happens to be a copy lying around somewhere — for example, because a lecturer made it available to his students.

Often, though, the paper you want is out there, but paywalled.  So go on to …

Step 2: ask the author

Nine times out of ten, the abstract pages that the big commercial publishers put up include the author’s email address.  So just drop him or her a line asking for a copy.

Dear Dr. Haddockwhittler,

I was interested to see the abstract of your new paper on eroded non-diagnostic ornithopod pedal phalanges in the Journal Of Small Boring Fossils. I would be very grateful if you would send me a PDF. Many thanks.

And you’ll almost always get the PDF back within a day or two.  Sometimes authors don’t respond at all — most likely because they’ve not seen the message; and very occasionally they don’t have the PDF themselves.  But these are very rare situations.  And I have never, ever, known an author to just flatly refuse to send out a PDF.

I’ve had a few people telling me that they’re nervous about cold-contacting an Actual Credentialled Professional, and that they fear getting the brush-off because of their own amateur status.  Put this foolish idea out of your mind. Every professional is always delighted when anyone, professional or not, is interested in their work.

SPECIAL BONUS FRINGE BENEFIT: every now and then, you may find that as a by-product of such a request, you strike up a conversation with the author.  If you and they are interested in the same stuff, you sometimes find that you each have light to shed on the others’ thoughts.  As a matter of fact, this is precisely how I met and became friends with Matt (which in turn is how I became a palaeontologist — a story that I must tell some time in Tutorial 10: how to become a palaeontologist).  Usually this won’t happen: you’ll just have a brief, courteous exchange, and move on.  But sometimes it might.

But suppose you can’t find the author’s email address?  (This is much more common with older papers.)  Or suppose it’s a really old one — a classic Janensch paper or something — and the author is dead?  Or suppose you send an email, but the author never responds?  Then on to …

Step 3: ask a friend

If you know someone who’s at an institution that has good access to subscription resources, drop them a line as ask whether they’d mind pushing a copy your way.  If you’re friends already it’s probably because you’re interested in the same stuff, which means that they’ve likely already downloaded the paper in question — or, if not, they’ll be grateful to you for the heads-up.  Even if not, you’re only wasting one person’s time instead of two thousand.

And if all else fails …

… then fall back to the original: email the list and ask whether anyone can help.  Sure, there’s a place for this: it’s part of what the list is there for, and it can be absolutely invaluable when you’re trying but failing to track down an obscure old paper.

If you do this, then please use a meaningful subject for your email.  If you just write “PDF request” than I will delete it without even opening it, and I bet most other people will, too.  Do yourself a favour and write something terse but informative, like “Looking for PDF of Haddockwhittler 2010 on ornithopod phalanges”.

Another situation where mailing the list with a PDF request is appropriate: when you don’t know exactly what it is that you’re looking for, and you need expert guidance.  For example, I did this when looking for an ostrich osteology: I didn’t know of a good one (and hadn’t been able to discover the existence of one using Google), so I asked.  Not a problem.

But, people, this should be the last resort, not the first.

(There are those that say Inter-Library Loan should be on the List Of Things To Do Before Spamming VRTPALEO, but that’s not usually an option for amateurs with no formal affiliation.)

Well, I hope that’s helpful.  Now go forth and obtain papers!

This post is an expanded version of an email that I have written many, many times to individuals.  I got bored of writing it over and over, and figured that it would be quicker and easier to post this, and then be able to point people to it.

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33 Responses to “Tutorial 9: how to get copies of academic papers”

  1. Fabrizio Says:

    Very nice and valid post, really
    That’s how i do: i google “Name of the paper” followed by “pdf”, so if the pdf is out there, i find it in no time

  2. David Hone Says:

    Id’ also add in to try Google Scholar and not just Google, the two can return different things.

    I’d also say don’t just try the lead author of the paper, but co-authors too.

    And as a bonus, most researchers will send out other associated PDFs too, not just the one you asked for.

    And if people are asking for something on the list for something that you want too, mail that person. When they get it, they can then repay a bit of that time that others went to to help out by sending in on to you and as noted, not everyone get’s spammed.

