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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > January/February 2024

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Vol. 44 No. 1— Jan/Feb 2024


Finding Open Access Can Be Harder Than Finding Nemo
by William Badke

Students often ask me, “Will I still have access to the library’s databases after I graduate?” The answer, sadly, in most cases, is, “No.” This is discouraging for those alumni who expected to have access forever. True, there are some licensing arrangements that can extend library database use to former graduates, but they are few.

A former student can revert to Google and experience the hot mess that finding scholarly literature on the web involves. There is Google Scholar with its regular, “Pay us $40 and you can download this article.” Yet the rapidly growing OA movement, spurred by demands from public funders and the pressure on traditional publishers to offer more OA, is giving all of us hope. Currently, about 20% to 25% of all scholarly articles are OA, and OA publishing in recent years is beginning to outpace articles being released behind paywalls.

While not comprehensive, I’d like to suggest some of the better avenues for discovering OA academic sources. Be aware, though, that what I suggest is my own judgment call, which is readily open to correction, and will likely miss a few options.

Directory of Open Access Journals

Over the years, DOAJ ( has developed into a powerhouse, providing access to more than 20,000 OA journals and more than 9,600,000 articles. Standards for inclusion are rigorous, including peer review and a consistent track record of publication.

Article searches offer the standard range of filters, including “Subject” which uses more than 600 broad categories. Once you have completed a search, you can filter it further by journal title and date. The records for each article are minimal but include a brief abstract, author affiliation, and basic information about the journal. Full-text links direct the user to the article on its journal website. Overall, the search interface is plain but easy to navigate. There is no citation-generating tool.

Internet Archive Scholar

Internet Archive Scholar (IAS;, a relatively new tool, is still under development. (One suggestion I would make is to change its garish logo on the homepage.) As of November 2023, IAS covers slightly more than 35 million articles, making it larger than DOAJ, and its coverage ranges from the 18th century to present. The Internet Archive’s strong collection of out-of-copyright resources has clearly been enlisted. In several ways, this is a different sort of database in that it contains regularly published academic articles but also conference proceedings and even preprints.

Search is by simple keyword, with no filters available. Rudimentary post-search filters include a broad set of date limiters, such as “since 2000”; resource type; and availability as full-text, OA, or even digitized microfilm. You can sort by relevance or ascending/descending date.

Metadata for IAS comes from Fatcat (, an open catalog of resources, which offers minimal information. There is a citation generator that does not include the American Psychological Association (APA). Full-text links most often lead to PDFs, though some send users to the Internet Archive itself.

Overall, while broader than DOAJ, IAS as a new resource is limited by its very basic search tool, almost nonexistent metadata, and mixed bag of resources. Its strength lies in its broad coverage and historical depth.


I wrote a column on the Dimensions database several years ago (“The Dimensions Database: A Revolution in Academic Information Tools?” Online Searcher, v. 42, n. 4, July/August 2018: pp. 52–54), praising it both for the quality of its data sources and its features, such as reference tracking and an OA filter. Dimensions ( remains a viable OA database for those without access to paywalled tools. For example, a search for “information literacy” AND ethics reveals 203 scholarly articles, of which 113 are OA. True, an OA filter doesn’t always help the user find the best resources, since the option of OA or paywall says nothing much about relative quality.

Still, this is a solid tool to identify a considerable number of freely available articles, edited books, book chapters, conference proceedings, and preprints. Links to citations to each article improve both the user’s understanding of the significance of the article and access to further relevant resources.


Describing itself as “the world’s largest collection of open access research papers,” some 277 million to be specific, Core ( on the surface appears to be an ideal OA aggregator. It has a promising list of filters, but a significant challenge is the extremely broad range of source materials, from daily newspapers and online tutorials/slide shows to repositories, dissertations, and scholarly articles. This “include almost everything to get overall numbers up” approach is close to deceptive and muddies what Core could offer by way of solid academic OA. The “Type” and “Publisher” filters can screen out some of the mud, but a database like Dimensions is cleaner.

