I am taking an online class that requires a textbook to be purchased. I have found the book through my first simple search using the Google search engine. The website where I found the book seems to be foreign and not related to the original authors. Is it ethical for me to use the free version that I have easily found online and not purchase the book?

Edit: I think there is a valid distinction between resources found on controversial websites like SciHub and the Google search engine. Furthermore, my intentions were to purchase the book before I stumbled upon it in the first few search results.

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    Does it matter? I have probably 1k books downloaded, I also have probably 30 textbooks I have purchased. Oct 11, 2020 at 5:19
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    Does this answer your question? Is supporting Sci-Hub illegal/unacademic? Oct 11, 2020 at 7:35
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Although the threads you have linked are asking related questions, I believe mine to be different. I did not go out of my way to pirate the book; instead, I simply found it as I was attempting to purchase the book online. I think there is a distinction between resources found through websites such as SciHub and the Google search engine.
    – John Doe
    Oct 11, 2020 at 21:19
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    Where are you and what do you know of local copyright laws?
    – Buffy
    Oct 11, 2020 at 22:04
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    "I think there is a distinction between resources found through websites such as SciHub and the Google search engine." With respect to your use of a book, the law does not make that distinction. Oct 11, 2020 at 23:27

2 Answers 2


If you're asking whether this will be seen as ethical by a university administration, the answer is no. The law probably lines up with the ethics that fall into the professional norms of the university admin.


The money that the public pays for textbooks does not flow into the pockets of the people that generated or summarized that knowledge, so the system is far from fair.

I had a professor who actually told us to download his book illegally if we could get it, and when we pointed out he was the author, he said he made negligible returns on the sale.

Which gets us to the professional norms of your field. Some fields are big supporters of free access to knowledge. In these fields, the arxiv and scihub are popular. Downloading anything illegally if it's academic knowledge would generally be accepted as ethical within the professional norms of those fields.

Personally, I believe academic knowledge should be much freer than it is, and everyone should have access to the work we do. I'm not studying physics because I want to get rich. I study this because it's beautiful and it's important, and because these are fundamental questions for humanity, and answers should be shared with humanity. We all benefit from living in a society that's informed about itself and the world around it.

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    The answer is not a definitive "no", but culture-dependent. While it's probably a "no" in the US and part of Europe, in e.g. Latin America or many parts of Asia the university administration simply wouldn't care at all; when resources are scarce, buying prohibitively expensive textbooks isn't a priority for students and even for many professors.
    – B. Núñez
    Oct 12, 2020 at 22:31
  • @B.Núñez good point! My experience is in North America and Europe.
    – Well...
    Oct 13, 2020 at 19:50

Rather than asking if it is ethical, I recommend that you be open and honest and listen to your conscience. You can help yourself to clarify your conscience by consulting with the people who are directly concerned with this question. So, in this case, I recommend that you email the authors of the textbook and the publisher of the textbook and then ask them how they feel about you downloading their book instead of purchasing it (you could probably find their contact information by searching online). If they reply that they have no problem with that, then your conscience should be perfectly clear to download the book without paying for it. But if they reply that they are not happy about that, then you should do what your conscience tells you, even if that means paying for a book that most other students are downloading at no charge. Your conscience is priceless and is worth much more than the cost of a textbook.

  • I totally agree with your sentiment. I am a big believer in doing the right thing. I actually ended up borrowing an old version of the book from my university library.
    – John Doe
    Oct 21, 2020 at 21:24

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