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I've been wondering about this for some time. I did my PhD at the big university A. I had access to hundreds of online journals and ebooks. I was downloading papers and ebooks, classifying them, reading them, taking notes on the pdf, etc. At the end of my PhD, I had some 1.2 GB of annotated ebooks, papers, and digital material. None of the material is confidential (no datasets, project material, etc.), just journal and conference papers, ebooks, book chapters, etc.

Fast forward today, I am working at a small university B, that is subscribed to a small subset of the journals/publishers of A. Is it ethical/ legal that I keep the material and use it for my research? Should I delete all the papers from journals my current uni doesn't have subscriptions?

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    That's a very good question. Could you disclose your country, if you can, in case it mattered? It seems to matter often with any legal questions.
    – yo'
    Oct 30 '15 at 23:45
  • @yo' Hi, I am not sure whether it's a matter of national law or copyright issues of the publishers. Both universities are situated in a northern EU country, for the sake of argument, let's say Belgium.
    – electrique
    Oct 30 '15 at 23:55
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    If you obtained the downloaded files legally, and they did not come with any explicit restriction or license specifying that you may use them only for a set amount of time or only as long as you are employed at your old university, then I don't see the problem - you can keep them until the day you die as long as you're not distributing them or making other use (e.g. of a commercial nature) that was already not allowed even back at the old university. (Source: personal opinion; I am not a lawyer.)
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 31 '15 at 0:18
  • @Corvus Most of the material are papers. Some of them have a print on the side saying "this was downloaded by University of ...". I guess, for making sure that if the papers get redistributed, they know who to blame. How about ebooks though? Is it the same as if I borrowed a book from the library and made an illegal copy out of it?
    – electrique
    Oct 31 '15 at 0:27
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    The key is that you did not make an illegal copy of the materials you accessed. If you made an illegal copy, it would have been as illegal then as it is illegal now. With some very special exceptions, electronic journal licenses expressly permit you to make a paper copy and/or save an electronic copy to your computer for your own personal use. (again, not a lawyer, etc, etc.)
    – Corvus
    Oct 31 '15 at 0:31
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This is an interesting question -- and yet when you think about it, it's horrifying that we'd have to consider even for an instant the propriety and legality of keeping our own annotated research materials. But, to provide a proper answer:

In principle, this may depend on the terms of the license under which you downloaded these papers. In practice, you are very likely to be in the right, both legally and morally. In general, I believe that the licenses allow you to reproduce (i.e., print or save) the document for research purposes -- without specifying a time limit or maximum duration of their subsequent use. See e.g. JSTOR's terms of service.

If you are asking about the ethical/moral propriety of what you are doing, you are clearly in the right to retain your collection of papers and notes on those papers. In fact, you may even have an ethical obligation to retain those materials if the notes therein are necessary to reproduce any of your present work.

As an analogy, think about what I did many years ago when moving from one university to another. I had an extensive paper collection of reprints, many photocopied from my institution's library and many extensively annotated. I boxed all of these up and brought them with me. No one in their right mind -- nor even most copyright lawyers, I'd imagine -- would have had me go through those files and discard the articles not in volumes held by my new institution.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. It does seem to be good common sense, though, and sometimes that can be worth at least as much as anything a lawyer would tell you.

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    +1 for "it's horrifying that...". By the way, it's also horrifying that you need to add the silly disclaimer. Academia.se should have a blanket legal disclaimer covering all answers like the folks over at law.stackexchange.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 31 '15 at 1:47
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Continuing on this thread of purely amateur legal advice in the comments and Corvus's excellent answer, I would like to point out the somewhat relevant concept of an unconscionable contract. This is a legal concept that refers to a contract with conditions that are immoral or unethical, such that even if a consenting adult knowingly entered into the contract it would be held to be legally unenforceable due to its unethical nature. See here for a detailed discussion including some country-specific information.

The point is that even in the unlikely event that some of the files you downloaded while at your old university came with some kind of licensing restriction that would require you to delete them upon termination of your relationship with the university, I would argue (again, purely based on common sense rather than on any legal expertise) that this is precisely such an unconscionable and legally unenforceable restriction. My verdict regarding your question is therefore:

  1. Is it ethical for me to keep the material and use it for my research?

Absolutely. Any restriction that forbids you from continuing to use your files for private study or research is unethical and morally void.

  1. Is it legal for me to keep the material and use it for my research?

Yes. Even if it might appear that you are technically violating a clause in some license that you (or your university) "agreed" to, personally I would consider such an obligation to be unconscionable and would feel myself free to ignore it. By my own understanding of the law I would not be breaking any legally binding obligation.

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  • This is a great addition to my answer!
    – Corvus
    Oct 31 '15 at 1:33

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