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Suppose I published a paper in a journal with no open-access policy, but with the usual constraints regarding copyright.

A researcher that I do not know in person has asked me for a copy of a this paper I coauthored. Am I allowed to share the final-version PDF file with him/her (by e-mail)? I mean, does it make any difference with sharing it publicly (which I do know I am not allowed to)?

If not, what would be a polite way to tell him/her so?

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Am I allowed to share the final-version PDF file with him/her (by e-mail)?

From a (US) legal perspective, that depends entirely on the publishing agreement. Some journals do allow this; if so, it will be stated explicitly in the agreement. For example, the APS copyright transfer agreement includes the text

The author(s)...shall have the following rights (the “Author Rights”):

3. The right...to make copies of all or part of the Article, including the APS-prepared version without revision or modification, for the author(s)’ and/or the employer’s use for educational or research purposes.

Without something like this in the agreement, whether you're allowed to share the paper depends on whether it can legally be considered fair use. No copyright agreement can prohibit something which falls under fair use, but on the other hand you don't really know what falls under fair use until a court tells you. I'm not sure if there's any precedent on whether sharing copies of an article for private research use qualifies as fair.

I won't address this from a moral perspective since you asked whether it's allowed, but as some of the other answers show, it's possible to reach a different conclusion that way.

I mean, does it make any difference with sharing it publicly (which I do know I am not allowed to)?

Well, this also depends on the publishing agreement. By default, if the agreement doesn't say anything otherwise, there is no difference between sharing the article publicly and sharing it privately; both qualify as unauthorized distribution, and both are similarly illegal. But the publishing agreement may allow for some forms of public sharing. Going back to the APS agreement, it includes several clauses allowing various forms of public sharing (under "Authors' Rights"):

2. The nonexclusive right, after publication by APS, to give permission to third parties to republish print versions of the Article or a translation thereof, or excerpts therefrom, without obtaining permission from APS, provided the APS-prepared version is not used for this purpose, the Article is not republished in another journal, and the third party does not charge a fee. If the APS version is used, or the third party republishes in a publication or product charging a fee for use, permission from APS must be obtained.

3. The right to use all or part of the Article, including the APS-prepared version without revision or modification, on the author(s)’ web home page or employer’s website and to make copies of all or part of the Article, including the APS-prepared version without revision or modification, for the author(s)’ and/or the employer’s use for educational or research purposes.

4. The right to post and update the Article on free-access e-print servers as long as files prepared and/or formatted by APS or its vendors are not used for that purpose. Any such posting made or updated after acceptance of the Article for publication shall include a link to the online abstract in the APS journal or to the entry page of the journal. If the author wishes the APS-prepared version to be used for an online posting other than on the author(s)’ or employer’s website, APS permission is required; if permission is granted, APS will provide the Article as it was published in the journal, and use will be subject to APS terms and conditions.

So under this agreement, you (the author) can post the final journal version of the article on your own personal website, and you can post preprints (i.e. versions you prepared prior to submitting to the journal) on a site like arXiv or grant permission to third parties to distribute these versions.

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I believe that it is a moral obligation of scientists to make their work available to colleagues, except when larger considerations such as safety intervene. Most publication agreements allow for some form of sharing, even if only a preprint---you might or might not be able to post it for free online, but you can at least share via email. There's a decent fair use argument for it as well, which is likely to cover ambiguous agreements.

I also believe that if you discover that a publication agreement explicitly prohibits sharing a pre-print via email, then it is appropriate and ethical to commit civil disobedience and share a pre-print of the article. I believe this because I think that a publication agreement that prohibits individual exchange of pre-print scientific documents is itself unethical. Don't share the final version, though: the moral obligation of scientific openness is served well enough by a pre-print, and the final version does often clearly incorporate real work and value added by the publisher, which you have no moral right to.

Do note, however, that if you choose to share when you are prohibited from doing so, that you should realize that you are committing civil disobedience and that there is a chance (however unlikely) that you may have to take the legal consequences for doing so.

