Recently, a new tool has come out, from the makers of OADOI and ImpactStory, that allows users to ‘jump the paywall’ and access research articles for free. It’s called Unpaywall, and it works by using information contained within papers, such as its DOI, to find legally archived versions of papers (of which there are multiple usually, like pre-peer review, post-peer review but pre-typesetting etc.) from across the Web, and deliver them straight to you. The interface is fairly simple, as it exists on pretty much any webpage that links to a research paper, with a colour code letting you know whether a version is available for free or not. Click away and you’re done, simples.
It leverages what is known as ‘green open access’, or self-archiving, something which is becoming way more common as some research funders mandate it as part of an OA policy, and as we move generally as a research culture from being closed and selfish (for whatever reason) to one of open sharing.
Now, as you might expect, Unpaywall got a lot of nice media coverage, as it’s a fairly disruptive technology. But a lot of the coverage was fairly superficial to me, and didn’t explore the wider implications of Unpaywall within the current system of research culture and scholarly communications. So here’s a few things that I think are worth considering a bit further (still work in progress in my head too atm).
It’s legal and risk-free
“We think Unpaywall offers a more sustainable approach by working within copyright law and supporting the growing open access movement.” (source) Couldn’t agree more. This is important as other sites like SciHub, which has around 60 million research articles, are not exactly legal (in many countries) due to the fact that they host paywalled content rather than free versions of it. They also detract from the need for researchers doing OA in a sustainable manner though self-archiving, which is itself a legal, sustainable, and risk-free approach to making all of your work OA for free.
It encourages a shift in research culture
Related to the last point above, Unpaywall only works because researchers self-archive their work. At some point, a threshold must be met, whereby so much content is available for free now, that there is no need to pay for subscriptions any more, and library (and individual) budgets become available for more useful things. But to achieve this, researchers actually have to continue to archive their work. And not just future research, but historically published content where available too. This is part of an evolving research culture and academia, whereby sharing and transparency are becoming the norm over traditional ‘closed’ practices. This means that we as a collective have to do more to understand things like journal/funder policies, what embargoes are and why they exist, versioning of articles and production processes, licensing and copyright, the ‘why bother’ of Open Access, and the impact this will all have. Self-archiving your work should become as natural a part of the research process as email, Dropbox, making a coffee, and all the other simple things we do, because it really is that simple.While Unpaywall does leverage platforms like Academia.edu and ResearchGate, an option which can be turned off, due to the questionable legality of many articles on these platforms we might see more researchers choosing institutional repositories or preprint archives instead. As these things become better maintained and more common, I think we’ll see growth away from these platforms and towards integrated ‘green’ OA instead.
It’s free and easy to use for anyone
Publishing OA still can cost a lot money, depending on the journal you choose and your funding options. Self-archiving is always free for users, and often far easier than navigating nightmarish journal submission platforms. Unpaywall is free, installed into your browser at a click, and activated for individual articles with another. Simplicity leads to popularity, and it is way, way, WAY easier than having to be at a place with institutional access, using a VPN, emailing authors, using inter-library loan, and all the other work arounds we have for our broken scholarly publishing system.Anything which is saving researchers time and money is a good thing.
It’s integrated into existing infrastructure
Unpaywall leverages the power of existing platforms as data sources, including PubMed Central, the DOAJ,Crossref, DataCite,Google Scholar, and BASE. It makes all of the magic it does with this available for anyone via their OADOI API, which is awesome. As someone who uses (and works for) ScienceOpen, it also works really well for that, across 30 million article records (and growing), providing in my mind a really awesome alternative to things like Google Scholar.
The Open Access Button is another awesome piece of community-led technology that allows users to request OA versions of papers directly from the authors themselves. It too exists as a browser plugin, and could (and seems probably will be) extended to use with Unpaywall so that if it can’t find an OA version of a paper, OA Button automatically requests it for you. How awesome would that be?