Chapter 2: Locating information

2.2 Paywalls and access

The open web

The open web is composed of everything you can access online without logging in or paying fees. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web as a means for researchers to easily share information. He wanted the internet to be available to everyone and not controlled by governments or corporations, which is one reason why there is such a wide variety of content online today.

The open web includes content that ranges across a spectrum of quality and topic areas. You can find high-quality and reliable research material, but you can also find someone’s personal website dedicated to their cat. The internet is full of sources that may or may not be reputable, so you need to critically evaluate all the sources you find. The key factor is that all of the open web is free to access.

Behind paywalls

In contrast to the open web, resources behind a paywall are only available to paying subscribers. A paywall is a system that limits access to content so that users must:

  • pay a fee,
  • log in (so they can collect data about you), or
  • be members of a community (like ISU) that has paid subscription fees for them.

For example, Netflix is a subscription service that keeps its content (streaming movies and television shows) behind a paywall.

Did you know?

When you create a free account with a site to get more access, you’re providing information about yourself and your online activity. So, while access to a resource may be free, you are still trading something in exchange for this access. Companies collect information about you so they can target ads to your interests based on your activities or sell your information.

The majority of scholarly resources are also locked behind paywalls. This means that people across the world are shut out from accessing many scholarly materials.

Access screen that asks for the user to either log in, or sign in using an institutional login. There is also a section outlining purchase options (to buy or subscribe) to gain access to the article PDF.
Figure 2.1 An example of what you might encounter on a site with a paywall

Librarians and scholars are working to develop more scholarly journals that are high-quality yet low-cost or totally free to access, allowing people to use them regardless of their ability to pay. Open access materials don’t require a subscription or login to use. Open access materials can be books, articles, theses, and even datasets. Sometimes, an author can share an earlier version of their paywalled content. Before giving up on finding a paper, check if the author made an open access version available with a tool like the Unpaywall application.


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Library 160: Introduction to College-Level Research Copyright © 2021 by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.