A couple of tips when requesting papers

As search algorithms are getting better and better, some scientific papers are getting more difficult to access. Journal subscriptions are expensive and many institutions are foregoing all but the highest impact journals. For those working outside of academia, only open access journals are a viable option. I’m fortunate that my university subscribes to most scientific journals, which means that many of my colleagues will drop me an e-mail, tweet, or phone call along the lines of “Hey, I don’t have access to this article. Can you send me a copy?”

The answer is, without hesitation, always yes. Science can only progress when we have access to the literature. At this point, I’m fielding 4 or 5 paper requests per week, and I imagine many other scientists are doing the same. Most of the time the requests are simple and straight forward. Sometimes they’re so cryptic that it takes another round of e-mails before I even know it’s a paper request. I thought it would be helpful to compile a short list of advice for how to make it all just a little easier.

1. If you’re generally asking a bunch of people, send a tweet. If you’re specifically asking me, send an e-mail. Don’t make the subject line the title of the paper and then not reference it in the text. Make the subject line something obvious like “request for a paper”. Give me enough information to go on. Asking for “James and Smith 2010” doesn’t really give me enough info to  track it down. For that matter:

2. Don’t make me track it down. Even if you don’t have access to the full text, you can usually get to the abstract. Giving me a link straight to that page means that I’ll get the right paper to you with the least amount of effort. Clicking a link, and then attaching a .pdf to an e-mail takes 20 seconds out of my life. Searching for an obscure article in a specialist journal can take longer.

3. If you’ve spent hours searching the internet for an article from 1962 with no luck, please let me know that when you ask if I can get it. That way I know to go down to the library first, instead of repeating the same epic search.

4. Keep it simple. Yes, I love to catch up with my friends and colleagues, but I usually save all my personal e-mails for when I get home, which means I won’t have access to my university’s library. So, “Hey Andrew, can you send me this paper (link to paper)? Thanks ~Joe Everygrad” will get a much faster response. You want a paper, I want you to get that paper, and we both want to go back to work.

And that’s it. Just be clear, give me a link, let me know if it’s going to be hard to find, and keep the request simple.

There’s a second type of paper requests that I get less frequently, but always encourage. If you’re a student or someone interested in a specific topic but not necessarily working in the sciences, and you’re having trouble trying to find the right resources, don’t be afraid to ask for some recommendations. Send me an e-mail describing what you’re interested in and if it’s something I have some background in, I’ll be more than happy to point you to a few good papers in that field.

UPDATE: Please check out this article – How to get copies of academic papers – for more advice on how to find journal articles.


  1. Alan Dove · February 2, 2011

    Another tip: consider sending an email directly to the paper’s authors. There’s often an email address listed right in the “author information” on the abstract, and if there’s not it’s seldom more than a few seconds’ work to track them down via Google. Most researchers are thrilled to learn that someone is actually interested in their papers, and they tend to respond to these requests pretty quickly.

    As a side benefit, this can also expand your circle of contacts in your field.

  2. John Carroll · February 3, 2011

    I often use the Inter-Library Loan system. I request electronic copies (both because its more green and because then I get a .pdf I can attach to my EndNote library and take with me anywhere). Another thing I do is first, look up the author, as sometimes their papers are linked to their websites. If I can’t gain access that way, I email the authors – and I have been more than happy to oblige when someone contacted me for one of my manuscripts. We’ve come a long way from mailing business card requests for reprints!

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