5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money)

Matthew Hughes 23-11-2013

Have you ever read an academic journal? They’re where scientists and scholars publish all the interesting research that they’ve been working on. Sadly, for a lot of people academic journals are hard to get hold of. Firstly, they’re stunningly expensive. A year’s subscription to the Journal of Co-Ordination Chemistry costs slightly less than a new car, whilst a year’s supply of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta costs an eye-watering $20,000. This means that your university library might not have the article you desperately need for your dissertation.


However, where there’s a will there is indeed a way. With a bit of determination, you can get your hands on any academic journals you want. Here’s how.


Twitter seems like an unlikely place to get your hands on academic research papers. After all, it’s best used for moaning and groaning about life’s woes, following your favorite technology journalists and talking about what you had for breakfast, right? Wrong.


icanhazpdf is a hashtag used by stressed out students looking for hard-to-get papers and journals. The premise is simple. You post a tweet naming the article you’re looking for, and someone will (hopefully) reply with a PDF of it.

It’s a fairly active community of people sharing (and flagrantly breaching copyright law). With that said, your mileage will vary, as people may not have the exact paper you’re looking for.


Microsoft Academic Search

Microsoft Academic Search (MAS) once was known by the name of Live Search Academic. Think of it as Bing for scholarly literature, but with a number of  helpful features that will bring a smile to stressed out students throughout the world.

I should confess that I’m a big fan of Microsoft’s offering. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, they allow you to refine searches based upon the subject. As a programmer, if I’m writing a paper about Python, I want to only get results back about computers, not serpents.


In addition, MAS makes it easy to reference articles. For each search result, it gives you the date of publications, the author, and other important information you need to do Harvard referencing.


There are other little things that make Microsoft Academic Search awesome. For each paper, it tells you how many times it has been cited, making it easy to find reliable, authoritative works. All in all, MAS feels like the most mature publicly accessible academic search engine on the market right now.

Google Scholar

You may have used Google Scholar in the past. It’s one of Mountain View’s older services, knocking about since 2006. It was initially conceived as a pretender to Microsoft’s Academic Search’s throne, and now enjoys a level of popularity that Redmond’s offering lacks.


Like Microsoft Academic Search, it counts the number of times a paper has been cited in other academic literature. This makes it so much easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, it’s not as easy to refine searches based upon field.


The latest update enables you to save articles from the search page in a personal “library”, organize them by topic, and search full-text within your library to find what you are looking for.

I found that when comparing searches of the same query, Google Scholar was far more consistent in returning abstracts of papers compared to Microsoft Academic Search. However, it remains to be seen if this makes up for its lack of features compared to MAS.


CiteSeer is yet another academic search engine. Why would you need another, when you have two perfectly good ones backed by two incredibly large technology companies? Well, this one is the oldest one knocking about, having been conceived in 1998.



Whilst I found that the quality of results returned weren’t as good as those produced by Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search, it makes up with with a huge database of papers to search from. It currently boasts almost 2 million documents. However, it’s important to stress that CiteSeer places an emphasis on articles and papers about computer science and information technology. Keep this in mind when you’re researching a paper 6 Top Reference Sites to Write a Winning Research Paper Read More for your chemistry final project!

Email The Author

So, you know the article you’re looking for. You even know the author’s name! However, you’ve not had any luck with #icanhazpdf, and searches on Google Scholar have proven fruitless. You could always send a polite email 10 Email Tips for Dealing With Angry, Trollish, or Rude Emails It's incredibly frustrating to check your email inbox only to find a completely hateful message. Why in the world do people act like this? With that said, you should learn how to defend yourself while... Read More to the author of the paper and ask for a copy of the paper.

When doing this, it’s important to remember that the authors have no obligation to help you. Be polite, but keep it short. They don’t have a huge amount of time to read every email that drops in their inbox. If they say no, accept it. If they don’t get back to you in a timely manner, don’t bombard them with emails. That’s just rude.

Getting the contact details of academics is usually quite easy. You can usually find their email addresses on the web pages of the universities to which they are affiliated. As always, Google is your friend.


Have you found any other handy tips for getting your hands on expensive academic papers? Do you think academic papers should be free (or at least affordable for students on tight budgets)? Let me know in the comments!

Image Credit: ideonexus

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  1. Guest
    January 24, 2014 at 3:22 am

    $20K for a bunch of snooty term papers is ridiculous. So's $200 for a textbook you probably won't even use or never will again. Yet Aaron Swartz was sentenced to twice the minimum for murder for attempting to release this information into the wild and set it free. He ended up committing suicide rather than take it up the ass from Eric Holder and Uncle $cam. It's high time society -- especially uber-capitalist Western society (but also the burgeoning quasi-capitalist markets in Asia) stop putting a price on content and knowledge and just open the floodgates already. Make everything open access and stop the war on "piracy." It's just as wrong and just as much a failure as the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" have been.

  2. Ted MV
    December 9, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Hello, Matthew,
    Thanks for the sources you cited in your article. I believe that scholarly works should be open to all.
    Emma Cooper's contribution was new and welcome for me. The reddit site also mentioned
    1. Directory of Open Access Journals (;
    2. List of open-access journals (; and
    3. Public Library of Science (
    I've also come across [Broken URL Removed]. I hope these sites will also be helpful.

  3. Kevin Law
    November 27, 2013 at 6:25 pm is another option. I've had varying results with this source.

    • Matthew H
      November 29, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      I didn't know about that site. Cheers man.

  4. Jim Nichols
    November 25, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    If you have access to interlibrary loan at a college or university library--your request for an article may already be getting routed through MAS, G Scholar and CiteSeerX if a copy is not available from libraries.

    • Matthew H
      November 29, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      I did not know that. That's really handy to know. Cheers!

  5. Harika
    November 25, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Thank you for this article, Mathew!

    • Matthew H
      November 29, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      My pleasure! Glad you liked it!

  6. Tina S
    November 24, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    For those who graduated from an academic institution, see whether your Alma Mater offers VPN access to campus Internet and alumni accounts. That way you can legally access all the academic journals the school has access to and download papers.

    • Matthew H
      November 29, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      That's cool! Thanks Tina. Sadly, my school has a pretty woeful range of papers. That's why I wrote this article. :)

  7. Emma Cooper
    November 24, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks for the ideas :)

    I was pointed in the direction of Reddit scholar recently, although I have yet to try it myself:

    • Matthew H
      November 29, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      Ooooh, awesome. I didn't know about /r/Scholar. There's a subreddit for everything, eh?

  8. Bernard
    November 23, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Great resource, thank you. There is a new way that just launched:

    • Matthew H
      November 24, 2013 at 7:42 am

      Good to know Bernard! Cheers!