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When I am at home and looking for journal articles I often find article PDFs through google that have been uploaded to various websites (e.g., universities, institutions, arbitrary websites, etc...).

I am worried that using these files may infringe copyright since these articles may be bought by these universities (for example) and (by mistake?) were freely uploaded to their domain name like: (probably for their own students?).

  • Is it ethical to use these downloaded PDFs during my research without going back to my own university elibrary to use them?
  • When, if ever, would I be breaching copyright or breaching professional ethics if I accessed these files?

EDIT: my question also covers books as, sometimes, these are entirely available on some sites (whether they are institutional sites or not).

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You may want to distinguish ethics question (is it ethical..?) from legal questions (infringing copyrights). – Greg Feb 15 at 4:30
If you download copyrighted material, then you make a copy. If making a copy is not allowed by the copyright holder, then you are breaking the law. Whether you want to do this is your decision, but don't kid yourself. – gnasher729 Feb 15 at 12:51
@gnasher729 Depends on the jusrisdiction in a given country. Making a copy for personal use is indeed permitted by law in some countries and authors and publishers are getting some money for it by other means. – Vladimir F Feb 15 at 16:50
@gnasher729 - From a certain technical perspective, the server providing the document is the one that has made the copy and transmitted it over the internet. Once you're viewing it at your computer, it's already "downloaded". In that regard, I doubt you could get prosecuted for this, as the server could potentially entrap anyone who visits a website by simply serving viewers copyrighted documents. – Hao Ye Feb 15 at 18:57
I don't see how anyone can give a definitive answer to a question about ethics. Personally, I find the current US and world copyright regimes themselves to be unethical, especially in the case of academic papers that have been paid for with tax money. @HaoYe, the question doesn't ask whether you can be prosecuted, it asks whether it's unethical. – Ben Crowell Feb 15 at 23:42
up vote 41 down vote accepted

Yes, it is absolutely ethical to use these files during your research. Many publishers allow academic authors to upload a so-called "preprint" version of a paper to their own institutional websites or put them in repositories, and of course these can be used by others in research.

There's maybe just two minor things to be careful about:

  1. You should try to verify that the preprint version is mostly up to date with the published version, comparing e.g. publication dates.
  2. It is common practice to put the "official" publication source, i.e., the journal version, into your reference list. Nevertheless, if you can't make sure that the versions are equivalent regarding what you're citing them for, it may be necessary to state that you were using a preprint version.

In some cases, authors may put papers online even though it's technically a breach of copyright. But since you don't know the author's agreement with the publisher, you have no way of checking that, and in any case, it would be the author or institution that violates copyright, but not you.

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@R.AS. Unless the URL is in some way official (e.g., arxiv or institutional repository), you generally would not include it in an offical reference. Include the doi instead. Random URLs (e.g., to pdfs of course websites) die often. You may find that such URLs no longer work a year or two later. – Jeromy Anglim Feb 15 at 5:43
@R.AS. Adding an incorrect location for something is unhelpful. It's a bit like saying 'available at Waterstones', and I go to Waterstones and find they don't stock it after all. At least you should include the date it was available. But the DOI is designed to remove that problem. – Jessica B Feb 15 at 8:27
One issue this otherwise good answer overlooks is that, IME, fairly often the PDFs found by Google Scholar may be on sites that are clearly not affiliated with the author, and which may not even be intentionally public (e.g. course web pages that are meant only for sharing material with students in the course, but which have been accidentally leaked to Google's index). Whether or not using such sources is ethical, it's not really the same situation as when the author him/herself has made the paper freely downloadable. – Ilmari Karonen Feb 15 at 12:10
My usual publisher/journal (OUP/MNRAS) gives me a 'free-access' link to my papers when they are published that I may post on my website. Anyone can use the link to get a free copy of the official journal version of my papers. I'm not sure why they allow this, but it is explicitly allowed. – Kyle Feb 15 at 20:02
@JeromyAnglim: beware that ensuring DOI to point to the paper even after website move etc. is the publisher responsibility, so DOI may break too. Beside, there are URL or identifiers that have proven quite stable, notably arXiv ones. – Benoît Kloeckner Feb 16 at 10:14

I mostly agree with silvado's answer but want to emphasize a couple of different things.

