I’ll admit it: I don’t read a lot of scholarly, scientific journal articles. I keep up with interesting science news via blogs, news articles and Twitter headlines. News stories can also be a great way for students to select scientific research topics. Sometimes the news is so interesting that I want to know more. My first stop is sometimes the original journal article that the blog post or news story was based on – the original article can provide additional information and additional related sources. But first you need to find it.
Many blog posts will link directly to a version of the original article, but many news sources often have a policy of not linking to the original source. Even when a blog links directly to the original article, you may not be able to read it without paying. But there are steps you can take to find the original article, and to find a version of it you can read.
If a direct link isn’t provided, the first step is to identify the journal the article was published in, and the publication date. News articles typically report this information a few paragraphs into the article. For example, a recent news article from The New York Times identified the original source in this way:
Sifrhippus shrank from about 12 pounds average weight to about eight and a half pounds as the climate warmed over thousands of years, a team of researchers reported in the journal Science on Thursday.
You need to find the issue of the journal Science published in the same week as the news story in The New York Times.
A quick Google search can usually locate the journal’s website (for searching really short journal titles it’s helpful to add the word “journal”). There, you can identify the exact article that the news story is about by finding the right issue.
News stories sometimes include the authors of the original source, but almost never include original article titles, making things a bit trickier. The original article title might actually be a difficult to recognize: scientific articles are not known for having clear, easily readable titles. So the goal, when scanning the list of article titles, is to pick out a few major concepts to get you to the item you want. In the case of the article above, the authors are discussing climate change and an ancient horse. The article title turns out to be “Evolution of the Earliest Horses Driven by Climate Change in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.”
From there you can try to read the actual article. If the journal is open access or if you’re on-campus at an institution that already subscribes to the journal via its website, you’ll be able to read it. However, if the website asks for money to read the article (often $30 to $40 per article), you have several other possibilities.
First, if you are affiliated with a college or university, the library might already have a subscription to that journal. Go to your library’s website and find the place to search by journal title. Sometimes the library might subscribe via the journal’s website or via another source.
Second, even though the journal’s website might be asking for money, there may be a copy of the article available for free online as the result of the author posting a copy to his/her website. Many publishers grant authors the right to do this, including Science. If it exists, a quick web search for the article title should discover the item. In this case, the article got a lot of news coverage, so a search for the article title pulls up a lot of news sites. But about halfway down the first page of results is a link from the University of Nebraska. Success! A PDF of a post print of this article is available from the University of Nebraska Lincoln Digital Commons. Look for .edu (colleges and universities) and .gov (PubMed and other government sites) in the search results to find free access sites – those might be your best bets.
If that doesn’t work, you may still be able to access the journals your local college or university library subscribes to by visiting the library in person and requesting a guest borrower card.
Finally, although it might be a bit of delayed gratification, many folks have access to some kind of interlibrary loan services via their local library or the library at the college they are affiliated with. Public libraries may charge a fee for this service, but the fee will probably be lower than the fee charged by the journal website. College and university libraries rarely charge their students and staff a fee for interlibrary loan, and can often get the article delivered to your email inbox within hours.
Of course, once you get your hands on the article, you’ll have lots of avenues to explore. Close reading of the journal article may bring up interesting new concepts, and the list of references at the end can be an excellent source of additional information – it just depends on exactly how interested you are in the topic!