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My stance is that these websites are a great boon to the research community and they were certainly extremely helpful for my research. I think they should be applauded rather than persecuted, and while they may be illegal now, I think a way to make them legal should be found (in the same way I can download articles legally through my university's subscription to all the major publishers and journals).

Can I thank them in the acknowledgements section of my thesis?

  • 30
    You can, but it would be unwise to do so. Just like you wouldn't write "I thank Mr. X for sending me PDFs of articles that I couldn't download legally", you shouldn't acknowledge illegal websites. – Gimelist Mar 20 '15 at 7:49
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    you may simply donate its founders, that will be the best way to thank them – Norbert Mar 20 '15 at 11:45
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    I think that such an acknowledgement is likely to create a bad impression as it basically says that you do not respect intellectual property rights, which would be regarded as a negative quality in most academic disciplines. – Dikran Marsupial Mar 20 '15 at 13:14
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    If you do, and I wouldn't recommend it, you should keep in mind that any specific acknowledgement could be used as a legally binding means to persecute that website and the people that run it for their illegal actions. So, the consequences would not affect you and you alone. (Though they would still affect you) – Zibbobz Mar 20 '15 at 14:19
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    A phrasing suggestion: "Thank you to those who provided me with copies of X textbooks". It could also refer to people who donated them. – Bobson Mar 20 '15 at 15:18
132

You can thank whomever you want in the acknowledgments of your thesis, but there may be consequences that you have to live with.

In my opinion it is a bad idea to admit to illegal activity in a formal document like this. Once you write that, you cannot unwrite it: it will be archived for the rest of your career. I don't really think you'd get in any trouble directly, but by doing so you're advertising the fact that you are willing to break rules that you don't like and do so entirely openly. I think that a lot of potential employers prefer employees who when they break the rules for a good reason, do so more quietly.

I also don't really see what you're gaining by doing this. A thesis acknowledgment is not a step toward legal free downloading of texts. I happen to agree with you that "a way to make them legal should be found". One way I work towards this is that I make all of my lecture notes -- some of which are very close to being textbooks -- freely available on the internet. Whenever I have spoken with publishing companies, I mention at the first meeting my requirement that my material be made freely available on the internet. To my surprise, they have not walked out of the room. I also have largely stopped assigning expensive required texts.

In summary: an acknowledgment to the providers of illegal content is a microscopic flouting of the establishment, not a helpful act. I recommend that you think a bit more carefully about what you can do to actually improve the situation.

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    From a personal-benefit standpoint, I think your answer is well-reasoned. But I disagree with the claim that OP's idea is not beneficial. Publicly declaring that you are one of the people who has done something taboo is a strong way to dispel the taboo. Some (much more serious) examples that come to mind are LGBT coming-out, undocumented coming-out, and the recent phenomenon of women publicly telling abortion stories. Of course there is a personal cost, but it may reduce the personal cost others face in the future. – R.. Mar 20 '15 at 5:13
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    @R.. But does that public declaration have to be made in a thesis? I'd much rather see it on the author's personal page or blog than in a serious work of scientific literature. I'd rather not see science and politics mix if I can help it. – Gyu Eun Lee Mar 20 '15 at 7:20
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    @R: First of all, the activity in question is not "taboo" in any sense like the examples you've mentioned. In my opinion it's hardly taboo at all; it's just illegal. Second, putting something in a thesis is a kind of public declaration, but as publicity goes it is virtually guaranteed to have no effect. If the OP really wanted to help the cause, he could write a piece "In praise of illegal downloading" for the Chronicle or something like that. – Pete L. Clark Mar 20 '15 at 12:11
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    Acknowledging the website by name also leads to the possibility of the site being taken down, thus going against your goal. Acknowledging the site with no name is just a political statement and doesn't actually acknowledge anyone. – David K Mar 20 '15 at 12:22
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    @gnasher729: No, copyright does not work that way, at least not without a sufficiently narrow definition of "comes from". Moreover, everyone has "legal access" (not a relevant concept to citing a work anyway) to all of these via (possibly distant) libraries. It's just not convenient access. – R.. Mar 20 '15 at 14:32
10

I had a similar problem in my ethics class but I approached it differently. My argument was that piracy forces legal content providers to provide better services. I’m not going to drill down on that as it’s a much bigger topic. Thanking piracy for illegal but freely available information isn’t ideal as it sounds like you're endorsing it. In a scholarly context, that’s not overtly wrong but it’s not ethical. Debating that with professor’s and/or ethics boards is radically different than here or with your peers.

Thanking piracy for forcing legal content providers to provide better services is better. That way you can structure arguments around what drives business change for the better. You can focus more on liking the end result without directly endorsing piracy. That might seem like dodging the issue a bit but I wasn’t comfortable directly thanking piracy in the context of my ethics class.