  1. It is ethical to look at freely available pre/e-prints, if they are permitted by the publisher. They often are, and often are not, but it is not your responsibility to check. However, you should cite published versions, which means you should look at published versions to make sure they contain what you want and section/page/etc numbered references are correct. At most universities, you can get access to the university e-library from home by logging in.
  2. Many libraries (including mine) monitor how often journals are electronically accessed through the library subscription, and use this to determine the value of this journal subscription. Journals with less perceived value (from the library's point of view) may get cut to account for rising costs of other publications and/or budget cuts. So it can be beneficial for both the journal and the university for you to make the effort to download the article through the library subscription.
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#2 is especially important. – El-Kurto Feb 14 at 20:35
Thank you for the answer. So, does that answer my question if I, after reading what is available online, simply go ahead and cite the information of the originally published material with the name, vol, issue... information? Since it's not efficient to go and search for the hard copy of every published journal and I can assume that what I am looking at online is the actual hard one since they usually start at a specific range, as if it's cut and paste from the journal itself. – R. AS. Feb 15 at 3:10
@R.AS. From your question (the word "(e)library"), I assumed you could get electronic access to the official article through the journal website. I would only assume what you download from some other site (e.g., author's webpage) is the same as the published version if the journal+publisher name and correct page numbers appear in the header/footer of the article. – Kimball Feb 15 at 4:08
I don't understand #2: if you can access all of the journal's papers through other means, then what how is the subscription beneficial to the university? (I can see the benefit for the publisher, obviously.) – Najib Idrissi Feb 15 at 10:04
-1 because the question is about ethics, and the answer claims to be about ethics, but the answer only actually addresses legality, which is a completely different issue – Ben Crowell Feb 16 at 0:05

I wanted to chip in on this one. Where I live and do research, we have intermittent access to literature. For instance, right now, and probably until April this year, we don't have. Nonetheless, to exist as a scientist, one must have access to literature. So, I do everything in my power to get papers even though it's not "ethical" from the point of view of publishers.

I do not feel guilty about this, because my research is supposed to be done for the people, not for myself. If I get a good result that leads to some new technology, everyone, including the publishers, will benefit from it. Besides, it is about survival in research. Without constant access to literature, I could just as well close the shop and buy a mop for my new career.

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I'm very sorry that I can only give one +1 to this answer! It's very easy to do research and think about ethics when you have a university library paying for the access. It's a completely different thing when you don't and need to go and beg you friends/colleagues for help, or when you need to pay out of your own pocket! – AndrejaKo Feb 15 at 8:53
@AndrejaKo: I think it's pretty easy either way. I see nothing unethical whatsoever about the behaviour described in this post. – tomasz Feb 15 at 20:44

One thing not mentioned in the answers written so far: in some fields, including applied mathematics, many leading journals now allow the author to put the final typeset article on his/her website. This is exactly the same version provided by the journal. For instance, all SIAM and AMS journals now allow this. So in this case there is no concern about copyright for either you or the author, and no need to worry about whether the version is "up-to-date".

I make almost all my papers available in this way.

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Formerly, IEEE was allowing that as well. Unfortunately, they changed this policy some time ago, and are now only allowing the author's version to be put online. – silvado Feb 15 at 10:00

I would like to point to and and the sequel to that.

where it is argued that yes, this is morally perfectly fine.

Quote from the second link:

In her letter to Sweet, Elbakyan made a point that will likely come as a shock to many outside the academic community: Researchers and universities don’t earn a single penny from the fees charged by publishers such as Elsevier for accepting their work, while Elsevier has an annual income over a billion U.S. dollars. Elbakyan explains: “I would also like to mention that Elsevier is not a creator of these papers. All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects. That is very different from the music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold. But the economics of research papers is very different. Authors of these papers do not receive money. Why would they send their work to Elsevier then? They feel pressured to do this, because Elsevier is an owner of so-called "high-impact” journals. If a researcher wants to be recognized, make a career — he or she needs to have publications in such journals.”

This is the Catch-22. Why would any self-respecting researcher willingly hand over, for nothing, the copyright to their hard work to an organization that will profit from the work by making the keys prohibitively expensive to the few people who want to read it? The answer is ultimately all to do with career prospects and prestige. Researchers are rewarded in jobs and promotions for publishing in high-ranking journals such as Nature.

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The researchers get paid (by their institution, by grants, ...) to produce said papers, and they also pay for making them available to the researchers (by subscribing to the journals, buying the books, ...). Very different from the case of artists. – vonbrand Feb 16 at 19:06

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