As a graduate student, sometimes I really could use access to journals or databases of tables that for some reason my university doesn't subscribe to. I have friends at other Universities that do subscribe to these journals and it would be very helpful to have the data. Is it acceptable to ask them to retrieve the data? I don't really want to start this if it's going to run me afoul of the rules.

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    My acces to safari books online is sometimes not available because all the paid sessions are used by others. Not quite the same thing, but shows how it could be possibly unethical. Ethics are supposed to be enforced by the individual first, to avoid getting into trouble with laws. Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 4:45
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    @tomshafer does your university have an interlibrary loan system? They generally get you data/papers that your university doesn't subscribe to, by taking assistance from other universities.. In case you are concerned about whether or not you are pursuing the right channels...
    – dearN
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 14:17
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    Not an answer to your question but a potential solution to your problem-- in addition to inter-library-loan, you can almost always email the corresponding author for a reprint. In my experience authors are very happy that you are interested in their paper and will respond very quickly (like w/in hours) to a request.
    – DQdlM
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 21:33
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    Some things that are unethical: (1) An international copyright regime under which works remain in copyright a century after they were published. (2) Preventing people from getting access to academic papers that were created using their tax money.
    – user1482
    Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 3:31
  • Please note that many authors are willing to send you a copy of their paper if you can reach them (and that is perfectly legal, as this option exist in all the copyright transfer agreements for journals).
    – Greg
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 4:34

5 Answers 5


Is it against the law? Probably.

It it scientific misconduct? A breach of ethics? Hardly.

It is acceptable? It's your decision to make based on risk analysis. If you don't do it on a large scale (i.e. someone supplying many people with papers), it's probably okay. It is common practice.

Also, be aware that many journal articles can now be found either in pre-print or post-print form online (though this depends widely on your field), either on institutional repositories or on the authors' webpages. If you're merely missing access every once in a while, you can also nicely ask the corresponding author.

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    Against which law? Specifically, which jurisdiction? Since I'm pretty sure that click-through licensing holds no legal value in Sweden, I'm not so sure that paper-sharing is any more egregious than, say, going to the other University's library directly and reading the paper there... Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 22:49
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    @Mikael that's the point of “probably” in my answer. There are plenty of places where this would definitely unlawful, but I can't speak for every jurisdiction. Regarding the analogy with physical libraries, transmitting a PDF file is not like reading directly, it is an act of copying.
    – F'x
    Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 22:53
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    Our university and the journal host all say that access is provided to current students of our university only and that distributing to others or using for non-university related work is violation of the license agreement and subject to copyright infringement laws. So "probably" is "definitely" at least in the US for all journals I've ever seen hosted by Springer and ScienceDirect.
    – tpg2114
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 14:33
  • We have such a folder, digitally. It has 2775 papers and counting.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 11:02
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    @tpg2114: In contrast the university libraries I know here in Germany are all also public libraries - everyone can get a library card (with the exception of Jena, where non-university people officially need to be Thuringians - this is commented on as completely ridiculous) and really everyone can walk in and read it there (you may need a card for orders from the archives and for accessing the computer places). Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 19:31

I would not explicitly acknowledge people who have helped you access papers that you don't have access to. As F'x pointed out, it's probably against the law, but it's unlikely to get you into trouble. The acknowledgement, however, creates more trouble than it needs to, because you're more or less explicitly stating that you got the journal in a clandestine way. So, I would just thank the person and leave it at that.

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    Definitely. If someone publicly thanked me for just giving them access to publications using my university's systems, I'd find it really awkward. Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 2:02
  • Well, it is anyways not the amount of work that would appropriately be thanked in the acknowledgements section of a paper. (Though I did thank our librarian for her outstanding help in the acknowledgments of my PhD thesis) Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 11:08

I think it predominately depends on how you are accessing the other university's resources.

If the resource is online and your collaborator grants you access either by sharing his username and password or through a network proxy, this is almost definitely in violation of computing guidelines of his university. To me asking him to knowingly violate a university policy, which is more or less reasonable, is ethically questionable.

If the resource is online and your collaborator downloads the resource directly, that isn't ethically questionable. If he then shares that material with you it may violate copyright law and it may be ethically questionable. If for example you chose as a collaborator/employee a student who has access to this resource then it is ethically questionable since collaborating with researchers outside the university is beyond the normal scope of a students "job" description and therefore they are likely misusing the resource. If you chose a member of academic research staff (or possibly a grad student) as a collaborator, then they are really doing there job by collaborating. I see no ethical issues with this. It might even make sense to include them in the acknowledgments of any resulting publication. Something along the lines of

I thank John Doe at the University of Good Library for help collecting reference materials.


I think that it would be against the law almost everywhere (because, in general, Institutions subscribe the journal / publisher so that its students / researchers / etc will have access to the material. The subscription is based in many factors such as how many persons will have access, how "important" the Institution is and will cite the provided articles etc.

And the Institution would grant the students etc. the access based on the same contract. I don't think that any can give an unlimited right to make copies and distribute and so on.

So, who would be breaking the law / the contract ? The friend who provides such access, in the first place.

A point that "softens" this is the fair use, but it has a very tenue line where you (or your friend) is doing a fair use or not of that access.

A solution: have you asked the Library of your University if they have some agreement with the University of your friend? Sometimes one Library can ask for books / journals / articles / etc from other Universities.


Wouldnt your profs be aware of the data and speculate where u got it from given they couldn't access it and you didn't pay a lot to have access to it? Perhaps you could ask whoever may share their opinions or any official info concerning the said journals; your professors, whoever allows the permission for the journals you can access (your library), the journals themselves, and certainly permission from the other universities whose service you'd access. Not your friends- otherwise if you believe it can be interpreted as theft- then maybe it is , as they are not getting any business from you. You'll never know the reason why your university was excluded in particular until you do your homework and choose the all clear approach. Perhaps it was in fact intentionally excluded and then in that case then obviously it could be unethical and illegal!

Surely your only helping your self out but journals are in the business of making money and i believe the ethical choice would be to know beyond a doubt.

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