In the context of learning and freely available information, I think we’re all a little torn. I love the idea of all college level information being freely available to everyone but that’s not feasible. Someone has to put together that information. Someone has to help others understand that information. If actual books are being made there’s a production cost. Everything that goes into producing that information has a cost be it in time or money. It easy to think of free/piracy as a great idea but it’s usually sharing that end product that had a cost to produce, for free. If it was just shared for free no money would be made to cover the costs of producing that information. Why would anyone produce information if they lose time and money? They wouldn’t. Then there wouldn’t be that great information to pirate.

On the other hand, the legitimate cost of that information is very high. For a country with over a trillion in student loan debt, is more debt the right answer to get people trained and into the workforce?

  • 13
    "Why would anyone produce information if they lose time and money?" Because their interest in knowledge and free flow of information, progress, etc. is genuine? That is how I see it, at least, but well, I'm not the kind of person that gets incentive from monetary value, but achieving a goal I find valuable. – Ennar Mar 20 '15 at 13:24
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    It's a fine argument until you are at the receiving end of it. And I'd love to see any study that shows that "providing better services" is in any way stopping piracy. – gnasher729 Mar 20 '15 at 13:35
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    @gnasher729 Stopping piracy is impossible, reducing piracy is definitely possible. Think about buying music when it was locked up by DRM and you weren't allowed to listen to music you bought on your device because DRM wouldn't allow it. Pirated music could be listened to just fine. Later listening on devices was allowed and eventually streaming apps came in. Now people can pay, or not pay (Pandora and several others are free) to listen to music where-ever they want. Some people will always pirate, but most people are happy just listening on free/cheap services that are now available. – Paraplastic2 Mar 20 '15 at 13:49
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    @Ennar I don't know what country you're from, but in the USA many universities and hospitals make outrageous profit for a certain few. – Matt Samuel Mar 22 '15 at 15:41
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    Why would anyone produce information if they lose time and money? Ironic that you are asking this on a website where people answer questions and contribute information for free, without any monetary incentive. – Federico Poloni Aug 21 '18 at 15:41
5

Since this move is politically risky, should you take the risk? Richard Hamming addresses the general point in the famous You and Your Research when he talks about ego assertion. The discussion is worth reading—let me quote just the following:

And I think John Tukey paid a terrible price needlessly. He was a genius anyhow, but I think it would have been far better, and far simpler, had he been willing to conform a little bit instead of ego asserting.

What was the ego assertion there? Funnily, it was just dressing casually instead of formally—these were the '50s.

Also, there are better ways to fight for the cause, like joining one of the movements for changing publication models—legally. (See open access, though that's mainly for papers). Any actual work in such a movement could even go (I guess) in your CV as community service.

4

As a counterpoint to the other answers, I'd say you should absolutely thank these websites. Why?

  • It takes minimal effort on your part. Some have suggested that instead you write an article praising illegal downloading. I hope you do that too, but adding a sentience to your acknowledgments is easier.
  • You shouldn't be worried about it hurting job prospects. There's a pretty good chance your next employer isn't going to read your thesis anyway. Actually, there's a pretty good chance no one will read the entire thing. Furthermore, I'd be wary of any employer who judges you based on your acknowledgments section---I'm sure they've seen weirder things there. Just keep your pontificating out of the rest of the thesis.
  • There's nothing wrong with supporting a cause. People who do read (parts of) your thesis will probably be impressionable young grad students. What you say is one more hint at how stupid our current system is when it comes to paywalls. Hopefully these new students will break the law just like you did, and that's great: there's nothing good about breaking the law for personal gain or just for the sake of disorder, but fighting for a cause (even if it's illegal) is half of what academia is about.

That being said, phrasing and tact are everything. Make it subtile and keep it focused on the cause and not the disobediance. Something like

"I'd like to thank those who have provided open access to otherwise prohibitively expensive material."

is better than

"A big shout-out to all the all the pirates out there! @#ck The Man!"

You're probably not going to get a lot of respect by sounding like an anarchist.


NOTE: I may have a biased point of view, given that I'm in a field where most researchers equate paywalls with extortion and all our most prestigious journals are free. If a subscription to the the top journal in your field costs thousands of dollars a year and your colleagues are OK with that, I'm not sure what to tell you.

  • @PeteL.Clark, sorry, that was sort of a rude way to phrase it and a bit presumptive as well. I've edited it. Actually I hope the OP does write an article about it, but I acknowledge that some people are lazy / busy. – Shep Mar 23 '15 at 2:16
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    For our entry level positions, I can assure you that we do read dissertations. And writing something like this would be a sure way to get dropped off the list. – RoboKaren Mar 23 '15 at 2:52
  • @RoboKaren Good to know, but I guess it must depend on the field. – Shep Mar 23 '15 at 2:56
3

I think there are more cons than pros to writing this in your acknowledgement. To me it seems more like a written declaration claiming that you participated in some illegal activity. Many in the academic community write books which are pirated and they probably will not take it well if they read that in your PhD thesis. If you plan on pursuing a career in academia, these people will probably be a thorn in your side. Also, if you are in a graduate program where you submit a thesis before you defend it. Your defense committee may decide to give you a hard time during your defense (of course I understand that in some graduate programs you may not have any other exams left after you submit your thesis).

