My university's subscription is really limited (I come from Lebanon). I never found any paper related to my research or essays using the database that my university is subscribing to; even the basic pioneering papers in business. Yesterday, I started writing my master's thesis and the very basic papers behind my topic cannot be accessed through my university's portal (cannot simply ignore them) and I, obviously, don't have access/cannot pay for individual papers. What to do in this case? Someone here recommended a Reddit page that provides and shares papers upon requests. How legal/ethical is that? The page claims that all the shared papers are based on the concept of fair use.

Eventually, I have 3 options: Follow this way, adopt a bad scholarship behavior by not tracking down original references to check myself (which is out of the question) or I just go home and forget about writing a master's thesis or a literature review because it's almost impossible to access those papers without the help of option 1. As for emailing individual authors, well none have replied so far so it isn't always a practical option as I cannot wait days for 1 particular paper to be received (if any).


Legally, I am not sure --- it depends on the laws on the country as well. Ethically, I don't see anything wrong about it. Academia is about building and sharing knowledge: if anything, I would consider it unethical to put papers behind a paywall.

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    Legally, I don't have any issue really. I mean, I am always trying to be a 'good citizen' in a corrupted country. So I usually place it under fair use especially that my condition fulfills all the 4 points of the fair use concept. As for ethics, you're totally right, it's just that I feel bad about doing it. I've just received 1 paper from the corresponding author. I asked for it on Sunday. So again, its's not always a practical choice to wait a few days if I just want to check like 10 words. Thanks for the answer. – R. AS. Jul 12 '16 at 20:56

Most scientific papers have their copyright owned by an academic publisher (which may be a for-profit company, a scientific society, a university press, etc.), and the publisher often does not allow people to redistribute the papers that they own. Hence, in most cases, it may be a violation of copyright for an individual to give you a copy of a scientific paper, either privately or by posting it online. Sometimes, even the authors of the work may not be legally allowed to share their work with you, because they have signed the copyright away -- even though this is common practice.

Now, in terms of ethics, many papers are produced by researchers who are paid by public money, and many researchers intend their work to be as widely disseminated as possible. In any case, researchers are not paid when publishers sell their articles, and few would object to their papers being shared with people who cannot afford to buy it from the publisher. People in the open access movement will argue that, in ethical terms, people like you should have access to the output of scientific research, without the publisher's copyright standing in the way. In fact, open access advocates often feel that academic publishers, in particular commercial ones, are acting against the interest of the research community by restricting the dissemination of scientific papers. This follows the intuition that research supported by public funds should be freely available to members of the public.

Personally, I would encourage you to obtain articles however you can when you cannot obtain them from publishers, without worrying about legal issues. I find that the most convenient way is often to use Sci-hub, but you can also ask for papers on Reddit, or asking colleagues or the authors of the paper. I can completely sympathize with the fact that it is essentially infeasible, when checking related work, to send emails, requests, wait, etc., for every single paper which you think may be relevant and need to check out. Situations like yours is what make me believe that the current academic publishing system has significant problems, and that encouraging open access to scientific papers is worthwhile.

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  • Thanks for the answer. My instructor shares your point regarding 'getting it in any way' as she has informed me yesterday. As for legality, see my previous comment, I am not really concerned about it now, I am just worried about ethics since I am an ultra-ethical guy. – R. AS. Jul 12 '16 at 20:58

I am a gardener. I work in a small garden that produces high quality fruits for a village. The village doesn't need my fruits, as they could live on beans and potatoes, but my fruits have been shown to improve the villagers health and fight cancer (for real!).

But, there is a problem here. I need to irrigate the garden and the only river nearby is owned by [Insert evil company name] who demands a huge price the village can't afford for their water. Up to now, my garden survived on rain water, but this is not reliable enough as in my country rains very little.

I heard there is an evil girl from Kazakhstan who dug a canal parallel to the [big company river] and she routinely deviates water to whomever needs a little irrigation. I'm sure this is neither ethical, nor legal and [big evil company] would be blessed if she was killed together with her relatives and anyone who dares think monopolies and paywalls are wrong. I believe the right thing to do is to forget the garden, and my fancy healthy fruits, take a job as a bus driver and keep my integrity intact. I shudder to think of the alternative: sci-hub, libgen.


Edit: check my other, less angry answer here: Is it ethical to obtain journal articles from places other than the publisher's official sites?

Edit2: Aside from the ethical and legal issues, it is preferable in some cases (e.g. my institute) to use the illegal ways to get papers. The reason is that we have a portal made by the IT company of [insert politician relative name] that makes it really hard to access even the journals we have subscription for (about 10% of the journals I need to check regularly).

