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Two New Services Aim to Improve Access to Scholarly PDFs
Posted On October 3, 2017
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The Past

When I began my library career in 1966, the most advanced technology in the large public library where I worked was the copy machine. When I retired 50 years later, technology had not only improved what libraries did, but also changed it. In the 1970s, the library added a computer system to bar code all of its books, but only for circulation purposes. In the 1980s, this system morphed into an online catalog with full MARC records, replacing the card catalog. By the millennium, webpacks were running, displaying a library’s holdings to anyone in the world. In the next decade, the webpack became a delivery system to get articles and books into patrons’ hands, whether they were in the library or at home. At the ALA 2017 Annual Conference, I scoffed at the Library and Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Technology Trends session when panelists claimed that the OPAC is dead. The same panel barely mentioned online catalogs. The CEO of one of the larger ILS companies said at the conference that the last new platform for online catalogs is now 2 decades old.

Meanwhile, databases such as the ones from ProQuest and Gale evolved in a way similar to the discovery platforms that overlay or replace most webpacks. There is a search bar for your topic, with facets on the left to drill down to a specific topic. That is why I was quite intrigued when I checked out two new products that work in a completely different sphere. Both of them entered the marketplace in 2017, and both are useful in their own ways. Unpaywall is a service that searches the entire universe of free PDFs and notifies you if there is access to an article that appears to be locked. Kopernio cuts through the red tape and grants access to PDFs, even if you are not at the library. In both cases, you need to visit the Chrome Web Store and download the add-on. (They are also available on Firefox.) Both services seem to be exclusively for desktop computers.


Unpaywall and Kopernio help you get to more useful scholarly information on the web. I was surprised to see that in both services there is no search bar, even after you sign up. I first took advantage of the free sign-in for Unpaywall. I went to PubMed and searched articles about the treatment of asthma. I did find one that was freely accessible, but I noted a “locked” icon on the side of the screen. When I clicked on that, there was a message that Unpaywall could not find any free access to this article. Next, I went to ScienceDirect, which has a vast library of scientific information—including thousands of articles that are OA. I searched the topic “dwarf galaxies” and called up the first record. Elsevier said that it was a subscription article with no further access to independent researchers. I then noted an “unlocked” icon in green (see the first image in the upper right-hand corner of this article). Sure enough, this turned out to be an article that would have otherwise been locked to anything short of an interlibrary loan request or a visit to a different library. Unpaywall does what it claims to do, even if not every time.

I was curious about how this product came about and found this on its FAQ page: “Now more than ever, humanity needs to access our collective knowledge, not hoard it behind paywalls. Lots of researchers feel the same; that’s why they upload their papers to free, legal servers online. We want to help bring that open access content to the masses.”

The FAQ page also says that the service is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It was built and is supported by Impactstory, which is dedicated to the dissemination of OA research.


Kopernio turned out to be a bit tougher to evaluate. According to its co-founder, Ben Kaube, “Kopernio integrates with library subscriptions, so you can continue to access journal PDFs even when you are off campus without the need for a VPN [virtual private network].” As a retired librarian, I don’t have access to any databases through a college subscription, so I could not take a firsthand look at the most important claim of off-site access. I did ask Kaube if I could make this work through my account with the New York Public Library, but I was told that, so far, it had only worked with higher education institutions. He clarified, “Kopernio works for researchers without institutional subscriptions (though of course they will only see PDFs hosted on ‘open’ sources online such as pre-print servers, institutional repositories, blogs and of course OA articles).”

Like Unpaywall, Kopernio is a Chrome and Firefox add-on for the desktop. I tried it in Google Scholar, and the free version worked just fine. As with Unpaywall, you do not see the icons until you bring up the full record. Once you are in a record with an accessible PDF, the Kopernio page is invoked at the top of the screen, giving you access to a “Locker” to hold your articles (see the second image in the upper right-hand corner of this article).

I asked Kaube about its funding model. “Kopernio is free for researchers to use with development self-funded by the team,” he said. “We are currently working on some premium features for institutions and individual researchers. These features will include increased cloud storage space for accessed papers, integration with other research workflow tools (e.g. Dropbox) and advanced functionality for organising papers.”

Kopernio was initially called Canary Haz and was developed by a pair of academic researchers in the U.K. As it has only been available since summer 2017, it is not surprising that it’s hard to find libraries that have signed on to the service. Kaube notes that the response from current users has been enthusiastic.


As I noted earlier in this article, technology has turned the library world on its head. Instead of a place that carefully preserves paper materials for the ages, the library is a hub for disseminating online books and articles to credentialed patrons. By the time I retired, the online catalog in our library contained two ebooks for every paper title. Sites such as Unpaywall and Kopernio herald the news that the information revolution is far from over.


Dalmeet Singh Chawla, April 4, 2017, “Unpaywall Finds Free Versions of Paywalled Papers,” Nature. Accessed Oct. 3, 2017.

Guus van den Brekel, Aug. 9, 2017, “KOPERNIO (Previously Canary Haz) Extension to Find PDF’s …” DigiCMB, University of Groningen. Accessed Oct. 3, 2017.

Nicoleta Nastase, Aug. 17, 2017, “The Open Access Road to Content,” Library Trends. Accessed Oct. 3, 2017.

Terry Ballard is the author of three books and more than 100 articles about library automation. In addition to several writing awards, Ballard was given the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 and appears in the 2020 edition of Who’s Who in America. Further information can be found at, and he can be reached at

Email Terry Ballard

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