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    Using Elsevier's sharing policy as an example, it is requested that you "please share a link...rather than the full text" for the final published version, but that preprints can be shared anytime (preferably with the DOI embedded), which is nicely compatible with your answer. – user38309 Oct 19 '15 at 17:04
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    Fantastic answer, but it is inaccurate to refer to "civil disobedience", which is defined by Wikipedia as "the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power." I understand you are advocating a kind of rebellion against "the system", which is conceptually kind of similar, but calling it civil disobedience makes this act sound both more glamorous and more far-reaching than the (at worst) microscopic copyright infringement that it actually is. – Dan Romik Oct 19 '15 at 20:22
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    @DanRomik Please read the article you link more carefully, and you will note that the definition is not quite so clear-cut, and some definitions cover the type of action I'm recommending as well. Note also that I make no claim that the action is not microscopic, only that it is a reasonable choice. – jakebeal Oct 19 '15 at 20:45
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    @jakebeal okay, I concede that some people are interpreting "civil disobedience" to include actions taken against corporations. It still seems like a strange use of the term to me, and I wish there was a better term to describe this sort of thing. I completely agree with your answer aside from this minor semantic quibble – Dan Romik Oct 19 '15 at 21:30
  • -1 Honestly, if you sell your copyright of the preprint version as well then it's no microscopic copyright infringement when you share the paper with colleagues. If anything is unethical (I don't think so) it's not such a prohibition or the company asking for such a thing, but a scientist deciding to sell his copyright under such terms. Like honestly, as the author and a scientist you're the one who decides where you publish and once you decide you should just abide by the terms of your agreement. – David Mulder Oct 20 '15 at 7:48
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In the old days, one received 25 or 50 paper reprints gratis, and could order more, each time one published a paper. These would be sent out in response to requests such as the one you describe.

These days, I believe some publishers have provisions for the same kind of on-request personal sharing of single copies of a paper. I'm sure this varies from publisher to publisher, however.

I also suspect that there may be a strong fair use argument for sharing a final pdf upon request but I do not have the legal expertise to say for certain.

Finally, I'll note that many, many researchers post final pdfs of their work openly on the web. Irrespective of whether you support this (as I do) or consider it unethical, if the publishers are unwilling to target these people they will certainly not be interested in someone who privately emails a pdf of his or her own work to a colleague upon request.

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    There are publishers (e.g. IOP) which, still nowadays, send free offprints of published papers. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 19 '15 at 16:54
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It could easily be a violation of the publishing agreement you signed unless it specifically outlines how you might share the article (which many agreements do). You are unlikely to get hauled into court by your publisher unless you or whoever you send it to informs them of your transgression and you refuse to correct it. That being said, it's unethical in my opinion to purposefully violate your publishing agreement (which is a contract that you signed), so I wouldn't advocate it. Reread it, and follow its terms.

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    You are unlikely to get hauled into court by your publisher unless you or whoever you send it to informs them of your transgression. - Even then I would be very surprised if the publisher actually sued. In general, I expect that they have more to lose by alienating authors than they gain from single-article sales. – Mangara Oct 19 '15 at 15:49
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    I strongly disagree re: "unethical". It's not unethical to violate an "agreement" that you're basically compelled into accepting as part of participating in academic research. Things would be different if this were an agreement you specifically negotiated with the publisher where it was your choice to relinquish your moral right to share your research for specific financial benefits, but everyone knows that's not how it actually works. – R.. Oct 19 '15 at 20:24
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    @R.., I clearly disagree. I don't like our current publishing model and question much of its ethical boundaries and parameters, but signing a legal contract with the intention of violating it is definitely unethical in my book. If we all say that violating a contract because you don't like its terms is ethical because OP (or yourself or myself) was compelled to sign up for it in the first place, I think that's a bit disingenuous. Yes we all want to publish in the best journals which are run by big corps that treat us badly, but we do have the choice not to publish with them. – Bill Barth Oct 19 '15 at 20:54
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    Most academics are not sufficiently prestigious to have a genuine choice which journals they publish in. The "choice" is just "agree" to despicable terms or abandon their careers. – R.. Oct 19 '15 at 22:57
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    @R.., lots of people signed up for the Elsevier boycott, though I can't tell what's become of that. What might matter more would be if departments and their tenure committees would come out and say that they weren't counting certain journals published by the publishers with the worst policies any more than the lower tier ones. Some high-powered people resigning from editorial boards (e.g. Topology) might also do some good. A bunch of tenure track profs boycotting the best journals isn't going to do much, I agree. – Bill Barth Oct 20 '15 at 0:47

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