How to talk to your users about #twitterlibraryloan: From a former humanities student turned librarian

While completing my Master’s degree in English, I distinctly remember one professor singling out a student in class and asking them to buy a physical copy of the book instead of using their e-reader. Reading lists for classes were often compiled with very little thought as to text costs, availability, or accessibility – or, in other words – with little consideration of student needs. To many humanists, this preoccupation with the written word is nothing new. The humanities as a discipline has always been wedded to the monograph, leading the humanities to lag behind the sciences when it comes to open access initiatives.

So, imagine my surprise this week when I learned that historians are circumventing traditional publishing avenues and downloading parts of books using the Twitter hashtag #twitterlibraryloan.  In a manner that is reminiscent of #icanhazpdf and r/scholar, scholars are requesting parts of books using the above hashtag and members with access to the material are filling the requests.



But why violate copyright when you can work with a library and get the sections of the book that you need sent directly to you via interlibrary loan? And do so legally? Well, according to some scholars, requesting documents via interlibrary loan is frustrating at times. Usually, you will get the materials that you need, but it can take a long time…sometimes even a couple of weeks… to receive what you requested, and even then, there are restrictions on re-use. Today, scholars expect immediate and unrestricted access to information and libraries have failed to keep up with the demands of the academic information marketplace (Gardner & Gardner, 2017, p.141).



It is also important to note that as the demand for monographs declines, fewer monographs are being published and it is becoming increasingly difficult for scholars to find publishers who are willing to publish their work.  Libraries have also been forced to make difficult budgetary decisions lately, as academic library budgets shrink by the year and the cost of journal subscriptions continues to rise. University libraries’ purchasing of monographs has declined steadily over the past few years, as more of the library acquisition budget has been allocated to journals– a trend that will likely continue in the future. As a result, humanities scholars must find other ways to access the materials that they need for their research. Enter #twitterlibraryloan.

However, while many librarians [myself included] are sympathetic to the underlying cause of the Twitter Library Loan movement, we cannot support or endorse illegal means of accessing information. In this instance, like with #icanhazpdf, LibGen, and SciHub, the end [equitable access to information] does not justify the means [scholarly piracy]. But what we can do is use this opportunity to educate our users.  For example, in their quest to damage the profit margins of giant for-profit publishers, many of our users are oblivious to the fact that pirating materials is harmful to the entire scholarly ecosystem.  Scholarly piracy also hurts not-for-profit publishers, university presses, and small, independent publishers- many of whom are potential allies in the fight for open humanities initiatives. We should also point these frustrated scholars towards freely available, open access alternatives that already exist on the interwebs and that are perfectly legal. I’ve included some examples below:

Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB)

DOAB is an online directory that indexes and provides access to quality open access books. Currently, there are over 10,103 academic peer-reviewed books and chapters from 243 publishers

OAPEN Online Library

Contains the full text of peer reviewed OA books, mainly in the humanities and social sciences, which are free to read online

CORE- Humanities Commons

CORE (Commons Open Repository Exchange) is a free, full-text, interdisciplinary, not-for-profit repository for sharing, discovering, retrieving, and archiving digital work. Users are able to upload articles, books, book chapters, conference publications, dissertations, essays, fictional works and other types of publications using Creative Commons licensing

Open Book Publishers (OBP)

A good collection of Humanities books, available to purchase, but also free to read online

Open Humanities Press

Browse books published under a Creative Commons license and without an embargo. The publications can be read for free online and downloaded

Hathi Trust Digital Library

Offers a collection of millions of titles digitised from libraries around the world

Internet Archive- eBooks & Texts

The Internet Archive contains over 6,000,000 public domain books and manuscripts which can be read online or downloaded

JSTOR- Open Access Books

A repository of more than 2,000 open access ebooks

Lastly, if you’re feeling frustrated with your research and/or have a comment, critique, or suggestion about library services at your institution, please get in touch with your local librarian. I’ll end this post with a message from a very insightful interlibrary loan librarian, who speaks for many of us in the profession, I think, with the following Tweet:






Your friendly academic librarian



No more paywalls: Find the full-text of an article for free using Unpaywall


Last week, Impactstory released a trial version of Unpaywall- a highly anticipated tool that links you to free full-text  articles as you browse the Internet. In other words, a one-stop-shop for open access articles. I downloaded Chrome on my Mac  at home just to try it out (currently, the extension only works in Chrome and Firefox). Here’s some more information, a few of my initial thoughts, and the results of my own personal research study.

What is Unpaywall?

