My post is more related to private research than academic research, but as I think they could be strongly related, I thought this would be the most appropriate place to ask.

I have recently started working for a small startup in Brazil, where we conduct intensive research to develop a product. However, I have some doubts about how this is done in terms of ethics and licensing.

I am also student of a federal university and so I could freely access non-open-source papers via proxy or via Google CASA. However, I do not think this would be ethical since my work research is not related to the university, so I use to conduct the work research on anonymous browsing. However, my workmate researches using Mendeley and share with me pdfs of the papers, which are frequently non-open-access material. I have already questioned her about it, but she thinks it is everything ok and I'm not so sure of it, as brazilian people do not care much about these things. About this:

  1. Am I right in thinking that university students should not use the free-access benefit to access papers for work?
  2. If she is having access to non-open-access papers via Mendeley, does this mean that her university account is being used somehow or is it possible for a personal account to have this benefit via Mendeley?
  3. Since the pdfs are being shared internally but we are not making any business on themselves but on the knowledge we absorb from them, would this be considered commercial-use or be infringing any license/copyright terms?

If the answers to these questions point that the company's research conduct is beign wrong, I would appreciate to make things right. I wish we could be successful following the most ethical, legal and responsible ways, so I have one remaining question, maybe the most important one:

  • What does a research company need to have a research power close to a university, i.e., to have a free/viable access to research from the most important publishers? Does research companies invest on buying every single material, limit their work only for open-acess or is there any kind of program for research in private companies?
  • 1
    Fee's to access papers are absolutely mindblowing, and researchers get none of the benefits. Almost everything is available here: sci-hub.st . As a researcher myself, I am happy to have my work available for as many people as possible.
    – Zenon
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 16:48
  • I tried to make the title match the question better. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 2:15
  • "Is my business breaking copyright law?" would be off topic. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 2:15
  • 1
    Why not ask the librarian? I suspect they will say "so long as you aren't downloading excessive numbers of papers, we're just happy to see our resources used".
    – avid
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 3:02

2 Answers 2


Here is how it used to work:

  1. The university bought journal articles from a publisher.

  2. The publisher printed and mailed the article to the university.

  3. Any random person could walk into the university library and read the article.

  4. The random person could use what they learned to make money, so long as they did not violate any patents. The patents issue is unrelated to the copyright on the article.

In my opinion, using your student account to access electronic journal articles through a university subscription and then using what you have learned to make money is ethically equivalent to the steps listed above, which have always been ethically acceptable. As a student, you should be encouraged to learn as much as possible, even if that learning is not related to your degree program.

However, legally you must follow your university's policies. We do not know what those policies are. They may impose some limits on the purposes for which you can use the university's resources.

Do not consume university resources for the profit of a private business. Reading a journal article is not consumption.

  • 1
    Indeed, many universities and national libraries still have provisions allowing members of the public to access the library and its resources (including online journals) if they jump through the right set of hoops (e.g. present themselves in person at the library). If so, OP's student status may make life easier (read papers from the comfort of your sofa!) but is not fundamental to obtaining access. This is probably a pertinent fact in any ethical analysis.
    – avid
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 2:59

I approach the ethics of this question in terms of society membership.

If a person is a serious member of a research community, they should be helping to support that community in a number of ways, including paying money to help support the publications maintained by its research societies. Universities generally both support societies and provide access by means of their libraries, which maintain institutional subscriptions to everything above a certain level of popularity, with the cutoff determined by their budget.

For well-established companies with a significant presence in research and development, it will typically work in exactly the same way. For example, where I work we have somebody in charge of library services who maintains institutional access to all the frequently needed collections of publications.

But what about when a company isn't well established or if the library doesn't cover a publication?

I do not believe that it is reasonable to pay for random individual articles. The problem is that you usually can't tell if the article will be of any use until you've got the PDF, and you often have to go through many such articles in many different publication venues to find which ones actually matter. If you start using a society's publications frequently, however, then you should support the society: either you should ask the library to subscribe or you should get an individual membership that gives you access (as is often the case).

With startups, I do think there is a reasonable grey area. The company is likely operating on a shoestring budget and doesn't have the ability to establish anything like a library. But people in the startup often legitimately "wear multiple hats" where they are also part of a university and part of their responsibility in the university includes helping to transition technology via the startup. Thus, I would expect that startups reasonable exist on an ethical continuum, where many small and early startups effectively shade into the universities they are affiliated with, but over time should transition to maintaining their own subscriptions as part of becoming an established citizen of the scientific community.

  • Businesses pay tax. Tax supports university libraries. University libraries support journals. If the tax is high enough, the problem is solved. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 2:13
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist Are you being serious or sarcastic? Because there are so many issues with your statement.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 2:16
  • Not sarcastic. I don't see why you think a voluntary system is better, or why the size of a company's budget should determine their contribution. This is exactly what taxes are for; funding collective goods. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 2:37

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