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In trying to answer several questions, I find that I am often stymied by the fact that most of the specific information on the subjects that I am researching are locked up behind an expensive paywall ($50 for one paper that I was interested in looking at). How can we hope to provide credible answers if we can't get to the source information? Are there any ways, short of enrolling in a university, to get access to sources like this?

Meta-Meta note: If we can get some good answers for this, we might want to add something about it in the FAQ.

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  • Meta-meta-meta? – Borror0 Mar 22 '11 at 18:26
  • @Borror0 Are you asking if it's appropriate to put meta topics in meta threads? – anthony137 Mar 22 '11 at 18:34
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    You might find that your public library offers access to many journals, accessible from their website by just entering your library card number. You can also access any journals a university or college subscribes to by visiting their library and using their public access computers. – Patches Mar 23 '11 at 0:36
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Often, the abstract is enough to give you a good idea of what's in the paper and, unless you're qualified to evaluate the methodology used, that's often enough.

Then, there are other sources:

  • Try Google Scholar. It might detect a free PDF available on another site.
  • Try Google itself, too, for the same reason.
  • Check governmental agencies' websites. If you dig deep enough, you'll find reports on practically anything. They're rarely easily to navigate, however.
  • Try the reference section of the relevant Wikipedia articles for alternative sources.

See also: List of useful sources for Skeptics.SE

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Most of the time the abstract of a paper is available for free, and contains the important details of the study. In general, I think this is sufficient for answers here.

It is very difficult for a non-expert to correctly evaluate the methodology and specific results of a given, technical paper. Indeed, in addition to the difficulty of even understanding the material at a sufficiently deep level, it is hard to control for confirmation bias in such an endeavor. Too often, methodology becomes an easy target for "I don't agree with your conclusion, therefore your study was flawed." arguments while studies which give results we believe are less likely to be critically examined.

Ars Technica ran a good piece on the effect I am concerned about.

Given this, I'm not sure it's a requirement to delve into the actual paper in most cases, and in some scenarios, having access to that information can make it less likely to produce an accurate answer.

Finally, we should also keep in mind that no single study should ever be accepted as conclusive proof of anything.

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