Unpaywall is an extension that allows you to find open access versions of paywalled research papers as you browse the web. Just click on the tab and it will take you to the full-text if available- free, easy to use, and 100% legal.


Unpaywall extension in Chrome



A green tab means that the full-text is available (click on the tab to go to the full-text); a grey tab means that there is no full-text available



Full-text article


How many articles are currently indexed in Unpaywall?

According to Unpaywall’s website,  over 10 million legal open access articles are currently available.

Where do the articles come from?

The articles have either been published in an open access journal (Gold open access) or they are full-text PDFs that authors have uploaded to institutional repositories, subject repositories, or preprint servers (Green open access). Unpaywall relies on open data services freely available on the web, such as PubMed Central. DOAJ, and Crossref, Datasite, and BASE. After pulling all of this data, Unpaywall uses the article’s DOI number and searches a number of sources for an OA version that article. In this way, it is very similar to oaDOI- a tool that searches for an open access version of an article using the  digital object identifier for that article (DOI). However, unlike oaDOI, where you have to enter the DOI manually into a search box, Unpaywall performs this search while running in the background – basically eliminating a step.

How is Unpaywall different from #icanhazpdf or Sci-Hub?

The major difference between Unpaywall and #icanhazpdf or Sci-Hub is that Unpaywall’s method of getting full-text articles is perfectly legal. Unlike Sci-Hub, which is currently facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit due to copyright infringement, Unpaywall finds copies of articles that are published in open access journals or that authors have chosen to share via institutional repositories, subject repositories, or preprint servers. In addition to working with, rather than against, copyright laws, the other great thing about Unpaywall is that, by choosing to use it, you are helping to support the Open Access movement. Traditionally, it has been hard to locate open access articles. Unpaywall is tool that streamlines this process by making open access articles more discoverable to researchers.

How often is Unpaywall able to find the full-text of an article you are looking for?

On their website, Impactstory claims a nearly 50% success rate- a percentage that varies by year and by subscription. However, the creators predict greater success, as more and more papers are made open access with recent open access mandates in the United States and the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy right here in Canada.

Sounds great right? But does Unpaywall actually work as well as the Impactstory claims? To find out, I tested this statistic myself using articles from  Almetric’s Top 100 Articles of 2016 and good ol’ Google Scholar. Here’s what I found…


Every year, Altmetric releases a top-100 list of the most-discussed articles. Of the articles listed in Altmetric’s Top 100 Articles 2016, roughly 30% of the articles were published under a Gold open access license– meaning that they were published in an open access journal (See Figure 1). Altmetric states that this number is higher than in past years.

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Figure 1. Of the one hundred articles in Altmetrics’s Top 100 2016, roughly 70%  were not published in an open access journal; 30% were published in an open access journal

Unpaywall found copies of these Gold open access articles over 80% of the time and had about a 20% failure rate (see Figure 2). Hopefully, this failure rate will improve after Impactstory works out a few initial growing pains.***

***Note: The DOIs for the missing Gold articles have since been fixed by Unpaywall. ***


Figure 2. Percentage of Gold OA articles where a full-text version was found by Unpaywall


However, the results get even more interesting. Of the 69 articles that were not published in an open access journal (aka articles that would normally be hidden behind a paywall), Unpaywall was able to find a full-text version for 25 of these articles. That’s 36% more articles that are freely available to you thanks to Unpaywall (See Figure 3). These articles were self-archived, meaning that they were uploaded by the author(s) to an institutional repository, subject repository, or to a preprint server. In other words, these are Green open access articles.



Figure 3. Percentage of full-text found for articles that were not published in an open access journal


Overall, my results match the 50% success rate claimed by Impactstory. Of the 100 articles in Altmetric’s Top 2016 list, Unpaywall found a full-text copy 53% of the time (53 full-text articles were found; 47 articles no full-text found).

In summary, Unpaywall is a great tool for finding full-text versions of articles with a few shortcomings. If you haven’t given the tool a try already, I’d highly recommend testing it out before its official April 4th release date.

Tool at a Glance:


  • Easy to install and use
  • Works seamlessly in the background- no extra steps needed
  • Colour coding option for tab allows you to differentiate between Gold OA articles and Green OA articles
  • Found full-text versions of articles over 50% of the time
  • Found full-text versions of articles that were previously behind paywalls (not published OA) or not as easy to find


  • Extension is only available currently for Chrome and Firefox
  • Some articles that were published in open access journals were not found
  • No way to store, cite, or share articles once found