Finding Your Stephen King and Your Way Around the Paywalls when the Academic Library is Out of Reach

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A few months ago I was invited to speak to the #PhDchatUCC group in University College Cork about my experience of finishing a PhD and what comes next. I focused mainly on time management and self-care because I really believe that these issues need to be brought into sharper focus. Having heard many junior and senior academics dole out destructive advice encouraging the cannibalization of one’s time and energy and to commit 200% and more to a project rather than encourage a balanced lifestyle that gives appropriate time and energy to research, teaching and personal time I emphatically extol the virtues of (brace yourself) a regular day off, and (hold onto to your hat) having a hobby that you can turn to regularly to relax and escape from the pressures of a PhD. I finished

Bookshelf filled with Stephen King books
The Stephen King Shrine. Source: My Own Photo

my thesis on time and it was passed with no amendments and I took regular days off and enjoyed all my hobbies as normal, so I think there might be something to my advice! I also worked several jobs, sometimes all at once during this time, so it is doable while living a balanced life that involves being kind to yourself.

I hear PhD students and ECRs echo the destructive statements of colleagues and mentors regularly, often even seeming to puff up with pride when recounting how little time they actually have for anything at all outside of academia. How miserable and exhausting your time as a researcher has become is worn like a badge of pride. I find this disturbing and also not surprising given the numerous studies and articles that have been published about the worrying mental health statistics associated with academia. I puff up with pride when I announce what Stephen King or John Grisham book I’m taking to bed tonight (The Drawing of the Three). 😉 I even brought a copy of my favourite King novel along to #PhDChat as a prop, maniacally waving it around and announcing “Find your Stephen King!”

Anyway, the discussion was productive, but I didn’t actually get time to talk about the other major issue that was on my mind: the challenges of being in that liminal zone post PhD where you may end up with contracts here and there, and little or no library access. This is a major issue given the rate at which universities are churning out PhD graduates in an environment that is not exactly teeming with secure job opportunities. Therefore, the stress levels do not exactly stabilise post-PhD when most are floundering in a sea of endless job applications, precarious employment, and the constant pressure to churn out quality research. How do you keep up with research when you may be locked out of the library when you are in-between contracts or simply not granted access for whatever reason?

There are many open access resources that can offer some of the same benefits as having access to a decent academic library. I’ll list out some of my favourite sites and methods here:

Get an Internet Archive Library Card:

It’s free, easy to set up, and gives you access to millions of books, audio, video, software, and image files. Some of these are fully accessible and some need to be borrowed. Just like in any other library you can place an item on hold

Header of the Internet Archive website. Click for a link to the Internet Archive Website
Screenshot of the Internet Archive Header.

if another user has borrowed it. If you have not accessed books on Internet Archive before, it has a really nice interface. The pages actually turn!  You can download in a variety of file formats. The Internet Archive also uses DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem), a technical standard to make text available to users with print disabilities such as visual impairment, dyslexia, etc. The Internet Archive collection is vast and supported by many libraries, archives and research institutes. The collection grows daily and therefore it’s a very rich, valuable, useful and open resource for researchers, teachers, students and the general public.

Use Wikimedia:

Yes, many will say that I am like a broken record as I continue to push Wikipedia as a research and teaching resource. But I have no plans to become less evangelical about Wikimedia any time soon. Wikipedia is the most used branch of this awesome resource, but Wikidata, Wikibooks, Wikinews and Wikimedia Commons, etc are all worth your time. Behind any given Wikipedia page is a group of experts who have committed time and thought to expanding and improving the information available. While citing a Wikipedia page directly is difficult due to the ever-present potential for change to the text and/or nature of the information available, the bibliographies and lists of external resources are often a treasure trove of research goodies. Moreover, the Talk Pages are an essential part of your visits to Wikipedia pages. These will immerse you in the intellectual debates behind each page, and introduce you to the users who actively research, write and edit. These can be enlightening and introduce you to arguments and theories related to your research interests that you may not have been aware of. Thus, not only can you explore these, often unexplored, debates, but you can connect with other people who may be researching a similar topic to you, and interested in conversing with you further. Moreover you could even sign up and join forces with these folks and do some editing. You might even join your national working group or charter to get more involved in the Wikimedia Community.

Install the Unpaywall button:

When you install the Unpaywall button you get a little tab that will alert you to whether a paper you are interested in is available for free or not. This can cut down the frustrating minutes and hours of wading through page after page of paywalled frustration.

Meme of a man looking confused with the text, "What id I Get Published in 'Nature' But I Don't have the subscription to Research My Own Paper?"Install the Open Access button:

The Open Access button is the “are we there yet?” of the closed-off world of paywalled research. You can search for papers using titles, URLs,  DOIs, etc, and if the software cannot return a n OA paper, it will put in a request to the paywallers to make it accessible by highlighting demand.

Ask the author:

I took part in a research project called 30 Days for Science last year. The aim was to gather data on how challenging it is to access paywalled research. One of the steps we had to take during data capture was to email authors directly to ask for a copy of their paper if an OA one was not available. Every single author I contacted responded within 24 hours with the requested paper attached. Many wanted to know more about my research and invited me to keep in contact with them about it. The majority of researchers do actually want their research read. It’s not the kinds of publications that are broken, but the parasitic business minds behind them that push scholars into publishing with journals and publishers that do not have open, ethical and diverse dissemination methods at the heart of their organisations.

Use your public libraries:

They may not have the variety of databases or subject matters that your typical academic library will have, but public libraries offer many useful resources, services and work spaces for independent researchers. Their services are almost always under some kind of threat in terms of funding and staffing, so it’s really worth supporting them by making use of them even when you do have institutional affiliation. I am surprised at how many researchers do not even take a few minutes to look through the catalogue of their local library, assuming it holds nothing of value for their work.

Explore digital archives and online repositories:

More and more institutions are digitizing and making collections openly available online. Moreover, scholars are making their work available via institutional and independent repositories. Humanities Commons for example is very useful, and MLA Core is another recent one that I am aware of given my research interests. I have used the Library of Congress in my research and teaching more times than I can count. As mentioned earlier, the Internet Archive is another rich collection worth considering. It’s also home to the Wayback Machine where you can search through the history of over 298 million webpages on the internet.


So that ends my list of recommendations for researching without institutional support. Hopefully these are useful. I certainly could not have managed without them during the periods when I didn’t have access to an academic library. There are lots of other resources so please feel free to comment with further suggestions.

If all else fails, there are other methods of accessing the research that you need!

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