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How white paper writers can use high-priced sources

To be an effective white paper writer, you must find good sources to back up your argument.

But what if you locate what seems like a great source, but you can’t afford to access it?

What if you find a market study with a price tag of $4,995?

Or a promising article you can’t download without subscribing to an academic journal or joining some association for hundreds of dollars?

How can you legally see and quote from a source you can’t afford to access?

Here are five possible workarounds you can try.

Workaround #1: Continue Googling

Once you have the precise title you’re looking for, try Googling that exact name. And don’t stop on the first page of search results; look through the first three pages or so.

You just might find the whole report ready to download!

It’s amazing, but sometimes a partner loads a research report on their own website for their own visitors.

This is certainly not to condone any fly-by-night site set up to pirate copyrighted material. (I’ve even found my commercially published book White Papers For Dummies online at a few pirate sites!)

Some research is sponsored by vendors or partners, who can legally release it for their own purposes. It’s a long shot, but I sometimes find exactly what I’m looking for this way.

Workaround #2: Look for a press release

Many commercial publishers issue press releases that highlight all the key nuggets of their reports. Press releases are free and you can quote from them without cost or permission.

Here’s how you could quote and footnote a press release without buying the whole report:

According to a recent report from Acme HR Metrics, 2 out of 3 IT staffers wear out-of-fashion shoes, ties, and jackets. At least half sport unkempt facial hair and glasses right out of the 80s. Poor fashion sense is costing staffers juicy work assignments and even promotions.¹

1: “Poor fashion sense holds back 67% of IT workers: survey,” press release from Acme HR Metrics, 29 March 2016.

Workaround #3: Find a secondary source

Magazines, blogs, and journals often quote from reports sent to media outlets. Then a journalist may write an article that sums up all the key findings.

In that case, you can use the key factoids you need, introduce them with an in-text reference, and footnote the secondary source.

Here’s how you could quote and footnote a published article without seeing the original report:

InfoWorld recently reported on a survey that revealed 67% of IT workers dress like nerds, complete with scuffed shoes, fly-away beards, and glasses left over from the 80s. Poor fashion choices cost these staffers dearly in promotions and raises.²

2: “Dirty shoes? Geeky glasses? Kiss that promotion goodbye, says survey,” InfoWorld, 7 April 2016, p. 4.

Photo of the Metro TO ref library

Workaround #4: Use a library with access to online databases

Though I no longer live in Toronto, I’m still a member of the Metro Toronto Reference Library. This is a stupendous resource for any researcher.

My library card costs me less than $100 a year and gives me online access to hundreds of journals. That card pays for itself every time I download three or four journal articles I would otherwise never be able to see.

Many college graduates can get free—or very low-cost—access to top-notch research libraries with the same kind of privileges.

Check it out with your alma mater; it could be worth it!

Workaround #5: Just ask

As teachers say in every kindergarten class in the land, “Use your words. Ask for what you want.”

Why not try asking a report publisher or editor for access to the executive summary or an excerpt?

Or ask for a brief interview of 15 minutes to discuss the specific topic you’re writing about.

For example, I had one editor bend over backwards, faxing me several pages from an article he’d researched that was perfect for a white paper I was writing for a healthcare client.

I wasn’t a subscriber, but he was a very helpful person who went to a lot of trouble for me: He went through his back copies, scanned the article twice (the first time it wasn’t readable) and emailed me two sets of PDFs. And he did it all late Friday afternoon after quitting time.

So you never know. They might say yes.

Here’s how to quote and footnote a telephone interview with the editor of a report:

Dress for success? They’d rather not. The fourth annual survey of job prospects for IT workers from ACME HR Metrics revealed that a majority of those who hire IT workers (67%) admit fashion choices are a factor in choosing candidates for promotions and special assignments. Ill-advised choices include ratty running shoes, messy hair and beards, and outdated clothing.³

3: Jackie Bird, editor, Acme HR Metrics, telephone interview, 30 March 2016.

Information wants to be free—not!

cover opf original whole earth catalog


Useful information is worth paying for.

That’s why I totally disagree with the silly notion that “information wants to be free.”

Information doesn’t “want” anything.

People—aka non-paying mooches—want something for nothing.

This quote originally came from Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of cool eco-friendly stuff from the late 1960s.


But his full quote is seldom given:

“On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life.

“On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.

“So there’s an ongoing tension between those who assemble information and those who use information.”

That tension is getting more and more intense, just as Brand predicted.

What’s a reasonable price?

I believe there are reasonable costs for information and reasonable policies for accessing it.

I will cheerfully shell out $8 or $12 for an article from an esteemed source like the Harvard Business Review. Especially when I can read it online and I know it includes a quote I can use in a white paper.

I don’t even expense that to my client.

But there’s no way I’m paying $35 each for a dozen journal articles I can’t see in advance. That means risking hundreds of dollars to check out a crop of articles that may not yield anything I can use.

If I can’t access a source through the workarounds listed above, I’ll just pass on it and keep looking.

Good luck with your white paper research!


Have you found any other workarounds for accessing research for a white paper? Please leave your comments below.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. Bob Bly on March 10, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    I use #2 all the time–it’s easy, quick, free, and gives you the key facts you want without having to search through a lengthy journal article or market research report.

  2. sarah on March 10, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    I’ve just discovered #3 – as a natural health writer, discovering the resources available through the portal of the public library (or my daughter’s college library) is phenomenal. And yes, I’ve found #1 provides what I need often enough!

  3. Sarah Greesonbach on March 10, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Superb ideas here! I am so behind the “Just ask” philosophy. We’re always on the lookout for how we can help others, so sometimes asking is just giving that person an opportunity to feel great about doing a favor (within reason, though… obviously never expecting someone to do something for you, just being pleasantly surprised when they do).

  4. Prabu Rajasekaran on March 10, 2016 at 10:22 pm

    May I add a few more ideas:

    Slideshare: Sometimes the main points of a premium report are available as presentations in Slideshare.

    Search for a phrase: If you even have a few phrases or sentences from the report you can Googling for it. It might lead to sources that have indexed the report or as per #2, lead you to secondary references.

  5. Phil Bogan on March 11, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    How do you access press releases?

    • Gordon Graham on March 11, 2016 at 2:31 pm

      3 quick ways:

      1. On the website for an analyst firm there is usually an area called something like “Pressroom” or “News releases” where you can find all their press releases, usually in chronological order. You can search for the name of a report or a topic within press releases.

      2. Sometimes a report’s landing page features a link to a related press release.

      3. Or you can Google something like “press release on [name of report or topic]”

  6. Chris Quirk on June 28, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Late to the game here but Google Books is an excellent resource for scholarly/research information. The search results will direct you to the relevant pages within each volume. It doesn’t cover academic papers of course, and some books or pages are withheld from view. Not as up-to-date as journal papers often, but you can find some amazing and useful info. Worth a go, especially if you are researching something obscure. Guarantee someone has written a book on it!

    • Gordon Graham on June 28, 2016 at 9:15 pm

      Thanks Chris, of course that’s a good tip to use Google Books!

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