Unpaywall: The Browser Add-on That Finds (Legal) Free Copies Of Academic Papers You See As You Browse The Web

Techdirt has just written about ResearchGate, which claims to offer access to 100 million academic papers. However, as we wrote, there’s an issue about whether a significant proportion of those articles are in fact unauthorized copies, for example uploaded by the authors but in contravention of the agreement they signed with publishers. The same legal issues plague the well-known Sci-Hub site, which may deter some from using it. But as further evidence of how the demand for access to millions of academic papers still locked away is driving technical innovation, there’s a new option, called Unpaywall, which is available as a pre-release add-on for Chrome (Firefox is promised later), and is free. It aims to provide access to every paper that’s freely available to read in an authorized version. Here’s how it works:

Millions of researchers are currently uploading their own fulltext PDFs to preprint servers and institutional repositories worldwide, making them free for anyone to read. But there was no easy way to find them as we browsed. So we made one! Eventually, we hope tools like Unpaywall will nurture the transition to fully open access scholarly publishing, by closing the gap between readers and freely-available fulltext.

We gather content from thousands of open-access repositories worldwide. To help us, we rely on some fantastic open data services, especially PubMed Central, the DOAJ, Crossref (particulary their license info), DataCite, and BASE. After we put all this data together, we in turn make it open for reuse via the oaDOI API: a free, fast, and very scalable way to leverage our data and infrastructure to support your own projects.

Once the add-on has been installed, it is easy to use. When you come across an academic paper of interest as you browse the Web, you go to its home page, usually on a publisher’s site. A small icon on the right-hand side of the browser indicates whether the full text is freely available somewhere in an authorized version. If it is, you just click on the icon, and it appears in your browser. The team behind Unpaywall claims that its system manages to find free authorized versions of articles for about half the requests made to it. Unpaywall does the right things when it comes to privacy — it doesn’t ask for, track or store any personal information — and it’s also open source, so you can inspect its code and adapt it for your own projects.

In that and other respects, Unpaywall is like the Open Access Button, which has been around since 2013. The Open Access Button offers some other important features. For example, if the service is unable to locate a freely-available, authorized, full-text version of an article, it will contact the author on your behalf, and ask for a copy (obviously, you need to provide your email address for this):

We’re tired of requests for research, especially data, going unanswered. Instead we’re designing a transparent and effective request system to help make more research accessible. If we are unable to get you access, you can create a request quickly with the Open Access Button. We’ll contact the author on your behalf and others can support your request. By holding researchers accountable for sharing their research articles and data, and providing them pathways to share their research, we will make more research legally and freely available.

You can also access the underlying data, when it exists, and request it if it has not been released. That’s an increasingly important aspect, since it allows researchers to verify results and to build on existing work.

Projects like Unpaywall and the Open Access Button are good examples of continuing efforts to liberate all the knowledge contained in academic research papers, much of which is still locked away behind paywalls charging outrageously expensive fees. Until everything is released as open access, they will remain valuable and necessary tools.

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Author: Glyn Moody

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