If you've ever had to get your hands on academic research but couldn't afford to pay $40-$70+ per research study, this post is for you.
In my past life, I was a freelance health and fitness writer, and I often needed to get my hands on academic studies that were mentioned to me in interviews or that were cited in articles, because I wanted to make sure they said what I thought they said. And sometimes—especially as a ghostwriter—I had hours, not days to do this. What follows are some tricks I picked up along the way.
I put this in the order I would do these steps in—it was always easiest for me to look online at home, and if that failed, then I'd go to the library. Obviously, email is situational. An academic (or a media contact) might respond to your email right away, or they might send you the paper weeks past your deadline (and after you've already found it elsewhere). It might make sense to skip to part three and send the email in hopes of getting a response while going through the other steps. Eventually, you may have specific people you can reach out to regularly, and hopefully they'll have access to the journals that you seek. Until then, hopefully one of these tricks will help you get what you need!
Search on Academia.edu through the search bar, or at https://www.academia.edu/Directory/Papers, or use Google by searching for the paper title in quotes + site:academia.edu. Academia.edu is a social networking website for academics that began as a free and open repository of academic journal articles.
Try the Bypass Paywalls extension for Firefox and Chrome, though it looks like it may not have been updated in a while.
Search on Google for the title of the article in quotes + filetype:PDF.
Look for it on Google Scholar. If there's a free copy up anywhere online, it'll probably be in here.
Use the #icanhazPDF hashtag on Twitter along with your email address and a link to the study to get strangers to send it to you. If you opt for this option, make sure to delete your tweet after you get the study, and not to thank the person who sent it publicly without their consent—not everyone wants to be outed for 😳illicitly sharing studies😳.
Look up the study on Library Genesis (aka Lib Gen). This aggregator aims to collect and catalog descriptions of scientific and technical studies, along with links to publicly available third-party resources hosted by users.
Ask for help on Reddit’s Scholar subreddit, specifically for requesting and sharing articles that are available in various databases.
Look up the study on Sci-Hub, which has the stated goal of prodiving free and unrestricted access to all scientific knowledge ever published in journal or book form. Note that this URL may change.
Try the Unpaywall extension for Firefox and Chrome. Unpaywall is an open database of millions of free scholarly articles that harvests open access content from over 50,000 publishers and repositories. (The org behind this also makes Get the Research, an academic search engine for people outside of academia.)
Ask your research librarian to look it up for you. For medical studies, go to the medical school library. The public library has some subscriptions and can sometimes order copies at a fraction of the cost. Try Resource Sharing or inter-library loan. (I highly recommend bringing cookies or fresh fruit off your citrus trees or whatever your regional equivalent is to your favorite research librarians.) Sitting faculty at a school with an online library can also sometimes help.
Sometimes you can walk into the university, college, or public library and get on their network for direct download.
You can also ask your favorite grad school student (or Slack/Discord full of grad school students) with library access to send it to you.
There are also some professional organizations that provide journal and database access as a member benefit. For example, the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) has a membership (usually $60/year, though students can join for $30/year), which includes access to many journals and databases, though some journals require an individual review before access is granted. (This might be tricky if you're a freelancer or a ghostwriter.)
ASKING OVER EMAIL
Email the study authors or sponsoring organization directly asking for a copy. (First, make sure it's not already on their website.)
Ask for media access. University PR folks can sometimes help.
If all else fails, and you're looking for the studies for work-related research, it's possible your employer will cover the download fee as an expense, though you'll probably have to pay for it upfront and wait for reimbursement 30 days after your story publishes.
Good luck, and happy hunting!