JSTOR and many other academic publishers often want 30 to 40 dollars an article. An article! You can see how this can quickly become untenable for someone on a budget. Heck, that's a lot for someone who even has some means (I wouldn't say I have means, but I do consider myself firmly middle-class.)
I, of course, believe knowledge should be freely available. I certainly do realize that science is indeed expensive, which is why I go about looking for things for free. I can't afford to pay 40 dollars an article except in a very great while.
I obviously like science a great deal and consider myself a lay enthusiast for the Earth and Space sciences. Over the years I've amassed quite a library, much it for free. I thought I'd share some of the methods I've used and I hope others share their methods too.
First: Get a library card. This will come in handy via interlibrary loan and other agreements. My county library does have EBSCOHost, and does link up with the main academic State Library in Harrisburg. Not everyone has this option either but I have a State Library card through my job. It's "officially" for work only purposes--I never use it for that. So far, no one's called me on it. If you can, use the option.
Libraries are vitally important and austerity is killing them. We have to keep them open. We have to keep using them.
Second: Know who wrote the paper and the paper's title. I've written in the past about my ever increasing irritation at "Science" writers who neglect to name the actual paper in their articles. Okay, I admit it. It drives me to drink.
Knowing the authors and the title is the first step. I've noticed as of late that journalists are including these (and that media outlets are finally hiring journalists who actually are science minded). It'd be nice if university press releases did the same--I still find that they really don't.
You can contact the authors for a copy. They may never reply. But a thing I have noticed is many do maintain their own university websites, if they teach, or other sites, if they work for an agency. In seismology for example, here are three who I reference a great deal and have a great deal of their work available for everyone:
There's a very good chance the article you want is on their site. More and more researchers are placing their work on their own personal webpages. They too recognize how ridiculous costs are and recognize the public interest in their work. They may be preprints and they may have watermarks and other rules programmed into their PDFS (like you can't print them, or edit them), but they are out there.
Third: Find out who paid for it. The USGS, for example funds a great many studies, and most of them are publicly available.
PNAS also is a resource.
Fourth: Search for Open Source Journals. Now these may be of variable quality. I generally start with Google Scholar and work from there. Google Scholar used to give a lot of great links but it no longer does.
Here are a few open source sources
PLOS (mostly medical and biological sciences)
arXiv (Physical sciences)
Tsunami Society (older issues are maintained by Los Alamos National Laboratories)
Open Science Journal
NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
National Science Foundation
Nature Preceedings (although it is no longer accepting new data)
ViXRA (quality here really varies)
Fifth: Read science blogs (ScienceBlogs is a good start, and if you like Earth Science All Geo, a Science Blogs spinoff, is indispensable), and if you are on twitter or other social media, find scientists to follow. They blog and tweet about their research.
My last tip is only if you can afford it: Join an association in the field of your interest and/or subscribe to Nature when they offer their annual sale. They've done so two years in a row, so I'm hoping they do so next year too. You'll have access to many, if not all, of their journals, and even lay people can join.
Share yours below. What are some of your sources?