All I'm saying is that it may cause you much pain without contributing to your cause.

3

No its not okay to knowingly receive stolen property and thank the thieves. If the information provided in the reference was relative to your work, and you are receiving a degree because it helped you to so so, then thank the authors who created this work and took the time to write it down and get it published by buying their book. And next time please find a valid library and borrow a legal copy.

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    My alternative would not be to pay for the books. It would be to sit at the library all day instead of at a more convenient location and waste time looking through books physically instead of hitting Ctrl-F. It's not customary to thank every author and buy their books every time you write a thesis so I don't see a reason to do this. By the way, my Books folder has 130 books (a few of those were legally obtained), and 31 of them are mentioned in my thesis bibliography. – Yoni Rozenshein Mar 22 '15 at 5:33
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    Not everything you read may be relevant to your research. But that still provides value as it may be telling you what doesn't work or apply and saves you the time of having to research those threads further. Or maybe there was an obscure reference that you followed which did pan out. Or maybe you're subconscious combined multiple innocuous concepts that helped to form your new idea. – Kurt Sanger Mar 22 '15 at 14:03
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    The right to private property is a fundamental principle of a free society. The extension of private property to ideas, thoughts, words, speech, and their exponential growth has created the world in which we live. All of the books, music, and movies in my library have been paid for. The price I've paid is an insignificant token of their true worth. I have bought and read many duds, but whose to say that even they have not contributed to the quality of my life and my own original ideas? – Kurt Sanger Mar 22 '15 at 14:17
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    Theft of fire is not actually a theft unless the one that took it extinguished the source afterwards. It's merely sharing. If someone wouldn't want one's ideas to be shared, why bother and write a book in the first place? – Ennar Mar 22 '15 at 18:28
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    Copyright violation is not theft, and pirated works are not stolen. You can't steal something if the person you've "stolen" it from still has it afterwards. Copyright violation may or may not be wrong, but it's not theft. – Mike Scott Mar 22 '15 at 18:41
-3

As a publisher and author I would be extremely annoyed that someone actively promotes those who commit the criminal offence of illegally copying and distributing our intellectual property.

First, I would refer to your university that your research was conducted using illegal obtained materials: that is undoubtedly in breach of your contract with the university and I would press for the cancellation of your degree. Harsh? Yes, but you are a criminal benefiting from the knowledge, expertise and labours of others.

Secondly, I would take steps to have the site removed from major search engines and references to it blocked. We routinely do that now, when we become aware of them. We refer the site hosts to the relevant authorities in the countries where they are hosted with a view to having the site taken down and the owners / operators prosecuted.

We would publicise the internet host and its IP range with a view to responsible site owners blocking that host's customers from accessing websites around the world.

And finally, we would publicise your name and that you were prepared to use criminally sourced material for your own advancement, demonstrating both a tendency to criminality and that you operate in a moral vacuum, in the hope that no employer would engage a person with such a lack of ethical values.

If the book you want is not legally available on-line, go to a proper library where publishers and authors are rewarded for loans. See if the book is available for lending for Kindle (you pay a small membership fee) because, again, publishers and authors are paid when you borrow.

Would you thank the photocopy shop that makes illegal copies of text books?

No, because you know it's a crime.

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    You are writing on behalf of a publishing company anonymously? I don't understand that. Please have the courage of your convictions to identify yourself. I would certainly be interested to know which author and publisher is threatening to try to get people's degrees revoked. – Pete L. Clark Mar 23 '15 at 3:44
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    Am I a criminal for downloading a digital copy of a book I could have freely read at the library anyway? De jure, maybe (I am not convinced). In my moral point of view, definitely no. About reward for loans, I would be surprised if my library operates this way. My library has never heard of Kindle, and I don't have one (am I required to have one?). Finally, did you declare a witch hunt on me? Just because I am saying what everyone's doing? May I suggest to start with every grad student I know, and probably a few professors. – Yoni Rozenshein Mar 24 '15 at 9:41
  • Yoni, we do not get to decide what is or is not a criminal act, that is decided by the society in which you live via the system of law that it develops. Pointing out that you could have freely read the book at the library makes your position less tenable as you are admitting that you violated the rights of the author simply for your own convenience. I think the answer given above is rather hyperbolic (to say the least), but I think there is more than a little Rashomon effect going on here. – Dikran Marsupial Mar 24 '15 at 11:18

protected by StrongBad Mar 23 '15 at 9:32

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