Searching for free research

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Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Gill Ragsdale’s guide to finding the right research

A great deal of research is carried out on language learning and teaching. This could help teachers develop the most effective programmes and resources for their situation and further their professional development. In reality, though, few practitioners make use of published research, for three reasons.

The first major issue is access. Historically, research has been published to be read by other researchers, who access journals via their university’s paid subscriptions. This has kept most original research behind a paywall and beyond the reach of non-academics. Teachers can buy research – but that’s expensive, typically £20-30 for a 10-30-page article, the same price as a good 200-page textbook.

There is a growing movement towards freely available, online Open Access publishing. In fact, under UK law, any research funded by the government must available for free, though the law is different in different countries.

A few newer journals are completely Open Access, but most journals are still subscription only, although some now have a mix. In some cases, authors can opt to pay to make their article Open Access. Overall though, the bulk of research is still being published behind a paywall that only those with access to a university library can access.

The second major problem is the sheer quantity of published research. So many hours of my life have been lost down the rabbit hole of literature searches. It might begin with looking for studies on a new method for teaching reading skills and somehow, hours later, I am reading about how ancient Greek was taught in Roman times.

A good way into a particular topic is to find the most recent review article, which should cite the major papers and researchers in the field (add the term ‘review’ to your search).

The third issue is jargon-dense, impenetrable content. Too often in academia writers prioritise impressing their peers over being clearly understood. Some topic areas are worse offenders than others. Linguistics certainly has more than enough technical jargon as a subject and would benefit from a clear and simple writing style.

Finding it for free

1 Search Google Scholar

Use Google Scholar rather than just Google. You can easily sign up (search Google for Google Scholar) and search academic content on the web.

Unlike the databases used by universities (e.g. Web of Science), Google Scholar includes all academic books and journals – including ‘fake’ journals from predatory publishers – so you will need to check the source if you are unfamiliar with the journal.

Google scholar ranks the results depending on how many times the article has been cited by others. That means you can easily spot the more influential articles on a topic. This can also lead to a cycle of cited articles getting more citations, making it hard for other articles to be noticed, so look further than the top results.

2 Open Access options

Don’t assume you have to pay – always check whether the term ‘Open Access’ appears somewhere on the page with the article abstract. Some articles, even in subscription journals, are set for open access.

ELT Journal has some Open Access articles and other free content, like the six-monthly ‘Key concepts in ELT’. CALICO (US-based journal for CALL) research articles become open access after three years.

Search the Directory of Open Access Journals (doaj.org) for journals in your field. TESL-EJ (the electronic ESL journal), L2 Journal (US-based journal on language learning and teaching in general), Language Learning & Technology (US -based) are all free to view.

Check reputable collections such as OASIS, ELT Research Bites or MESH (for teachers generally) for article summaries. ELT Research Bites also has a list of Open Access Journals (at the time of writing, the contact page was disabled so it is unclear if this site is being maintained).

3 Access to subscription-only articles

Sometimes the abstract tells you as much as you need to know, but if you want the full paper you can probably get it. Very often, the first author will have links to the pdf of their papers on their personal or departmental webpage. If not, a polite email requesting a copy of their paper is likely to be met favourably – authors love it when people want to read their papers.

4 Check the source

Check the article comes from a peer-reviewed journal listed on, e.g. https://mjl.clarivate.com/home or https://www.scimagojr.com/. There are a lot of fake journals making money by asking authors to pay to publish. These have no review process, they will publish anything.

Entirely different are the new peer-reviewed Open Access journals, who ask authors to pay for publication but make the content freely available.

Image courtesy of WIKIMEDIA