Cutting through the paywall. Science Journalist’s field guide to accessing scholarly literature

In June, we published a survey for science journalists to learn about their experiences accessing scholarly literature and their thoughts on how to improve communication between scholars and journalists. One of our respondents, Martina Lenzen-Schulte, was kind enough to share her experiences in a blog post. Below she provides a lot of useful tips that can help other journalists, especially beginners in the field, do their job more efficiently, and will let researchers better understand specifics of the science journalist’s work.

trabant-rotFull-text access to scientific papers is an indispensable prerequisite for science journalism. Having worked as a freelance medical journalist, and now as an associate managing editor responsible for online medical news on, I have been reporting on new scientific research for almost 25 years. Hardly ever – I can count the cases on my fingers – could I not get the full text of the paper I needed. However, access often costs lots of time, effort and dedication. In this post, I will share a handful of tips on how to deal with the paywalls that are so prevalent in the academic world and how to quickly collect all the background information you need to deliver your next great piece on time.

Most often, my research starts with a paper just published or still under embargo. These papers are distributed to journalists for free by publishers willing to get media coverage, so you can access them in full-text if you are subscribed to the publisher’s distribution list. Real problems begin when you need access to related papers on the same topic, published a while ago, possibly in other journals or by other publishers. Journalists rarely have access to the full range of scientific journals in a given field, nor are they generally able to buy individual articles on their own, so they have to use other means of getting the full text.

My search for related literature usually starts with bibliographical databases: PubMed, or its German counterpart, MedPilot, which both provide abstracts of published medical literature. The email address of the lead or senior author often accompanies the abstract, and a kind request to the authors for the full article is usually rewarded. You might even ask them some questions and seek their expert opinions concerning the research being covered, which will simultaneously provide you with individual comments for your article. Also, you may directly ask for PDFs of important articles in the field. Most of the time, researchers are glad to hear that a journalist is willing to discuss the problem with them and learn more about it, and they will be happy to send you a number of publications published by their own group, as well as by other researchers in the field.

If the abstract from a bibliographical database does not contain an email address, it at least names the institution where the authors work, so usually you will be able to find the authors’ contact data on the website of their institution.

This approach is successful in many cases, but if it fails, and you still don’t have access to some important papers, you can take another route and contact the publisher’s press office. Many publishers are well aware of the fact that media coverage helps build reputation for their outlets, and they will usually grant access to selected articles if only you ask them to do so. If you are lucky, some publishers will even grant you permanent access to the journal if they see the opportunity to be cited more often in popular newspapers or other media. Make sure you have the e-mail addresses of main publishers in your contacts; this way you will be able to send a request and get access quickly whenever such a need arises.

This brings me to another key rule: you should always cite the articles you use. This is not only fair for your readers, but also indicates quality journalism and helps you build long-term relationships with publishers and experts who will acknowledge your role in popularizing their publications when, after coverage in media, you send your piece to the publisher’s press office or to the expert who authored the original paper. You do not need to employ formal citation rules as used in scientific literature. Instead, you can stick to a simpler reduced form. I usually cite the name of the journal, the year, the volume and the pages. This information is sufficient for the readers to find the publication if they wish to do so. The title is not needed, nor is the author name, because you will mention the author’s name, position and affiliation within the main part of your article.

Some publishers are reluctant, though, and don’t want to grant journalists open access to their journals. I am not keen to name my personal “blacklist”, yet I would like to point to some publishers that provide perfect assistance in case you are searching for full texts. Very important for medical journalists are the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the related journals of the publishing group, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), to name just a few. Their press offices never ignore a kind request; they reply quickly and fully understand that journalists are in a hurry. These are medical journals covering general topics. As for journals that focus on a specific field of medicine, I recommend, for example, checking the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), just to get an impression as to how excellent cooperation with the press office of a single publication can be. I would also like to mention Wiley as extremely open towards journalists’ requests – it provides support whenever needed.

Well, there are weekends, when the article needs to be ready on Monday morning. The expert you want to talk to is on holidays and doesn’t reply to emails (although always give it a try – many scientists are online even on a Saturday night). The press officers are not in charge… you’re stuck. A close friend of yours with access to a well-stocked university library could be of help, but friends should not be bothered with job problems too often. In such a case, there is a last resort – namely, the author’s institutional website. Many institutions share their research online, and if you go to the publication list of the department, you may be astonished at how many articles open up in full on their publication list. Also, many scientists set up their own homepages and make their key publications, if not all of them, accessible there in full-text. In many cases you will find what you need, even on a sunny Sunday with a couple of clicks around the institutional website.

The above strategies will let you gain access to 95 percent of the articles you are looking for; at least that has been my experience throughout 25 years of work as a science journalist.

When I started my work as a journalist, the world was different; I was writing articles on a typewriter and sending printouts via traditional mail to the newspaper. Right from the beginning, I used to record addresses and phone numbers of every expert I talked to during article preparation, and I always sent them copies of my articles after they were published. Does this sound like an immense additional workload? Maybe, but this extra effort pays off. Building your own network of experts means not only can you reach out to them at any time and ask for opinions or literature, but also that the expert will appreciate the feedback, pass on your name to colleagues and phone you before coming out with a new major paper. The publisher’s press team may decide that you are the ideal person to coach scholars for media relationships and will hire you to do such training… In any case, for a journalist, building a personal network is key to success.

Martina Lenzen-Schulte

(photo by Steffi Reichert, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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