How (not) to respond when someone requests a copy of your paper

Given the pressure to publish you’d imagine when people are asked for a copy of a paper they’d written they’d be delighted. And would quickly share a pdf with anyone who requested it.

While there are many researchers who are extremely generous – making their papers easily accessible via open source sharing, blogging lay summaries, or responding to requests for pdfs – there are those who seem to think research publications should remain a hidden treasure that’s impossible for all but a privileged few to obtain.

In searching for papers I frequently discover ones I can’t access. In these cases I might use the hashtag #ICanHazPDF on Twitter to see if anyone can help me get hold of a publication. Or I could use some of the ideas suggested here. Failing that, I will email a corresponding author with a polite request for a copy of their paper. Sometimes, if they are working on an area I’ve a particular interest in I may also suggest further discussion and networking if they are up for it.

Again, most are happy to either send over their paper (and sometimes if I’m lucky additional reports or items they’ve published on related topics). And in some cases I’ve developed close working relationships with people I initially approached with a basic request to see more of their research.

Sometimes things don’t go so well. I’ve collated my top five disappointing responses, just so you know what NOT to do if someone asks to see your research.

1. Completely ignore the person asking for your paper

This is just rude. If you’ve published a paper, especially if you have gone on to actively promote it, then if someone asks for a copy you should send it to them.

2. Suggest those requesting your paper access it themselves via their university

If you work in a university with excellent library access you may have no problem getting hold of all the papers you desire. But many institutions don’t have comprehensive access to all journals. And not everyone doing research (or interested in your field of work) is in a university or has free access to journals. Moreover those on low incomes or from resource poor communities may not have the option to pay the costs for a specific paper (have you SEEN how much some of them are priced at?!). And even if you could afford it, paying for the privilege when an author could simply pass on their research seems silly.

3. Tell them you will not send them the pdf because they are not an academic

I’ve had academics tell me this outright, making their decision because my email address isn’t from a university. Or they have asked me what institution I work for – and have then refused to pass on a paper after learning I’m not employed by an academic institution. Students have frequently told me that academics have declined to give them copies of papers because they are students and not faculty. I’ve also encountered academics at professorial level just refusing to respond (see point 1) unless the person asking for their publication is perceived to be at a similar grade. Given the focus on accessibility, empowerment and engagement the idea that you withhold your paper because the person wanting to read it is not of a particular occupation or status seems elitist and distasteful. As a side note, people can see you if you’re active on social media and happily pass on papers to other profs but ignore everyone else who requests a copy. (See also if you’re the kind of senior academic who only engages on social media with other senior academics. It’s not a good look).

However, while we’re on this subject, it is worth noting if you are a student and are supposed to be learning literature searching and you have comprehensive library access you should be doing all you can to track down papers yourself, only emailing academics if you cannot access their research in other formats. You certainly should NOT be asking them to send you everything they’ve ever published, expecting them to do your literature search for you, or messaging them instead of undertaking methodical literature reviews yourself.

4. Rather than just attaching a pdf give people lengthy descriptions about where they could find your paper, but don’t provide any actual links to sources you’ve mentioned
Annoying and silly. Wastes your time and mine. Just send me the pdf please!

5. Act in a hostile or incredulous manner about how someone has heard about your paper or why they’ve asked you for it
This is a particularly strange response if your research has been press released, covered in the media or shared online. But even if your work hasn’t been showcased in this way, it is still identifiable via academic search engines and the wider web. It may be a surprise to you if you haven’t had much of a response to your research before, if someone requests something published a while ago, or if you assumed non-academics wouldn’t enquire about your work. But it doesn’t mean you should be resistant to someone doing a potentially nice thing – asking to read what you have spent time researching and subsequently written up and been through the peer review process over. Demanding to know how someone found your research or why they’d ever want it (or worse still implying they’d never understand it) just makes you appear pompous.

If you are asked to share a paper….

– Be flattered, it’s great someone wants to hear more about what you’ve done!
– See it as part of the day job. You do research, you write up your research, you should be expected to pass it on as requested in a prompt fashion
– Send your paper as requested, (and if you’re aware you’re responding to a student, early career academic or someone working in a community setting, an encouraging and kind note to go with it can do wonders for people’s sense of belonging and esteem. In fact just be kind to anyone asking for your papers, it won’t add much time to your day to be pleasant along with sending the pdf)
– Blog about your research to create an open/lay version (particularly if your paper isn’t open access)
– Try and negotiate open access options when publishing, but if that’s not possible have a dissemination strategy prepared so you and colleagues are readily available to forward your paper as requested – particularly if you have a specific release date
– Encourage other authors to make their papers similarly available
– Note that others might either share or track down your publications, and don’t be alarmed if they ask to read them
– If you sense someone is after your paper because they want to be combative, still send it, but have in place a strategy for dealing with criticism (colleagues, your media office if you have one, and journal editors may be good allies in these situations).

Remember you are publishing your research because, presumably, you want to change things, educate people, or help others. Maybe all of the above and more. None of these things are compatible with withholding copies of your papers/reports if asked for them.

And for all the options we’re given about blogging, conferences, and large scale ‘engagement’, a small email or phone exchange with an enthusiastic person about your paper and why it might be useful to them could be extremely powerful indeed.

In short. If you’re asked. Share. Simple.

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