I wrote an essay for a professor of mine, in which I cited a book he had written. As it so happens, the citation is based on my having obtained a (most likely) pirated PDF copy of the book. The text is quite expensive, not readily available anywhere (library, textbook store, or Amazon) aside from the publisher, and the subject matter is esoteric and poorly addressed in other papers. I am only citing less than 10 pages worth of material, mostly on definitions and problem formulation

I am going to be presenting this essay in front of the class, and my concern is that he will notice the citation of his book and ask the potentially uncomfortable question of "...so you have one of my books...?"

I'm wondering what I should do in this case. Should I simply remove all references to the problem texts and cited portions and pretend that nothing ever happened? Should I not do anything? Is the citation of a text that you pirated really a big deal in academia?

  • 100
    When I read certain questions I wonder how students are going to deal with the real difficulties of life... Aug 31, 2015 at 7:17
  • 29
    I find the background section unnecessary and distracting, and I think this would be a better post without it. Overly long posts are a lot more work to read.
    – ff524
    Aug 31, 2015 at 7:20
  • 49
    "so you have one of my books...?" would be a very weird question: at worst, he could ask "so, you have read one of my books?". Most researchers and students don't purchase each and every single book they ever cite (not even mentioning articles), that's what libraries are for.
    – T. Verron
    Aug 31, 2015 at 7:31
  • 67
    What is wrong with your univerity library that it didn't have a book that was A.) Written by one of its staff members, and B.) Required (or at lease very useful) for his course? Aug 31, 2015 at 9:23
  • 19
    Why not ask him if he has the book, and then borrow it if so? People have a tendency to collect their own significant publications. If for no other reason than that the publisher tends to give you a copy. Aug 31, 2015 at 9:35

4 Answers 4

  1. It is incredibly uncommon to assume that someone bought a book just because it is cited. While in theory, the professor could ask this question, why would (s)he care?

  2. If you are geniuinely concerned about the question, perform an inter-library loan with your university library on the two books now, and should that question ideed pop up, reply that you performed an inter-library loan.

  3. Use legal sources in the future. Libraries spend tons of money on buying literature, so use it. Most jurisdictions also allow limited copying of a book (e.g., the most relevant pages for your own work).

  • 10
    yes... I believe that in Italy you can photocopy up to 10% of the book legally
    – Ant
    Aug 31, 2015 at 10:29
  • 6
    In the Czech Republic, for example, you may make a copy legally for your own personal use (sharing or reselling is illegal, though).
    – Pavel
    Aug 31, 2015 at 11:24
  • 46
    I agree with everything except #3. In the sciences at least, academics at resource-poor institutions must be willing to obtain and use electronic copies of journal articles that their home institution does not subscribe to. Though pirating should be avoided if possible, urging a graduate student to never use illegally obtained sources is just bad advice.
    – Jim Belk
    Aug 31, 2015 at 14:15
  • 9
    The other reason why you should do 2 is because university libraries depend on usage statistics concerning things like ILLs, to justify the costs involved in this and other types of information provision. The more usage they can demonstrate, the more resources they can get, and the more information sources they can provide. Also, librarians love being asked for sources. Support your local library! Aug 31, 2015 at 16:24

It may also be worth pointing out that your professor is unlikely to really care that you ‘pirated’ the book. While he or she will receive occasional royalty cheques, very few textbooks make more than beer money for the author.

They might object to the non-standard download on principle (and that's reasonable enough), but I'd be surprised if they made a big deal of it, even if they bothered to ask whether you'd bought the book (which, as others have mentioned, is unlikely).

That said, they quite possibly would be annoyed if they found that the university library didn't have a copy of the book.

  • 13
    In fact it's not unheard of for a professor to give you an electronic copy of their book so that you don't have to buy it. (Or more accurately, so that you can have access to the information within it, since they know you're probably not going to buy it anyway.)
    – David Z
    Aug 31, 2015 at 13:57
  • 16
    Yes, I've even had a professor tell us how to pirate his book under the condition nobody tell the publisher.
    – Eric S.
    Aug 31, 2015 at 19:42
  • 4
    +1 If the book were very expensive, I'd be uncomfortable if I thought a (presumably relatively impecunious) student had bought one (rather than borrowing one from a library, or from me). Sep 1, 2015 at 14:41
  • 4
    To most authors, citations are worth far more than royalties.
    – Umberto P.
    Sep 1, 2015 at 19:09
  • 1
    "... beer money - that's not a joke. One of my professors, a brilliant and very well known mathematician, came in to class one day holding up an open letter in front of him, saying, "I just got the royalty check for my last book. Three eighty five. Three dollars and eighty five cents!"
    – Diagon
    Jul 1, 2019 at 5:58

Your use of the material should be covered under Fair Use. This doctrine provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work. However, there was no need to resort to unethical means to obtain the material.

Honestly, had you told you professor what you told us - that the subject poorly addressed in other papers - and asked to borrow a copy, I'm sure he would have been delighted and probably given you some brownie points.

  • 8
    I thought fair use was really about, say, quoting a work, rather than how the source of the quotation was obtained. If that's correct, I'm not sure I see how that's relevant.
    – pjs36
    Sep 2, 2015 at 0:41

Were I that professor, I would be thrilled. Because I would know that: (a) students are paying huge fees, are in debt, and can't afford new books; (b) royalties on academic books are derisory, so I as author lose at most the price of a beer by foregoing a sale; (c) many academic publishers are sharks. I would rather someone learn from my book than be deterred by its price.

In that paragraph, I was writing as I would have in 2015. But now, in a world the OP would never have suspected, I would be even more thrilled. Universities are still running their courses, but have not (or at least mine has not) augmented their stock of e-books to include all the paper copies now inaccessible because of COVID-19–induced library closures. Unfortunately, piracy often seems to be the only solution …

Yes, I would let the professor know.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .