There are a few sites which offer paid articles for free. It’s something unethical, especially for those who upload to that site, but for me, it’s good for expanding knowledge.

As a readers, can we cite those documents, and can the editorial board know that I’m using those articles?

  • 23
    This is a great question. It seems that you are not asking about the ethics of downloading articles from questionable sites, but only the ethics afterwards - when the downloading is already a fait accompli, and the real question is whether citing said document counts as an additional unethical act above and beyond what you did when you downloaded it (e.g. "citing a document obtained through an unauthorized route"). Does this sound right? Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 18:04
  • 15
    That the provenance of a source actually used be questionable in no way makes it anything other than completely unethical to fail to cite the source that has been used. This seems entirely obvious.
    – Dan Fox
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 20:26
  • 68
    Note that illegal and unethical are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, many academics (also on this site) do not consider illegal access to articles behind paywall to be at all unethical.
    – tomasz
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 22:34
  • 18
    @tomasz : also, in many jurisdictions, it's not the downloading is what is illegal (or at least enforceably illegal), but the uploading to such sites.
    – vsz
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 5:41
  • 14
    @DanFox You certainly didn't fail to avoid omitting double negatives there. Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 18:12

8 Answers 8

  1. Nobody will know how you have gained access to the article. Feel free to cite articles found via whatever sources.

  2. It might not even be illegal to download content from the website; check your local laws and Berne convention (if your country is signed up) to be sure. In any case, this is unlikely to affect your reputation in any way.

  3. Remember to cite the source appropriately; a journal or a book, not a pirate website or any other medium. The pirate website is usually not the publisher. You do not cite the university that has bought access to research (probably funded by public sources and peer reviewed by academicians funded by public sources), or the colleguage who shows you an article, or the library that contained a copy of the article; these all have the same role as pirate website.

  4. You might not want to be vocal about using such a website. Some people still see it as ethically questionable. That said, using various pirate websites is increasingly common, and the status of many academic publishers among academians seems to have taken some hits, so many researchers will not care about how you get your articles.

  5. You also have the ethics tag on the question. The ethics of pirating digital material are a polarized subject. You might want to do your own research here, or ask a new question for what the main arguments for both sides are, if it has not been asked already. Some people say that pirating material is analogous to physical theft, while others say that intellectual monopoly laws are bad and breaking them creates more good than ill. (I happen to think the laws are far too strong and harm humanity, and should be weakened substantially or entirely removed.) I strongly suggest reading on the matter until you have found strong statements of both points of view to come to an informed decision.

  • 40
    Another point is that some journals allow authors to self-archive and embargo periods are variable, so depending on the age of the article and the author, the pirate site might just be hosting a copy that is available elsewhere.
    – anonymous
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 16:14
  • 2
    @anonymous: Even in this case, you should still check the published paper -- pirated or not -- to make sure that you are citing correctly. For example, it is possible to have the numbering of theorems slightly changed in the published version of a math paper. Also sometimes authors might make some changes in the review which they do not bother to (or are not allowed to) propagate to preprint servers.
    – tomasz
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 22:37
  • 4
    @dwizum that's not what he's saying. He's saying the source is irrelevant to the citation. So in your analogy, if you paid into someone's bank account via bank transfer or via hacking, from the point of view of the payee there was no ill. The hacking is still an offence but the payee has nothing to do with it. Similarly, the cited paper is cited legitimately (and appropriately), the fact you gained access to it from an illegal source does not undermine your citation, and is not something that should be mentioned in any way. The fact you should not perform illegal acts is a different issue. Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 17:03
  • 2
    The "separate" issue of having obtained the material illegally is the literal question the OP asked. Dismissing it because "no one will know" seems to be dismissing the actual question at hand. If you're arguing that the citation is okay, then claiming it's okay specifically because no one will know about the illegality of how you obtained it seems like an weak argument at best, and an incorrect one at worst: If someone asks "Is X okay?" and the answer is, "no one will know, so it's okay" how is that a legitimate answer? For the record, I think the rest of this answer is great.
    – dwizum
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 17:32
  • 2
    @dwizum Because that answers the main question, which is the last paragraph in the question body.
    – Tommi
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 13:52

If you are at a reputable university you can probably get legal access to nearly everything you need for research just by visiting your university's library and asking for a copy of the article. This is nearly always available to you. If you are grant funded, then grant funds can probably be used to obtain the necessary papers if the university cannot get them. In the US, even my town library has been able to get me access to things just by asking and because they have developed relationships with other (university) libraries. Small universities can have formal relationships with large research universities to "borrow" books and articles.

Likewise, borrowing the resources of colleagues is permitted. If s/he has a legal copy s/he can print it. The printed copy can be loaned to you. There are no issues with this at all.

So, the situation you describe should be rare if you do a bit of legwork.

But if you cite something, cite a legal repository, not a website known to pirate academic work. You don't need to actually own a copy of a paper to cite it, but it is probably a mistake (for your reputation) to flaunt illegal or unethical access.

It probably isn't as difficult or as costly as you imagine to do the right thing.

  • 19
    Or just don't cite the repository at all. I mean, if I have a paper copy.of the journal vs a scanned copy I get from another library vs a publisher-provided PDF and all are identical, the repository shouldn't matter and many (most?) style manuals don't require you to cite the exact location you obtained the copy except for rare one-of-a-kind works like medieval manuscripts, etc. (Although MLA started so in protest I've decided my next paper I'm going to cite every library involved in an ILL transaction to show how stupid it is) Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 13:43
  • 7
    @Anyon MLA8 wants us to specify the "container" so if we got an article from JSTOR we're supposed to cite JSTOR along with the article. It's the same article regardless, and most people just happily pretend they got it on paper to avoid doing it :-) I'm jus planning on taking it to the other extreme because to me a library is no different than JSTOR Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 14:07
  • 6
    @guifa: MLA8 wants us to specify the "container" so if we got an article from JSTOR --- I don't know how that would apply to me (and I don't really care either) because I have literally tens of thousands of photocopied papers and paper preprints obtained since the mid 1980s (arguably the early 1960s if you count the preprint archive I received from a well known researcher in my field in the mid 1990s), from many dozens of libraries, and other than an occasional library stamp on a photocopied page or remembering where I got the paper from, I would have no way of knowing. (continued) Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 6:56
  • 5
    If you are at a reputable university you can probably get legal access to nearly everything you need unless that university is in Germany, Sweden, Peru or Taiwan. Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 7:40
  • 4
    @FedericoPoloni: at least Germany isn't as cut off as that News article suggests. I'm currently associated with an institution that doesn't have Elsevier access any more since January. However, there's an inter-library catalogue that shows which other libraries have a journal (example: zdb-katalog.de/title.xhtml?idn=020659016&vol=2019). In addition, the TIB (≈ national library for technical literature) even has a paper copy. All in all, it's not as convenient as it was, but our library will still get Elsevier papers I ask for via inter-library loan. Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 17:16

First, you have to cite if something is relevant for your work! It has nothing to do with how you acquired the article, and even if you do not have the article, just know the abstract or one particular result that is relevant, cite it! (big insight as I entered academia, seldom the articles cited are also read in entirety).

By the way, in academia authors get NO money from their articles, it is all done for reputation in the scientific community; so by not citing you actually do more harm to the individual who wrote the article then by the act of downloading (where maybe just the publisher loses money). And by the way, for scientific articles the system works a little bit different. It is seldom the case that an individual buys individual articles (and if they like to they are tremendously expensive). They are either acquired by your library through subscription, by interlibrary loan (many libraries are connected by networks), given to you by the authors themselves (once I just got a copy from an article that is hard to get in person from the authors send by post after asking him at a conference), or nowadays by the way you asked for... I will not judge what is unethical here but after reading this (or being in academia for yourself some time) you might view it a little bit different...

So, if nothing works you usually end up not getting the article at all!

On a side note, this is a little bit different for books as the authors get some money from them, not much in academia too. But for non-academic books, where the authors have to life from the money, it is definitely unethical. But this is an entirely different system. Do not judge and confuse it by that (which people might do here if they compare it to robbery, netflix etc...).

Also, if you do not cite something relevant, some reviewer of your article will probable notice and either point you to the literature, or if it is a well-known article might conclude that you have done a bad review of the literature yourself.


Just cite the paper properly (e.g. take into account where the article was originally published), obviously don't cite Alexandra Elbakyan. Seriously, nobody cares and nobody can find out anyway. And the people who care have a very bad case of boy scout/teacher's pet disease. The editorial houses are rent-seeking rackets that profit from publicly funded research and hard labour of academics. And they still have the nerve to paywall it. Anyone that feels bad about avoiding that needs to do a deep reflection on their moral priorities.


Would you incriminate yourself?

For some articles, the abstract is so clear and concise that it effectively says everything you need to know in order to cite it. I've previously been advised when writing abstracts for articles in paywall journals to make sure someone could cite the article without actually having it. Obviously, it's not an ideal situation, but it is very much possible to cite an article purely based on the abstract, which you would have access to without acquiring the article anyway.

In short, if I see someone cite an article and I somehow know that they have not paid for access to it, I'd assume they've cited it based on the abstract.

  • 27
    I would consider citing based only an abstract to be extremely bad practice; bordering on a mild form of academic malpractice. Yes, I know it happens, but that does not mean we should so casually accept it. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 15:00
  • We're on a thread talking about illegal web sharing, everything here is bad practice. The point I was trying to make was that no one could distinguish this form of bad practice (illegal web sharing) from another form of perfectly legal bad practice (citing from an abstract).
    – E. Rei
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 16:24
  • @JackAidley That's right. But if you consider that there are people who will cite sources just because someone else has cited them, it is not that bad.
    – P. G.
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 16:58
  • 1
    @E.Rei there is a difference: using illegal web sharing might be bad practice from copyright/legal point of view. Citing based on abstracts is academic malpractice.
    – kap
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 13:58
  • 1
    By that logic, why should anyone citing a paper read more than only the abstract?
    – user105041
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 14:54

Robert Columbia's framing of the question:

It seems that you are not asking about the ethics of downloading articles from questionable sites, but only the ethics afterwards - when the downloading is already a fait accompli, and the real question is whether citing said document counts as an additional unethical act above and beyond what you did when you downloaded it (e.g. "citing a document obtained through an unauthorized route").

For discussion purposes, I'm going to go contrary to the accepted answer and say yes.

First, if you're using ideas that are not your own, you definitely have to cite the source. Failure to do that is plagiarism. With respect to avoiding plagiarism, it doesn't matter where you got the ideas; credit is due.

However, inaccurately citing where you got the source makes it harder for others to trace that back to the source.

In some cases, the content posted to a pirate website looks like or maybe is labeled as a copy of the content from the original source, but in fact has different content.

I have wasted many hours trying to figure out why an author cites X for assertion Y, when in some cases they were actually citing a hidden X' which differed from X on, among other things, assertion Y. I would have much appreciated if the author had included a citation like:

J. Ixsom, P. Smiflich, and D. Seuss: "Methods for safely pipetting oxyflogated dexlahydrates at STP." 23rd Annual Conference on Unusual Chemistry (CUC '17) London. Retrieved Jan. 18, 2019 from https://authorsite.org/pdf/1234.56789.

Then I have all the usual citation information about who published that and where, and in most cases I can go to that source and get it from them. In this case, the publisher gets an extra sale from the author having cited that work, regardless of how the author obtained it. However, if I can't find support for what's being asserted, I can then trace through to what the author actually looked at. If there's a difference, I can more quickly debug. I might see how the author was led astray and be able to resolve the issue another way. Without that link to what the author is actually citing, though, it's very hard to determine the basis for that assertion, and requiring that extra work is a negative impact caused by a difference between the source the author claimed and the source the author actually used.

Also, note that content differences are not all malicious, and the "authoritative" record is not always better from a content perspective. Sometimes, authors posting a file on their own website, with the publisher's permission, will update those files (e.g. correcting a mistake in a formula) and then the formula being used in the citing article looks different than the one it's being cited for. (To authors: If you do this, please explicitly call it out as a correction.)

Sometimes, the differences are honeypots intentionally inserted by publishers designed to get the message out that only official sites can be relied upon for accurate information.

  • 1
    Sometimes, the differences are honeypots — Really? Do you have concrete examples? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that publishers engage in questionable behavior, but this sounds particularly unethical.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 11:15
  • Not handy from memory, but I've definitely seen it. I suspect it's more common with textbooks than papers, but maybe that impression comes from an environment where many folks have relatively easy institutional access to official paper repos. For example, if a price-sensitive student tries to purchase a textbook edition that the publisher doesn't want sold in the country where the student is studying, the publisher might permit it but include numbers, examples, etc. so the student does not have the same information as those who bought from the publisher & can't follow along, to send a message.
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 21:23
  • 1
    That’s a bit different. Changing the examples or exercises in a calculus textbook is petty and stupid, but ultimately only an inconvenience—after all, the studnets are slearning skills, not numerical examples, riiiiiiight? Similarly, changing unimportant details in a journal paper is petty, stupid, and ultimately pointless. For tis stategy to work, the modified details have to be part of the core message of the paper, like experimental data, or plots / statistical analysis thereof; any such modification would be grossly unethical. So again: Can you give at least one specific example?
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 18:44
  • @JeffE Maybe eventually, but I'm not currently in a position where I'm as likely to see those things as I was before. If that line of the answer bothers you too much, ignore it and read the rest. I have definitely seen issues in a key formula which have major impacts on the result of the formula, and that formula is the main reason for citing the paper.
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 13:07
  • 1
    I have spent a LOT of time and money, often unsuccessfully, attempting to pursue justice for extremely clear-cut cases of fraud where real people have suffered high direct and real costs. The authorities you would think would hold people/companies accountable just don't care, not nearly as much as you might hope. This kind of issue is way, way lower on the priority list and the probability of anybody being held accountable for that in practice is below big-lottery-win probabilities.
    – WBT
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 12:59

can we cite [(possibly) illegally obtained] documents[?]

Yes, but you might be incriminating yourself, if legal access isn't plausible.

can editorial board know...if I'm using those articles?

No. At least, not without collaboration.

EDIT: I'm flabbergasted that a factual correct answer has four down votes. Especially as an answer that appeared afterwards, with essentially the same message is being up-voted. It makes be question why I bother helping people.

  • 17
    You don't have to demonstrate legal access, in general. The burden of proof lies on the accuser, in most sane legal systems. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 10:10
  • 8
    And as anyone that's ever marked undergraduate coursework will tell you, referencing an article is absolutely not proof that you've read it :)
    – E. Rei
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 10:18
  • 1
    @user2768 Another valid justification is "I saw a copy in the office of a colleague". If I have access to a paper, nothing forbids me from showing it to another person privately. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 12:53
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    @user2768 The point is that you can't reasonably tell who has legal access to a published paper. Even if somebody is at a university that doesn't have a subscription to that journal, there are so many other legitimate ways that the person could get access to the article without leaving any kind of paper trail, that nobody is ever going to conclude "You must have accessed that illegally." Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 15:42
  • 8
    @FedericoPoloni "The burden of proof lies on the accuser, in most sane legal systems." This is true. Unfortunately, copyright enforcement goes well outside the bounds of sanity pretty much everywhere. If the requirement of the burden of proof being on the accuser were applied consistently, copyright-enforcement things such as DRM and the DMCA takedown system simply could not exist. But unfortunately, they do. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 19:31

Isn't this the same thing as breaking into a house and stealing everything, then asking if it's ethical to watch Netflix using the victim's account?

You are asking the wrong question.

The unethicalness occurred long before the question of attribution arose. The publishers of the papers placed a value on them.. and you, for whatever reason, chose to obtain the document from a thief rather than the publisher. Just because "everyone else" is doing it and it's "wink wink" accepted practice in no way makes the act of theft ethical. Everything that follows from that act is then tainted by the original act of thievery.

So to recap...

  • Pirate steals from publisher.
  • You obtain copy of document from pirate, making you at best an accomplice and at worst a thief yourself.
  • Question of ethics regarding attribution of stolen documents in your own paper is really not a valid question at this point.
  • 19
    And to offer the contrasting take: Pirates steal nothing, as no thing is lost by the publisher. They are breaking ineffective and socially harmful laws to create net benefit for the society. Intellectual monopoly laws are a way of restricting property rights of people for no good benefit, and in a largely unenforceable way, which is used as an arbitrary punishment mechanism for little benefit to anyone but lawyers and certain big rent-seeking companies.
    – Tommi
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 8:49
  • 3
    Also, this does not really answer the question.
    – Tommi
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 8:49
  • 3
    This reads more like a criticism of the question than an answer. The OP already stated that they deem the act of publishing the documents unethical. Could you clarify in which way "is really not a valid question" provides a useful answer or at least a credible frame challenge? Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 8:55
  • 2
    @TommiBrander If we adopt your attitude (breaking ineffective and socially harmful laws is okay), then we are lawless. If you don't like the law, change it, don't break it.
    – user2768
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 8:12
  • 1
    Humm. What laws? The laws saying if you take something that isn't yours, then that's theft. How exactly are those laws socially harmful? I never once mentioned IP - only the ethics of being a thief.
    – Sam Axe
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 10:40

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