I would like to abide by the site policies on not asking open-ended/chatty questions so if someone feels there is a better location or wording for this question, please feel free to modify it as appropriate.

I am normally a big fan of open source/open access work and I believe I have learned a great deal from such sources. There is an open-access journal question here. Nonetheless, there are times where I really do want a specific article that is not available through non-commercial means. I am currently studying to return to school (in other words I don't have access to an institutional subscription) for a physics PhD and reading published work is becoming increasingly important to me. As a result I am considering subscribing to one of the big publishing houses (Elsavier, ScienceDirect, Science, Nature, etc.).

Before I spend that kind of money, I would like to know what other physicists think of these organizations and who offers the best value. If I decided to opt for a subscription, which would be the best? Is a subscription even the best idea, or should I perhaps buy individual articles as needed?

PS - I know the answer to these questions depends on the area of interest, my interests lie in quantum field theories and the like, but feel free to answer for your particular area of expertise.


closed as off topic by Manishearth Dec 17 '12 at 21:05

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    $\begingroup$ You can often take advantage of your local college or university's subscription by connecting through the public terminal in the library. Not as convenient as having you own of course, but a heck of a lot cheaper. Plus, as Omar notes below field theorists make heavy use of arXiv. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Dec 12 '11 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ The issue with this question, if one wanted to raise an issue, is not that it's open-ended or chatty (it's fairly specific and objective IMO) but that it's not physics-related, in the sense that you could ask the same question of any other academic field and there is really nothing in it specific to physics. Old me would have snap-closed this, but given that the site is well established, I'm okay with it, unless/until people start using this as a justification for asking all sorts of other soft questions. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 12 '11 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ One must also add that Elsavier, ScienceDirect, etc, are essentially sucking on the public teat while offering no useful service, and holding their archival material hostage to continue to do so. It is disgraceful that this material is not publically avialable, their predatory pricing behavior in the last two decades has been appalling, and one should not ethically give them money, they already get way too much from your tax dollars. $\endgroup$ – Ron Maimon Dec 13 '11 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ I don't doubt that there are questionable pricing schemes, but Science and Nature have very strong reputations. In at least those cases, I'd like to think that they are providing the service of sifting through the chaff among the piles of papers. $\endgroup$ – AdamRedwine Dec 13 '11 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @AdamRedWine: Science and Nature are still ok for individual subscriptions, but all journals have adopted predatory pricing schemes for institutional subscribers, putting libraries in a difficult position. The role of peer review can be done by a simple online system with an open online journal, at a fraction of the cost, but the shift is resisted by these corporations which are dependent on their captive library audience. In physics, the issue has been entirely sidestepped by creating arxiv, but in biology, the situation is serious. $\endgroup$ – Ron Maimon Dec 14 '11 at 5:50

As you have mentioned already, I am all for the open culture when it comes to publishing. Most of the research is funded by the public and therefore should be accessible by the public! I am a researcher in Physics, so I read several papers everyday. My primary source of papers is arXiv. Even though I have access via a University network to various subscriptions, I am not a fan of subscription only journals. More to the point, I don't like it when authors don't make their papers freely available on places like arXiv; we are lucky to have such an open resource, making us the envy of many other disciplines. So my advice would be not to waste your money on any expensive subscriptions. You are not going to get too much for it. There are too many journals out there and you can't possibly subscribe to all of them. You can get 95% of the material you need from open sources. The rest you can perhaps buy on individual basis.

p.s. I don't mean this to be a rant. I just feel passionate about open source :-)

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    $\begingroup$ In fields that have a history of using the arXiv failure to do so is self-defeating. Some of my papers have had 20 citations to the arXiv version before the "official" version sees print (many publishers allow you to post as soon as they accept). $\endgroup$ – dmckee Dec 12 '11 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee: that's nothing, the paper I contributed to this summer was posted on arXiv before it was even submitted to a journal ;-) $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 12 '11 at 20:45

I fully agree with Omar's answer. But for the other 5% of the papers, you have other options beside buying them. You can ask the authors to send you a copy, and most do, even if it takes a few days for them to reply to you. Also, if you know anyone in a university, you could send them an email with the links you need and ask them to download them for you.


Indeed, without access to journal site licenses you tend to think twice about ordering an article that may not contain what you are looking

  • Try to look first at Google Scholar. It often finds preprints or reprints on researchers' web site
  • You may be better off buying individual articles instead of subscribing for a specific journal or publisher. Try to estimate how many articles you will order and from which journal and estimate the costs. Remember that each subscription provides access only to a single journal or publisher.
  • Look for discounts and promotions. Note also that digital subscriptions are much cheaper than print subscrpitions.
  • Some journals are subscribed to via society memberships, e.g., APS Publications, AAAS memberships (Science).

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