As someone in academia - a guy with an office in an "ivory tower", I take for granted the ability to find up-to-date, peer reviewed literature, the gold standard in science. But before getting there, let's talk about the so called "ivory tower". My office is in a turd of a mid-1960's building in the brualist architecture style. Trust me, there was NO ivory involved in Cowley Hall's construction - only materials provided by the lowest bidder.
The Peer Review Process and Why It Works
Maybe in your college days, if, like me, you are of "a certain age", you remember "going to the stacks" in the university library to find a paper copy of a journal article for a paper you were writing. Things have changed a lot since those days but the core of the peer review process has remained much the same. Most people are not terribly familiar with the peer reviewed process and how and why it works. There are many great resources about how it works - far better than I can or want to detail here. So I will give a short summary of how it works and then provide a bunch of links to sources of more information about the process for those that care to read more..
In the most simple of terms, peers (other scientists) review author's submitted manuscripts for their scientific rigor, quality, integrity, uniqueness, and its contribution to the scientific world. Authors submit an original manuscript which is not published in whole or in part in other journals to a specific journal of their choosing. One of the more difficult tasks for authors is to determine which journal(s) their articles are best suited for publication in. There are thousands upon thousands of journals for different topics and at different levels of scientific endeavors. The journal editors and associate editors then send the manuscript for peer review. The reviewers may be recommended by the author(s) - though generally only one recommended reviewer will be part of the three reviewer panel. Reviewers do this service for free, and in return, others review their papers - a community of scholars supporting one another. Typically reviewers will accept an article for publication in that particular journal, accept with revisions (which encourages author(s) to resubmit for a second review), or they may reject the manuscript. Articles are rejected for a number of reasons - not always because they are not "good science" but the article may not fit the journal and is better suited for publication elsewhere. Accepting with revisions can range anywhere from minor revisions in the wording used to major revisions which may include more data collection and analysis. One of the major goals of the peer review process is to improve manuscripts before they are published.
Links to read more about the peer review process:
The economics of publishing and the peer review process are, umm, "interesting". While one does not need to be associated with an "ivory tower" university to publish in peer reviewed journals, the peer review process is a rather unique blend of private publishers and university "service". While there are thousands of publishers, a few for-profit publishers account for most of the journals published worldwide (for more, see Academic Publishing on Wikipedia). Quite typically, authors, upon their manuscript's acceptance, are asked to pay for "page charges" which are often a few hundred dollars or more. As mentioned above, peer reviewers are not compensated but do it as a service to their profession. Publishers then format the articles for their journals and print them (usually - though increasingly journals are not producing paper copies). Libraries and for some journals, individuals, purchase journals though increasingly, libraries are purchasing databases that index hundreds or even thousands of journals and access is provided online. The days of going to the stacks or printing from microfilm or microfiche are largely a thing of the past. There are a small but growing number of open access journals, some very good ones, at that, that are published online only at no cost to readers. These open access journals first have lower publishing costs and second are still supported by author page charges or by grants and endowments.
But of course, anywhere that money is involved, there are less than reputable ways people try to exploit others. There are a number of for-profit journals that many view as "pay for play" journals. Although there are massive issues with assessing journal reputation, there are a number of different ways that a journal's reputation are measured. There are many discussions over how effectively we are able to assess a journal's reputation and how publishers have "gamed the system" but in the end, it is really a matter of degrees. The top tiers of journals tend to stand out and while the for-profit publishing world can be problematic, these large publishers that control most of the academic journals have their reputations at stake and thus are rather diligent in protecting their names and reputations.
I fear I have probably already written too much about the rather boring and less than perfect process. While it is less than perfect, it is also the best we have to ensure the reputation of journals and to assess the quality of science. Except for all of the few really poor "predatory" journals, most any article published in a peer reviewed scientific journal is reputable and represents the science and knowledge available at its time of publication. I go through all this to give a picture of how and why the peer review - warts and all - is critical to scientific knowledge and advancement.
Accessing Free Peer Reviewed Articles (legally)
Anyone that has tried to access a journal article that is not accessible from your library has probably seen costs around $40 or more for an article. Nobody in their right mind should pay that for access to a journal article. There are a number of methods to legally access peer reviewed literature (and a few less than legal ones which I will not condone nor mention). First, the easiest and probably most overlooked way to access peer reviewed papers is to contact the authors themselves. They (we!) are more than happy to send you an electronic copy for free. Back in the old days, authors received some number of paper copies - depending upon what they paid for - that they could mail to people that asked for them. How times have changed! Hell, we are just happy that anyone is reading what we write. While this blog does not receive a ton of traffic, I am sure I have reached several times more people with this than any scientific article I have ever published.
Before going to the authors and asking for a copy, there are other options that might get the article in your hand - or hard drive - more quickly. Again, this feels a bit like re-inventing the wheel so I am going to borrow heavily from what others have already written. A good starting place - and I am sure there are many others - is an article, "5 free and legal ways to get the full text of research articles" where they list using your local library, open access browser extensions, Google Scholar, researcher platforms, and writing the authors as their five methods.
Local Library - many libraries, even outside of academia, have some access to databases. Academic libraries will provide you access to many more articles but they pay a lot of money (many databases are tens of thousands of dollars a year) to do so and part of the agreement is that access is provided only to those that are part of the university community. See if they have access through interlibrary loan, an effective way for libraries to increase what they can provide to patrons.
Google Scholar is obviously a Google product that indexes scholarly literature. What you have easy access to depends a bit upon where you are and your affiliations. For example, it "knows me" and allows me to access what I could access on campus at home as well. A little scary, yes, but it works well to work at home and in the office. Google Scholar may find articles that are hosted on other websites such as researcher platforms (next on the list) or government and university websites. Many times, the same (or very similar) article is available on a state or federal agency website or as a chapter in a Master's thesis or Ph.D. dissertation which are freely available.
Researcher platforms like Academia.edu and ResearchGate.net are two popular options for researcher to post, for free, their intellectual property. There are some restrictions on what can be posted. Some journals do not allow their formatted copies to be uploaded but authors can supply original manuscripts. These can be great ways to find a number of free articles.
As I mentioned above, writing to the authors is a great way to get an article and maybe find out a bit more about the researchers that wrote it, other articles by the team, and it allows you a contact with them if you have further questions. The downfall of this can be the speed at which you may receive the articles and at times, finding an up-to-date e-mail address to contact them.
To this list, I would add a few more ideas for how to access free peer reviewed publications. First, there are a number of open access journals, probably the best and most prestigious of them fall under the Public Library of Science (PLoS). PubMed.gov is another avenue for articles that were funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). Lastly, certainly a bit more "hit or miss", many of the for-profit publishers have some open access articles available on their websites. Often these will be found in a Google Scholar search or in a open access browser extension but maybe not always.
Why You Should (or at least might) Care
If you have read this far, you probably care at least a little, I mean that was a bit of a slug and I fully understand that this post is quite different from most of my blog posts. Not everyone is going to go out and read peer reviewed literature, it is quite honestly, not the most exciting reading in the World. But that there is a bit of democracy in the peer review process and that people are able to access and evaluate the best science that is available to us is important. Peer reviewed science is the backbone of the scientific process and its importance in maybe never more more important than now.
Lastly, a few links to professional societies that might be of interest to blog readers.