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.