    Oh, and title your mail request properly. “Paper request” or “PDF request” is of no use (and if you are asking about fish, I can save myself the problem of even opening the e-mail). Write “PDF of Smith 2008 on hadrosaurs” will help enormously.

    Timely rant Mike. Now stick this on the Vert Pal list!

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dave Hone wrote:

    Oh, and title your mail request properly. “Paper request” or “PDF request” is of no use (and if you are asking about fish, I can save myself the problem of even opening the e-mail). Write “PDF of Smith 2008 on hadrosaurs” will help enormously.

    Thanks, Dave — meant to mention that and forgot. Article amended accordingly.

  4. Mark Wildman Says:

    Good post Mike. I have asked for a few PDF’s now and then but I wouldn’t think of myself as a serial requester. But your point about not bothering the author for fear of getting the brush off or wasting their time etc is valid and is a bit of a mental stumbling block that you only need to overcome once or twice and then you help avoid clogging up the vertpaleo listings!

  5. Rob Taylor Says:

    Indeed, these methods have always worked exceedingly well for me, and Dave’s suggestion to email someone who has publicly requested a paper (rather than exacerbating the problem with another “me too” message) is another tactic that invariably works.

    As an amateur, I’ll generally try Step 3 (ask a friend) ahead of Step 2 (ask an author). Most of my friends being fellow enthusiasts, I feel less reluctant to ask a little of their time than I do that of a working professional. That said (and just as Mike suggested), I’ve struck up some wonderful correspondences with authors as a direct result of emailing the occasional PDF request, so quite likely I’m cutting myself out of some potentially great experiences by tackling things in that order!

    I think most importantly, Step 1 needs to be executed… well, as Step 1. It’s surprising how often the papers folks request can be found to be freely available online. As an added tip, whenever I’m hunting for a file, I’ve noted that including ‘PDF’ in my search string along with the article title generally cuts right to the chase, and brings the most promising links bubbling to the surface.

    Excellent post!

  6. William Miller Says:

    I like the ‘Journal of Small Boring Fossils’.

  7. 220mya Says:

    Hmmm…I thought “how to become a palaeontologist” was Tutorial n+1

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hmmm…I thought “how to become a palaeontologist” was Tutorial n+1

    No, it’s going to be tutorial n. But for a value of n one greater than you thought.

  9. Paul Barrett Says:

    Where do I find the Journal of Small Boring Fossils? Sounds like it might be useful for me (unless it’s mainly aimed at workers on marine molluscs).

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Paul, you’re at least 50% a sauropod worker — you should be reading the sister publication, Journal of Big Exciting Fossils.

  11. ech Says:

    google trick: search for [Sauroposeidon filetype:pdf] (without the braces).

  12. Jamie Stearns Says:

    To be completely honest, though, how likely is it that anyone would try to get published in a journal calling itself the Journal of Small Boring Fossils?

  13. Jordan Says:

    Amen, Mike.


  14. [...] 12, 2010 Last time around, I referred in passing, rather flippantly, to what I called Tutorial n: how to become a [...]


  15. If I need a paper I ask on Twitter and I get a PDF in my Inbox withing seconds.

    There is a room/group on FriendFeed specifically for this: “Reference Needed”.

    I guess one can use Facebook the same way.

    If one is on a science blogging network, there will be backforum with likely already has a “papers needed” thread.

    I think that a number of reference managers and science social networks (CiteULike, Nature Network, Mendeley, etc.) have capabilities for asking people for copies.

    If none of these methods worked, I would go to your Method #1 and so on….

  16. Amy Says:

    About your interlibrary loan comment…

    At least in the US, nearly everyone has access to a public library, which provide interlibrary loan privileges for patrons. Using ILL gets around all those copyright issues you blithely ignored.

    Most publishers ignore the passing around of PDFs, but this is not always the case

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Amy, interesting about public libraries doing ILL in the US. I’d always assumed that wasn’t an option, at least here in Britain, but now that I come to think of it, I’ve never tried it — because, of course, I didn’t realise it was an option.

