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?

  • 90
    When I read certain questions I wonder how students are going to deal with the real difficulties of life... – Massimo Ortolano Aug 31 '15 at 7:17
  • 27
    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 '15 at 7:20
  • 46
    "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 '15 at 7:31
  • 61
    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? – Lyndon White Aug 31 '15 at 9:23
  • 18
    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. – zibadawa timmy Aug 31 '15 at 9:35
up vote 73 down vote accepted
  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 '15 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 '15 at 11:24
  • 37
    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 '15 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! – Norman Gray Aug 31 '15 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.

  • 12
    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 '15 at 13:57
  • 15
    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 '15 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). – Dikran Marsupial Sep 1 '15 at 14:41
  • 3
    To most authors, citations are worth far more than royalties. – Umberto P. Sep 1 '15 at 19:09

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.

  • 4
    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 '15 at 0:41

Your Answer


By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.