So many abstracts, but where are the PDFs?

We have reviewed a number of journal apps lately. Some, like Read by QxMD and Docphin, are designed for both browsing and reading of medical journals, whether it is intentional or serendipitous. Others, like PubMed for Handhelds, PubMed on Tap, and Unbound MEDLINE, allow you to search PubMed for articles on a topic. One question common to users of any of these apps is how to get to the full text of the manuscripts you need.

That’s what we’re going to review here.

Most of these apps use the free citation content out of PubMed, which is essentially a database of citations from 6,000 top medical journals. It is important to remember that PubMed consists of citations, not full text articles. All that any of these apps can do is provide the citation, and that means article title, author, journal name… you get the picture.

The full text itself is usually behind a pay-wall. Publishers may make it available online, but not without an individual subscription, an institutional subscription, or a one-time purchase (usually about $35). This kind of locked up content is usually referred to as “publisher full text.”

An increasing number of scientific articles are available for free, thanks to the open access movement and to mandatory public access requirements such as the NIH Public Access policy. This “free full text” is usually directly linked in any apps using PubMed citation data and is easy to connect to.

The “publisher full text” is trickier. There are a few ways apps and search engines can connect you to this content that lives behind a pay-wall:

1. Offer you the default publisher full text button.

This is the default in PubMed online and is available in many of the PubMed apps, including Unbound MEDLINE.

So what happens when you click on this button? It depends. If you are on a network of an institution that subscribes to that journal, you will likely get into the full text of the article just fine. If you are affiliated with an institution with a subscription but aren’t on their network, you will probably be asked to sign in as an individual subscriber (not your university credentials) or buy the article for a one-time fee.

This paywall is what anyone without an institutional affiliation will also see.

2. Allow you to add your institutional proxy server address in settings.

This option for authenticating affiliated users allows them to enter in their proxy server URL in the settings portion of the app. PubMed on Tap works this way. Generally the URLs look something like “ don’t exactly roll off the tongue; you’ll also need username and password. Consider contacting your medical librarian for help on that.

What happens when you click on the full text link in PubMed On Tap or other app using this option? Once you have configured the app with the right URL, you should be able to click on any full text link and get to the full text of the journals your institution subscribes to whether you are on the network or off. The app will not be smart enough to tell you what you have, so you may hit some dead ends.

What about unaffiliated users? There’s nothing to put in the settings, so the full text buttons generally result in a paywall unless marked as free full text.

3. Enable you to authenticate when you open the app & set up an account.

Apps that use this front-loaded authentication include Docphin and Read by QXMD. Both apps require you to create an account in order to use the app. While creating the account, you indicate any institutional affiliation and are prompted to sign in using that institution’s authentication. You generally do not need to know the convoluted URL, but are instead presented with a familiar university or medical center sign in page.

What happens when you click on the full text link? The app already knows you’re an affiliated user and passes your credentials through to your institution, which serves up the full text in the app.

What about unaffiliated users? Generally, apps will let you create accounts and access the free citations and the limited free full text without connecting to an institution. You just won’t be able to get to the content that lives behind a paywall unless you are willing to buy the article (usually around $35, though the future may bring lower prices for non-PDF article rentals).

Which of these is ideal? The ideal app would show you what you have access to in a transparent way. But, given the complexity of how institutions license journal content and the resulting ever-shifting catalogues, that isn’t available in these free apps.

For users without institutional licenses who pay for their own journal subscriptions, these apps can help identify articles on a topic. Users will just have to type in their personal usernames and passwords once they connect to the journal page from the app.

Our preferred method is to connect people to their institution’s authentication system (option 3 above). This prompts people to sign in when needed and uses existing usernames and passwords. It also saves the end user from having to learn his or her proxy URL.

We hope that more apps will adopt this user-friendly solution for getting people to the full text.