It is clear that people should cite references for the claims they make, and I wholly agree with this. It is unclear, however, of what value there is in citing references in which no one or only a few people have access to (esp. it being unlawful to redistribute most articles without express consent). For example, I have access to Harvard's academic database, which is quite extensive, but it doesn't seem useful to cite an article that many people will not have access to and thus not be able to read or verify. Conversely, citing public sources like Wikipedia is not always reliable or acceptable.

I say this because it would seem to me that the kind of people who ask questions which require citations typically aren't the ones who have access to or knowledge of how to use university databases — otherwise, why would they not simply look it up themselves?

Given these premises, it seems almost counterproductive to cite articles which someone probably won't be able to access. Should we only cite publicly available research articles?

What is the policy on this?

2 Answers 2


I agree that you describe a real problem, but, unfortunately, an impractical solution.

Too much scientific knowledge is held behind paywalls (of various descriptions) to simply ignore it. There may be many logical reasons for dismissing the applicability of some data to an argument - but that it costs too much isn't one of them.

I have a half-formed wish that the money we might be offered to sponsor conference attendance be instead used to buy access to some paywalled articles. I have no clear idea of how that would work. (Also, clearly it is only better use of the money if we are talking about sending someone else rather than me!)

why would they not simply look it up themselves?

If I was in a more cynical mood, I would ask why so many people don't simply Google many of the questions!

It seems we offer a service above that, of selecting and interpreting the science, and presenting it in a slightly more populist form.

  • The prices for single articles are too high in my opinion to make it feasible to buy articles. They usually cost around 20-40$ per article and we likely would not be allowed to share the article, so the price would be per person.
    – Mad Scientist Mod
    Aug 24, 2011 at 10:57
  • 1
    We could encourage people to cite small parts of literature behind paywalls to prove their points. Anyway: a reference behind a paywall is better then no reference.
    – johanvdw
    Sep 20, 2011 at 14:17
  • This is a good answer -- except for the proposal to pay for articles. Please do not even think of doing that; charges for academic publications is in many ways a scam. The worst part is that you might pay for the article only to discover that it is not what you thought it was. There are ways to get access to the articles: email the author; look on the author's website (Google Scholar is good); or quote a small portion (2 paragraphs?) if SE is willing to risk the fair-use fight.
    – adam.r
    Nov 23, 2013 at 7:35

As usual it's a matter of degrees: publicly available beats paywall research. However in many cases the abstract of paywalled papers is still descriptive enough for people that don't have access.

Clearly we don't want a bunch of references all over the place that we can't check, however I think that people should use their best judgement on what is appropriate.

Also, the same applies for books. Normally I don't like to cite books for the same reasons, but I've done so in the past when needed.

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