Getting blocked by a paywall can be irritating, especially if you're trying to access peer-reviewed scientific research. Open access advocates would certainly think so. To paraphrase Richard from HBO's "Silicon Valley," who doesn't want free information? Well, there may now be a way to get scientific publications for free — and it's completely legal.
Open-source nonprofit Impactstory, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has developed a web browser plug-in called Unpaywall, and as the name suggests, it's a way to get through to paywalled research papers for free.
"Now more than ever, humanity needs to access our collective knowledge, not hoard it behind paywalls," according to Unpaywall's website. "Lots of researchers feel the same; that's why they upload their papers to free, legal servers online. We want to help bring that open access content to the masses."
Unlike similar services that rely on means like automated web scraping, Unpaywall's method of getting full-text access to scientific journals is totally legal. It scans a database of more than 90 million digital object identifiers (DOIs) for copies of papers that the researchers themselves have uploaded, whether on some pre-press servers or university websites. Unpaywall is also completely secure, as it doesn't ask you for any personal information.
Best of all, to use the service, you just need to install the plug-in on your Chrome or Firefox desktop browser. A little lock symbol will appear every time you visit a journal article's landing page. If the lock is green, you have access to a full-text copy of the article. A gold lock means an article already has open license access from the publisher.
"We’re able to deliver an OA copy to users more than half the time," Jason Priem, one of Unpaywall's creators, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. He's excited for the service to hit critical mass: "That’s when people start thinking, 'Hey, why are we paying millions of dollars to subscribe to tens of thousands of journals when our researchers have about a better-than-even chance of reading an article with no subscription at all?'"
A service like Unpaywall's can help fight the flood of fake news or unverified information. It's a fact-checking tool that's readily accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the appropriate web browsers. Truly, the only thing worse than no information might just be information that's false.