Google Scholar

Why not raise Google Scholar ( to a position higher in my list? Certainly, Scholar is the largest academic database available to us today. My answer is that its quality, both in search tools and in the uneven level of its resources, continues to make it dodgy. I know Scholar is sheer genius in its almost-comprehensive coverage of academic literature, but there are several reasons why only skilled users are going to avoid its minefields:

  1. It has no ability to filter for type of material—book, article, conference proceeding, etc.
  2. Not only does it not reveal the sources of its data, but it is filled with predatory journals, preprints, and stuff that may look academic but is not. Wading through all of this to find the gold takes a lot of skill.
  3. It doesn’t have the metadata to do much with specific searching. Sadly, its advanced search is almost lost under the enigmatic “hamburger” in the top right.
  4. Its citation feature is unreliable, often missing key elements.

That said, Scholar is probably the world’s most popular academic search engine, so I certainly wouldn’t cut it from my list.

Preprint Databases AND OA BOOKS

Preprints, resources that have not completed peer review and publication, are very popular these days, often providing us with the most cutting-edge research. Wikipedia has a good list of preprint repositories ( The caution here is that these resources haven’t yet gone through a vetting process, and any findings need to be taken with a considerably large grain of salt.

Now we come to OA books and a different sort of conundrum. While digitized out-of-copyright books are commonplace (think,, the sheer cost to publishers or authors engaged in publishing current books as OA has limited the number of current titles that are available. Directory of Open Access Books (, covering more than 75,000 titles, is a great, though not comprehensive, finder for OA books. It is probably the first choice for academic OA monographs.

Oapen ( is an infrastructure platform for publishers wanting to produce OA volumes. As such, it could just be software, but it also hosts the books that publishers develop, thus becoming a database. One limitation, of course, is that it only contains the titles produced by publishers which have signed up to Oapen. That said, it has good metadata, and many of its titles are also covered in DOAB and Google Scholar.

JSTOR has also weighed in with its own database for OA books. For access, go to, then filter for books. This database is small (around 100,000 volumes) but covers the most prestigious publishers that are producing OA academic works. The JSTOR platform offers filtering options and good bibliographic information as well as the JSTOR citation feature. Note that “books” also includes dissertations.

Google Books ( would be a whole lot more helpful if it were not dominated by commercial interests. Most of what you find there is in-copyright material with limited previews. Still, I have often found full, or almost full, chapters, even of commercial titles. To locate older out-of-copyright works, use the “any time” filter at the top of the screen. There are also filters for type of document and for preview versus full view. Fully OA works have a “Read” label. If you want to optimize your experience, try the Google Books advanced search ( It’s quite sophisticated.

Dissertation access is dominated by ProQuest, which is primarily a vendor of works for a fee. But even ProQuest offers a free option, and other OA repositories provide a bounty of dissertations in full text. But how do you find them? One way is to search on a subject area, along with the word dissertation, in Google or Bing. The Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations ( offers a list of database repositories and search tools by country. Probably the best overall source, however, is Open Access Theses and Dissertations (, which has a search engine for almost 7 million works.

The Bottom Line

The challenge of the paywall has been relatively intractable, though barriers are beginning to crumble. Academia as a whole is to some extent to blame for the costly barriers to access created by commercial interests. Rather than funding published scholarship ourselves, we turned the task over to private interests, who saw a ton of money to be made. I still cannot, for the life of me, understand why a journal that does not pay its authors and editors, and that is largely electronic, should charge an annual subscription of $10,000. The profit margins of big academic publishing rival companies such as Apple.

Many journals were initially published by scholarly societies or funded university presses, but subscription lists were hard to maintain, and scholarly books didn’t sell a lot of copies. Rather than maintaining funding, the societies and university presses either jacked up prices or turned the whole publication process over to companies that determined a cost based on whatever they thought the market would bear.

This has pushed researchers without database access, many of them living in poorer countries, out into the cold. No wonder that pirate sites such as Sci-Hub have risen and flourished. It is important for all of us to promote OA in whatever ways we can. Things are much improved from 10 years ago, but they could be even better. In the meantime, I hope I have offered some useful solutions to access for those who are on the wrong side of paywalls.

William Badke

William Badke
( is associate librarian at Trinity Western University and the author of Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog, 7th Edition (, 2021).

Comments? Emall Marydee Ojala (, editor, Online Searcher.