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    It's illegal in my country and in US. Unethical? No, and I think my allegory answers that part of the question. – user21264 Jul 12 '16 at 8:27
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    Curious that you use water as a metaphor -- in my country, there has recently been a long debate on whether it is ethical to privatize the utility companies that give water to households, on the ground that "water is a public good, it is not produced but it simply flows out of the earth, and should never be owned by a private company". – Federico Poloni Jul 12 '16 at 10:22
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    @101010111100 I was not talking about preprints. I was talking about the legality of downloading papers from sci-hub. In my country, you can go to jail over it. As for the "two wrongs don't make one right" pseudo-argument, sorry. There is nothing wrong about downloading papers you need for research. As I explained in the other post, we do research for the people more than for us. I'd be better off doing software development, or just working in a bank as far as the money and social status are concerned. – user21264 Jul 12 '16 at 12:44
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    You are just nitpicking. Your opinion is that downloading illegally is unethical but I have yet to hear the argument. Ethics is not black and white. Downloading is ethical because it is necessary to help you do your job which is to discover something useful to advance your civilization. Pay-walling is not ethical because it basically says that poor researchers should quit and switch to subsistence agriculture. Just as it is not ethical to raise the tuition fees high enough to make sure no one coming from the ghetto will ever get to go to a good school. – user21264 Jul 12 '16 at 13:24
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    I agree with you. If it weren't for scihub and Libgen, it would be very hard for brilliant researchers outside academia or in not so developed countries to manifest their genuine intelligence. Take the example of Grigory Perelman. – Nikey Mike Jul 13 '16 at 9:17

I won't comment on ethics because that's up to personal values, but I'll discuss legality.

It is usually legal to obtain journal articles from Reddit. That's because these sources don't usually yield the final published version (i.e. the one accessible from the journal website) and that is the only version behind a paywall. Publishers are usually happy if authors share preprints, since more readers leads to more usage leads to more citations leads to more subscriptions.

Here's an example from Elsevier. Note authors are allowed to share their article for "Personal Use, Internal Institutional Use and Scholarly Sharing purposes". Clicking on "scholarly sharing" links to this page, which explicitly says:

  1. Authors can share their preprint anywhere at any time.
  2. Authors can share their accepted manuscript [immediately] by updating a preprint in arXiv or RePEc with the accepted manuscript.
  3. Authors can share their accepted manuscript [immediately] by providing copies to their students or to research collaborators for their personal use
  4. Authors can share their accepted manuscript [after the embargo period] via non-commercial hosting platforms such as their institutional repository

In other words, Elsevier allows you to get a preprint off Reddit. Since Reddit is noncommercial, Elsevier also allows you to get the accepted article (i.e. the article after reviewer comments are incorporated, but before copyediting/typesetting/whatever) off Reddit but only after the embargo period, which is usually about 6 months to a year. Elsevier does prohibit you from getting the published journal article (i.e. the article after copyediting/typesetting/whatever) off Reddit, but if you like some people believe that publishers add no value, then you probably aren't concerned about getting this version anyway.

Although every publishers' policies differ, Elsevier's are typical.

tl; dr: unless you are getting a very recent paper, or you're getting the published journal article, you're not breaking laws.

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The legality of copyright is a mine field. As I said here, I think that redistributing a paper goes against the wishes of the publisher and is therefore unethical. I think the real issues are

I cannot wait days for 1 particular paper to be received


papers behind my topic cannot be accessed through my university's portal

I find it hard to believe that your research is progressing so fast that a couple of day delay receiving a paper is going to be catastrophic. Additionally, while electronic access is nice, you should check with you library regarding paper versions. Additionally, Lebanon seems to be developing an "Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery Services" called LIDS. In the absence of your university helping you obtain a copy of the paper, you should talk to your supervisor. They may have a colleague at a university with a better library. Only after exhausting all other opportunities would I consider buying the paper from the publisher or using a general list server to obtain a copy.

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    For waiting, imagine like I have to check 20 papers for 1 particular idea, out of these 20 papers, 18 cannot be accessed, imagine emailing all these authors with the huge potentiality of not getting answers (I haven't gotten any so far) so it's not a matter of patience, it's a matter of not wanting to waste days and weeks just to read a line or two of information. It isn't efficient. Again, no problem with waiting but I am not getting anything anyway. – R. AS. Jul 11 '16 at 19:06
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    Yes, waiting a few days to get access to a paper (in case it succeeds) is a real constraint, not because your field is progressing so fast, but simply because it makes it really harder for you to make progress. – pintoch Jul 12 '16 at 6:41
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    I really have to give -1 to this answer. Given your answer,I think that you pretty much have no idea what it looks like to try to do anything research-related when you have no access to papers. Given that OP just stared writing his thesis, he's most likely in the exploratory phase. I myself, back when I was writing my bachelor's thesis, had to skim well over 200 papers, in order to determine that maybe 50 are related to my work and that maybe 10 or so should be examined in great detail. If I had to spend just 1 hour getting papers the old way, it would take more than a month to do all of that. – AndrejaKo Jul 12 '16 at 9:23
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    -1 for "I find it hard to believe that your research is progressing so fast that a couple of day delay receiving a paper is going to be catastrophic." Coming from someone who has ever done research in his life, this is unusual. If I write a paper, a grant application, or even make a poster for a conference, I need my literature fast. Most papers you don't study, you just need them to inform yourself of what's going on in the field. For the ones you study for a week, month, etc. you can definitely wait for two days. But how would you know which ones are those if you haven't read them? – user21264 Jul 12 '16 at 9:39
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    Well, I have just received one paper from 1 author. That's good. I am grateful. It took 2 days compared to 3 hours on Reddit and since then, I've written 2 rich pages of literature review. So had I waited till now, I'd have started writing my thesis tomorrow so that would make it a 3 days loss. That's just for 1 paper. Again, I am really grateful for both ways. – R. AS. Jul 12 '16 at 21:09

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