Chapter 3: Searching

3.3 Paywalls and access

The open web and paywalls

The open web is composed of everything you can access online without logging in or paying fees. It is the public side of the Internet. The open web is anything that doesn’t have a paywall. 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 NKU) 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. 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. The Open Access movement is a solution to making information like this accessible.

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.


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

Open Access

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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LIN 175: Information Literacy Copyright © 2022 by Steely Library Education & Outreach Services, Northern Kentucky University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.