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Open access social services research

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There’s an increasing interest and drive in social services in Scotland to use evidence and research to improve social care and support. Lots of academic research that would be useful for practitioners and other social service deliverers to access is behind paywalls, only available to those with subscriptions. Although people working in social services across Scotland have access to some academic research through an OpenAthens login* with The NHS Knowledge Network, there is still a lot of relevant research that the NHS doesn’t and can’t afford to subscribe to. There’s also a lot of high quality academic research published in journals that don’t charge to read them (referred to as ‘open access’), and these aren’t always included in The Knowledge Network’s catalogue. On top of this, it can be confusing to work out where to go to find open access research online, particularly when publishers make it deliberately complicated to protect their profits.

All these challenges can make it really hard to identify and get hold of relevant research publications that could help with professional development, practice, policy and organisational approaches. At ESSS we’re in the process of building an online learning resource to help people working in the area of social services to learn more about finding, accessing and using research and evidence to support their practice. This will include content on what open access means and looks like, the tools you can use to make it easier to find open access content and free versions of paywalled materials.

In the meantime, we thought we’d share some of the free tools we use when we’re working on our Outlines to support social services practitioners:

Kopernio is an extension for your internet browser that quickly tells you if you have access to a version of a journal article that you are looking at. It detects when you are looking at an article’s page and if you have access, either through NHS subscriptions or through an Open Access version, it will provide a link to the document. One nice feature of Kopernio is that it automatically files away the pdfs you read in your own private Kopernio Locker, to help you organise your files.

This is generally the most convenient way to find Open Access work if you’re used to searching academic journals and databases. The extension will work in Google Chrome.

Unpaywall  is another useful browser extension. It adds an icon to the right-hand side of any page where it detects an academic article. The icon indicates whether there is an Open Access version available and clicking it will take you to the appropriate document. One thing we like about Unpaywall is that when you get to the web page for a paywalled journal article and you’ve installed the extension, it lights up green and you can click it to get to an open version of the article.

Unpaywall draws on slightly different sources to Kopernio, but does not check if you have access through your Knowledge Network membership. It may be helpful to install both. The extension will work in Google Chrome and Firefox.

Open Access Button is also a browser extension. It registers when people hit a paywall to an academic article and can’t access it. If Open Access Button can’t get you access, you are automatically invited to request it from the author to make their work publicly available, and guide them on making the work available to you. If the author shares it with you, everyone else who needs it will be able to access it. You can install Open Access Button as a browser extension or you can use their website. You can get Unpaywall on all desktop browsers – as an extension for Chrome and Firefox (and soon one for Edge) and as a Bookmarklet for all others.

CORE is a service that pulls together a collection of over 125 millions of open access harvested research outputs. Many of the extensions mentioned above use this aggregated tool, but you can search from the website too.

Google Scholar enables you to search articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Although some people are reluctant to use Scholar because it’s seen as less credible than academic databases, it can be a really useful tool. It’s doesn’t always find all the material that academic databases (such as ASSIA, PsycINFO, PubMed, Scopus, Social Services Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts, and Web of Science) do, but it also finds material that isn’t in these databases but which can be high quality and relevant. We find it can be a good starting point for searching alongside academic databases.

Something we really like about Scholar is how it connects you to content that’s paywalled but available through The Knowledge Network. If you set it up to link to your NHSScotland OpenAthens login (through the Settings > library links > enter Knowledge Network Library Search – NHSScotland Journals), it can show you which articles you can access through the The Knowledge Network subscriptions. If you’ve installed an extension like Kopernio above, it will work alongside this as well to point you to free versions of articles where it has found these.

A particularly useful feature of Google Scholar is it shows you who the article you’re looking at has been ‘cited by’ – you can follow these links to find other relevant information.

Edited to add:

You can search for open access versions of papers if you have the DOI of the document, by using To do this, simply replace with in any DOI link. For example, change to

Another way to do this is to add the DOI information to the end of For example, copy and paste 10.1016/j.jalgebra.2015.09.023 to the end of to make

* The Knowledge Network offer accounts to everyone who helps provide health and social care in Scotland in conjunction with the NHS and Scottish Local Authorities, including many in the third and independent sectors. You can register here.

Many thanks to Alex Clarke, Research Engagement Librarian at the University of Bristol for some of the content provided here. It was originally posted on the University of Bristol Library website.

We hope this is a useful starting point for getting hold of research, and if you’d like more support please do contact the ESSS team at Iriss – we’re here to help with little niggly questions or big ones, technical or topic-based.

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