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The question is simple. I am working on a topic. I came across a paper that is behind a paywall which my research institution (i.e. university) has no access to it and it may or may not be relevant to my research. If I skip it and some reviewer says that work is quite close to the work I have submitted and I should cite it, or even worse it is so close that it is on the edges of plagiarism.

I have the option of obtaining it from different sources without paying. Should I take it to avoid such claim? If I pay there is a good chance that I wasted money. In today's world literature is so vast and there are so many false positives and a paper might cost up to 40 bucks.

Let me flip that question. Suppose I created a publishing firm. I and my mates do superb research and publish on a journal of our publishing firm. (Assume our research quality is good, so omit academic nepotism.) One catch, our firm charges and exorbitant fee (say millions) for granting access to libraries and universities. Then we start waiting. When I see other research quite similar to ours, I press charges that our work has not been cited or acknowledged and the situation is plagiarism. I am the academic equivalent of a patent troll, except that you cannot see my work until I sue you. Should the poor guy suffer a plagiarism charge just because I kept my research behind a paywall that he/she cannot reach?

Professors and other academic people I ask about it pretend to be either unconscious or dead. Just kidding, they usually offer to send the papers that I cannot reach. But it does not answer my question.

p.s. There is a similar question here citing the problem but not the ethical dilemma. Are there any known Universities that refuse to pay for paywall access to academic journals?

EDIT due to possible duplicate reports: There are three questions which all refer to the same problem: unfettered access to academic research. I paraphrase and summarise three questions below. Suppose there is a body of research (say, group of articles) that are beyond the researcher's reach due to lack of resources (no ILL, no institution access, no sufficient budget etc). Should the researcher take the "gray" ways to obtain it? If not is he/she responsible for research he/she does not have access to? If so, where do we draw the line? How much is too much to pay to access research? (hence the publisher question) It is not the 80s anymore. Research is published almost faster than one can read and it is readily available (at an inflated cost). So, thorough examination of literature to conduct original research is unjustifiably more expensive than before.

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    Because of things like interlibrary loan, this might be a false dichotomy. – Nate Eldredge Apr 12 '17 at 20:38
  • Usually, it's the library of your institution that orders and pays for a single article for you. – FuzzyLeapfrog Apr 12 '17 at 20:39
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    Not all journals are reachable by ILL or not all institutions pay for individual requests (or have the budget to do so). Not all of us live in the States either :) The main question is "if the only way to access a research is a gray one should one take it to avoid missing the research?" – berkorbay Apr 12 '17 at 20:46
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    Note that the fact that someone failed to cite a paper containing the same work isn't inherently plagiarism, unless it can be shown they had read the paper and intentionally passed off its work as their own. It happens all the time that someone rediscovers and publishes previous work without knowing it. They don't get punished for plagiarism; at most they have to publish an "acknowledgment of priority". And their claim of innocence would hold all the more weight if your journal was known not to be widely read (because of its cost or any other reason). – Nate Eldredge Apr 12 '17 at 20:57
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    The idea that not citing a paper you didn't read could lead to "a plagiarism charge" strikes me as extremely contrived. – Fomite Apr 12 '17 at 23:09
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This seems contrived, as normally you can at least read the abstract to find out if you need to read the paper.

If you do need to read the paper, you have valid ways to do it, such as interlibrary loan, without paying $40. It's not free, but not a huge expense. You can opt to not read the paper, in which case you'd be doing your professional practice a misdeed.

Lastly, there is ALWAYS similar research by other people, who have not seen or heard of your paper. It is NOT plagiarism to independently come up with something on your own. There would normally be no charge of plagiarism, and you are wasting your effort serving as a patent troll.

If you are a publisher charging exorbitantly for access, you would build up your reputation, hire editors of stature, maintain a staff that keeps papers moving through the business, maintain a list of good referees, and do many other things to try to add value to your service and repository. If you build up your reputation, institutions would subscribe. If you can't establish a reputation, you'd go broke.

Should the poor guy suffer a plagiarism charge just because I kept my research behind a paywall that he/she cannot reach?