    “Most publishers ignore the passing around of PDFs, but this is not always the case.” — Really? I’ve never heard of a case of a publisher stamping down on this, but if you know of one I’d like to hear about it. (Not least, so that I can ensure I never send any of my work to any of that publisher’s journals, and make every effort to persuade my colleagues not to, either.)

  18. Darren Naish Says:

    You can indeed go into any public library in the UK and use ILL – I used to do it regularly.


  19. [...] Tutorial 9: how to get copies of academic papers [...]

  20. Andy Farke Says:

    @Mike – re: publishers tracking down “illicit” sharing of articles, I think they’ve just been waiting for technology to catch up. See this and this for how one academic publisher (thankfully, not one in our corner of the sciences) is making moves in that very direction.

  21. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hey, Andy. That’s not good news, but I’m not sure it directly affects authors’ making their own stuff freely available. The barrier that prevents publishers from cracking down on that is not technical, it’s social: any publisher with a hint of rationality knows that when it starts going after its own authors for copyright violation, it will instantly stop having authors.

  22. Andy Farke Says:

    I suspect it will affect authors, unfortunately, particularly for journals (e.g., JVP) that explicitly don’t allow workers to post their own papers without a fee. I would like to think that social barriers are insurmountable for this kind of clownery, but then I remember some of the statements I’ve read coming forth from publishers and professional societies who should know better.


  23. On Twitter, the way to get a paper is to use the hashtag #icanhazpdf (which everyone with access should save as search and check regularly).

  24. Luke Lea Says:

    If his academic affiliation is given, Google the name of the University and Department and the word “faculty” — you usually get a profile with email address.

  25. A. Librarian Says:

    Hello! Ask your librarian! You may be able to get it right away.


  26. [...] network-mate Southern Fried Scientist offers some tips on requesting papers from their authors. A similar guide here has further [...]


  27. [...] times to the early 20th century. If you’d like a copy and can’t get hold of one any other way, let me know and I’ll hook you [...]


  28. [...] and the unfortunates who actually pony up $30 per article online (because they haven’t read Tutorial 9, don’t have a public library nearby for ILL, or absolutely must have the PDF right this [...]


  29. [...] of doom that hang below the centrum of every post-axial Apatosaurus cervical (see these posts [#1, #2, #3] for some crazy examples, and this post for more pictures and discussion). The giant cervical [...]

  30. anonymous Says:

    What can I do if I can´t even find an E-mail adress or any page where the paper could be, and If I´m not in any community where someone might have the paper?
    I´m currently searching for three papers, which I all can´t find any page about to even see a Mail adress or something on:

    Chure(2000), A new species of Allosaurus from the Morrison Formation of Dinosaur National Monument (Utah-Colorado) and a revision of the theropod family Allosauridae
    Chure(1995), A reassessment of the gigantic theropod Saurophagus maximus from the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) of Oklahoma, USA
    Coria & Salgado(1994), A giant theropod from the middle Cretaceous of Patagonia, Argentina

    Somehow I´m feelign embarrassed that I can´t find such papers that are cited relatively often. Can someone help me? What mistake am I making?

  31. Mike Taylor Says:

    Here’s how I searched for the first one on your list. First, I googled for the title. On the first page of hits was an article by Brian Switek, who’s a good reliable writer. Looking at his article, the reference list at the end showed that Chure (2000) is a Ph.D dissertation, which makes it much harder to find — there is no journal web-site to start from.

    So I went back to the google results and went to the first hit, the Wikipedia page on Allosaurus species. That page’s reference for the dissertation gives the author’s full name, Daniel J. Chure. So I googled for “daniel j. chure” email. The fourth hit is The first definitive carcharodontosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda)from Asia and the delayed ascent of tyrannosaurids, a paper that Chure co-wrote. It gives a postal address for Chure, so you could write to him; and it gives an email address for the lead author, Steve Brusatte, who you could email asking for Chure’s email address.

    I’m sure you can figure out ways to dig these things out.


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