The SCOOP: Searching for Open Access Content

Submitted by Christine Fruin, ATLA Member Programs and Scholarly Communication Manager

Strategies for Locating Open Access Content

In an era of shrinking library budgets and increasing cost, as well as quantity, of content, libraries must make strategic decisions in how many books to buy and what subscriptions to maintain year to year. Some academic library systems have partnered to lower costs by sharing collection building and by implementing liberal and efficient means for faculty and students to borrow materials from other libraries within the system. Libraries also participate in consortial licensing programs as a means of negotiating more affordable access to licensed resources. Increasingly, however, libraries are employing a new strategy for locating affordable content for their faculty and students: searching for open access versions of materials.

Whether responding to course reserves or interlibrary loan requests for content not owned by the library, library staff have begun implementing processes to search first for an open access version of the requested material before resorting to potentially expensive permissions requests or simply telling a requestor “no.” These processes can include one or more of the following strategies:

  • Search the authors’ institutional repositories. With more colleges and universities implementing institutional repositories and increased awareness of scholars of the availability and use of the IR (thanks to the efforts of librarians at those colleges and universities), more scholarly content is being deposited into these open access repositories. OpenDOAR is a registry of institutional repositories that you can search to locate an author’s home institution IR.
  • Search a funder repository. Is the article you are seeking the product of grant-funded research? If it is federally funded research, chances are the article is available open access through a government repository such as PubMed. Since a 2013 Executive Order directing federal agencies to make federally funded research publicly accessible within 12 months of publication, federal agencies have been developed policies and infrastructure to make that a reality. Private agencies such as the Gates Foundation have also mandated that grantees make their work openly available. SPARC maintains a list of federal agency policies and repositories.
  • Search Google Scholar. Sometimes a search for an article in Google Scholar will also return a result of an open access version of the article if it has been deposited in an open access repository. It may also lead you to discover that you actually had access through the library’s subscriptions all along if you search while on your institution’s network.
  • Maximize discovery with link resolvers and federated search/discovery tools. Many of the link resolvers (e.g., SFX) and federated search or discovery tools (e.g., Summon) have open access filters that can be toggled on and off. Be sure to investigate the options available in the systems your library maintains and educate your patrons as well as library staff on how to utilize those features.

Tools for Locating Open Access Content

In response to the growing need for and interest in locating open access versions of scholarly materials, tools have been developed to help expedite searching for open access content:

Open Access Button

The Open Access Button was developed by a group of students in 2013 as a means of allowing searchers to report paywalled content. The tool aggregates the data and presents a visual representation via a map of the access problem worldwide. Further development has led to the recent release of DeliverOA, an add-on for popular interlibrary loan services such as Illiad that searches for and delivers OA content within the ILL system. Also available is EmbedOA, a web-based search tool that libraries can include in their LibGuides or other websites to facilitate the search for open access versions of articles. ATLA institutional member Milligan Libraries has implemented this on their Interlibrary Loan request page.


Unpaywall is a browser extension that a user can install that alerts the user when the paywalled article they wish to read is available as an open access version. The color of the icon indicates whether it is available as a gold or green open access version; a black icon indicates that no open access version was found. Clicking on the icon takes you to the open access version of the article if available.

Open Access
Example of Unpaywall – showing an article that is available as a Gold Open Access version

Unpaywall has additional tools available now and in development that libraries are encouraged to investigate and implement to facilitate the location of open access content.

Recommended Further Reading:

The SCOOP, Scholarly COmmunication and Open Publishing, is a monthly column published to inform ATLA members of recent developments, new resources, or interesting stories from the realm of scholarly communication and open access publishing.

Christine Fruin is the ATLA Member Programs and Scholarly Communication Manager. As an attorney and a librarian, she has worked for over a decade promoting access to and use of diverse collections through utilization of fair use, open access, and responsible licensing.

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