The most likely scenario is that the person will not face a charge because no plagiarism occurred, as your paper has not been read. Another likely scenario is that the paper were acquired through legal and nonexorbitant or free means like interlibrary loan, prepublication sources as required by NIH under the Public Access Policy, etc.

There are sound reasons to advocate for open access, but the fear of forcing plagiarism probably isn't in the hit parade.

Lastly, I encourage you to find the papers you need by legal means, so no, I don't feel acquiring the paper for free through extra-legal means is the way to go.

  • To do proper research, a researcher should examine many papers deeper than their abstracts. Many studies have seemingly relevant abstracts but completely irrelevant context. It is especially true if the researcher's work is in an interdisciplinary domain. I also disagree about the plagiarism charge. I published a work and charge a fee for my deed which I deem fair but too much for others. Another researcher comes and published work quite similar to mine in another paywalled journal. If I complain, he/she would probably have to retract it. Btw, the question is more abstract than real. – berkorbay Apr 12 '17 at 20:58
  • There are several legal ways to get a free version of an article. See e.g. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/85623/… – FuzzyLeapfrog Apr 12 '17 at 21:02
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    @FuzzyLeapfrog yeah but these solutions are not always reliable and final original work is behind a paywall most of the time. I am lucky to do my PhD in an institution with vast academic resources but not everybody have the same opportunity. – berkorbay Apr 12 '17 at 21:16
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    @berkorbay -- I don't suggest that people only read the abstract, but I do suggest that usually a person can tell if the paper needs reading by what's in the abstract. Also, I think you have a funny idea of what constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism is representing the work of others as your own work. A failure to acknowledge other work cannot be plagiarism if you don't know about the other work. In fact, having someone blind to the IP is a common way to get around software copyright -- just redevelop from scratch. – Scott Seidman Apr 12 '17 at 21:56
  • @ScottSeidman Unfortunately ignorance is not an excuse, especially today. If I were an editor of a respectable journal and I come across a paper that closely resembles an existing work it would raise an eyebrow or two. Sure, plagiarism is an extreme accusation but you can easily be "implicated" of not doing your research well. First time perhaps you can be lenient, especially if the submitter is a young researcher. – berkorbay Apr 13 '17 at 5:59
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The concept of open access is relatively new. Two decades ago when you wanted a paper, you had to go to the library and photocopy it. If your library did not have a copy you could try to obtain it through an inter-library loan (ILL) or contact the author, or colleagues, directly. To my understanding, none of these methods violated the copyright laws and the "paywalls".

A decade ago when you wanted a paper, you could go on to the journals webpage and see if you could download the paper. If not, then you went the library ILL contact author and colleague route. Again, to my understanding, this is legal.

Today, when you want a paper, you Google it. If you don't find it, it seems, academics then complain about paywalls. In my limited understanding of copyright contacting authors and colleagues is still legal.

In the extreme case of limited access to a research finding, either because of a restrictive license or more likely government classification, repeating the research is perfectly legitimate. Repeating research is not academic misconduct, and definitely not plagiarism. One should make an effort to acknowledge that research finding may have previously been achieved (and reported) so that it is clear that you are not claiming priority.

  • This came up in another topic very recently. If you go out of your way to point out you may not be original, you shoot yourself in the foot. Let's leave it at, it's not plagiarism unless it's intentional. – Fred Douglis Apr 12 '17 at 22:20
  • @FredDouglis no, plagiarism does not need to be intentional. It is representing someone else's work as your own, and I can point to a ton of penalized students who did just this without ever realizing that that was what they were doing. – Scott Seidman Apr 12 '17 at 23:02
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    Doing the same work independently, unaware of it, is not plagiarism. – Fred Douglis Apr 12 '17 at 23:08
  • @FredDouglis that's better. – Scott Seidman Apr 12 '17 at 23:50
  • @ScottSeidman Independent recreation is not plagiarism: if I actually do the work, it is my work, too. Indeed, this happened many times in the days before the internet, when it was much harder to find out what had already been done. – David Richerby Apr 12 '17 at 23:50

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