Back in my university days, I got into the habit of saving papers I had to read to my hard disk. At first I did this simply to organize them more conveniently, and have quicker access to them.

However, my reasons for saving those papers to disk gradually changed as graduation approached. In the end, I saved a lot of papers, because at one point I realized that I had unrestricted, unlimited, free access to an absolutely fantastic source of richness, and that soon after graduation, I'd lose all of that.

Years later, I now frequently end up in discussions, or get asked questions, or otherwise end up at a point where a common access to one of those papers really helps to progress the discussion. I often just send that paper around without thinking twice about it, more because I believe that's how science should work than anything else.

I believe most of those papers are however not in the public domain, meaning, people not associated with a university or other institution that has access, can not access the paper without some payment to its official publisher.

So is any of this legal? If not, what are the possible repercussions for me personally, and for the people I sent it to?

I realize this is a touchy issue, and there are many initiatives to open scientific publications up for the general public. A related question would be: do these initiatives (like all of these) exist partly because of this reason?


2 Answers 2


So is any of this legal?

Unless your sharing falls under fair use in your particular country (and with the Internet, sharing online is a tricky business anyway), you should not share the papers.

If you want to share the papers, linking to the original source is the best option, and Google Scholar or other online repositories can get you pretty far with a lot of material. If you can't find an online source, you are limited to providing a cite and hope that whoever wants to find the article can use their library to source it.

If not, what are the possible repercussions for me personally, and for the people I sent it to?

Practically? Unless you are sharing the files openly to a broad audience (i.e., so they are available online), no one is going to track you down to sue you. I would avoid linking directly to articles that aren't behind a paywall, but emailing them to people you are collaborating with is unlikely to cause you any trouble.


As your user page indicates that you are in Germany, you may be interested in §53 UrhG:

(2) Zulässig ist, einzelne Vervielfältigungsstücke eines Werkes herzustellen oder herstellen zu lassen

  1. zum eigenen wissenschaftlichen Gebrauch, wenn und soweit die Vervielfältigung zu diesem Zweck geboten ist und sie keinen gewerblichen Zwecken dient,

(Rough translation:
(2) it is permitted to make or let be made single copies of a work
1. for personal scientific use, if and as far as copying is needed for this reason and is not for commercial reasons,


which is a kind of continental european fair use policy.

Working in science I think that putting papers I read in a personal private archive is needed - if only to be able to answer specific claims or questions about papers I cite in my papers, presentations, ....

  • Good point - I wonder whether the case "herstellen zu lassen" / "let be made" would apply to the situation where a colleague asks me to send him a copy of a paper I happen to have in my archive?
    – silvado
    Jun 3, 2013 at 13:40
  • @silvado: No idea, I'd be inclined to read it that way, but I'm chemist, no laywer. I usually interpret it the way that it is OK if I nicely ask our librarian whether she can email me the paper to which I should have access in general but don't have from my office. However, §53 UrhG is longer and has a quite substantial list of exceptions. Note that we pay for every sheet of printer paper, every copying machine, scanner, etc. fees that go into an authors' fund, so in a way you anyways pay for the copy. Jun 3, 2013 at 21:20
  • Right, the copying fees should cover that. It's also a nice money source for academic authors: academia.stackexchange.com/a/8701/3890 .
    – silvado
    Jun 4, 2013 at 8:43

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