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I like to learn things even outside my university degree and I wonder if it is moral to read articles found online on blogs and other sources?

  • Then Google simply becomes the library and you would have to dig elsewhere to uncover what the library does not (want to) show you. – mathreadler Sep 15 '17 at 17:22
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There's nothing morally wrong with reading blogs and most online sources, so I'm going to assume you mean published articles and books.

When it comes to journal articles and books, it depends. Many articles that are freely available online are legally published / published with the author's permission. Others are not. Obviously papers posted on the author's website, or websites like arXiv are okay, but for other listings it's a lot less clear. It's up to you to make your best judgement as to the legality and the morality of the access you have.

This also of course presumes that you think it's moral to support closed-access journals. Some people feel that closed-access journals are a bad thing and should be opposed. To those people, doing anything other than seeking out illicit versions would be morally wrong.

  • thanks for the answer. my question was more related to morality not necessarily legality although I think legality is also a complex issue here. But if someone did not made his article freely available maybe it is not ok to read it anyway without paying.... it is his right to make his article paid but when I want to read about something and I just search on Google I get many results and I cannot verify the source for all of them... it is really confusing. I guess it is not easy to be careful about things like this. – yoyo_fun Sep 15 '17 at 13:43
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    @yoyo_fun I did write about the morality of the action. My personal opinion is that people who publish research are contributing to a whole sum of human knowledge that it is immoral to deny people access to. If you want to be selective, go to a different field. Academic research is a public good. – Stella Biderman Sep 15 '17 at 13:54
  • I don't see how "some people feel" can remove a moral question. – Joanna Bryson May 3 '18 at 23:26
  • I’ve reworded my last paragraph. – Stella Biderman May 3 '18 at 23:49
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Note that many journals allow authors to post preprints or even the "official" full text on their websites. In such cases, there's clearly no ethical dilemma involved.

In cases where such behavior is prohibited by the journal, then there is a bit of a dilemma. The "fault" is shared, between the person who posted the infringing content and those who read it.

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    As I see it, the fault lies with the journal prohibiting this. – Arno Sep 15 '17 at 14:51
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    @Arno: The journals are exercising their rights under copyright law. So do we blame the people who devised copyright law? (I'd say yes, given the excesses of it right now, but that's personal opinion.) – aeismail Sep 15 '17 at 14:53
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    The fault also lies with the author if they don't make it freely available. Also with congress and with Disney's lobbyists for supporting our ridiculous unconstitutional copyright regime. – Noah Snyder Sep 15 '17 at 15:01
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    @aeismail The fact that journals are legally allowed to do it doesn't make it automatically moral/ethical. Sometimes the ethical thing to do is waiving your rights, or even going against the law. – Federico Poloni Sep 15 '17 at 16:32
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    @Federico Poloni you're right, but neither does the fact that a law is morally wrong make it automatically right to go against the law. We cannot just dispense with the law because we have different moral convictions. There are many convictions in a plural society; the fact that it works regardless is not least due to there being just one Law. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 3 '18 at 14:09
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If you're talking about research papers, there is absolutely no ethical reasons why you should buy the access to them. In fact, publishers like Elsevier are taking advantage of the power they have to gain money on what's free and open : Knowledge. Research papers are never meant to be sold but shared so the unethical part comes from publisher. If you want to find free research paper, go on Sci-Hub!

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    Publishers provide a service that was needed and they get money for it, I don't find that unethical. The problem is that technology is changing and at least the distribution aspect - one core service they provided - is a lot easier/cheaper to do, yet the old distribution way hasn't died out yet. The immoral part of selectively providing access to something that arguably should be public data is how we as a society "decided" to organize and finance the publishing process. – Frank Hopkins Sep 15 '17 at 16:03
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    Well, here's one ethical reason: if nobody paid for journals, all the people that journals employ would lose their jobs. You can decide for yourself how big a reason you think that is, but it's certainly not no reason at all. – David Richerby Sep 15 '17 at 16:37
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    @David: If nobody bought cigarettes then a lot of people would lose their jobs. That this is an ethical reason for buying cigarettes sounds really screwy to me. Replace it with "crack cocaine" or "Somali pirates" if it helps. I would certainly like to claim that this is "no reason at all." – Pete L. Clark Sep 15 '17 at 16:50
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    @Darkwing The unethical and immoral part of the publisher's deal is to force the authors to pass them all copyrights for their published work. – Dmitri Zaitsev Oct 22 '17 at 14:23
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    @DmitriZaitsev: but then, there's no law whatsoever that prevents you, me or others of founding a journal that doesn't have such practices. So IMHO, the power of the publishers is based on the lazyness of scientists. (And there are some examples where sufficiently important scientists decided to do something and actually did it.) – cbeleites supports Monica May 3 '18 at 19:02
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There is the concept of open access wich many journals are starting to focus on more. There are many quality peer-reviewed papers that are open access. I think most easy way to reach those quality papers is through scholar.google.com. As far As I know when you see the PDF or HTML link in the scholar.google.com, they are open access and you can find most of the paper's abstruct there even if they are not available. If you are interested on those, you can mail to author as said above. In short, If you find open access journals, you can read them, to find legal, open access articles, you need to choose your websites carefully or you can ask for full text articles that you can't find online.

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Reading things on blogs is fine, it's what blogs are for, but you shouldn't cite them, blogs are not peer reviewed. Well, maybe you can cite them as "personal communication", obviously you shouldn't plagiarise them.

There are a number of legitimate ways to get PDFs on line, for example if they were published open access (the journal or conference lets you have it for free, probably because they charged the authors or their universities already), or if the authors put a pre print online (this is entirely legal) or if the authors or someone else put the final version illegally on line.

This last, being illegal, is as such at least somewhat immoral; it is theft from those who hold the copyright. The next question is, are you culpable for reading such a PDF, or indeed obliged to figure out whether a PDF you find online was "liberated" illegally, or whether it was circulated legally? Even if you decide or know that the PDF is illegal, if you are a utilitarian of some form you might ask: is the good that would come from you reading it greater than the (probably negligible) harm you do by reading it? Of course, other forms of ethics never accept that the ends justify the means.

Thrown into the mix, it has long been legal and common practice that if you ASK an author for a copy of their paper, they will just send you an offprint. In recent decades, this is a PDF. So you might also consider starting to read a paper, deciding whether its good, and then asking for a legitimate copy that way. Or you could decide the good you would do by asking he author is outweighed by the time you would cost the author, and keep on reading the PDF you already have.

As an academic, if I find out about a paper that I can't read, I both ask the author for a copy AND ask my library to buy access to the journal. That's because I think it's far more moral for publishers to charge for reading than for authoring an article, but I also think the reason I accept a low university salary is to be in a university with access to knowledge. That's another way to read articles legitimately of course – go to a library!

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    "but you shouldn't cite them, blogs are not peer reviewed" is a dangerous statement. Surely if the OP uses ideas presented in a blog post in their writing, they should cite them! – ff524 May 3 '18 at 23:43
  • Thanks I've addressed that inappropriate interpretation. (But not the inevitable libertarian jerks that downvote any time I defend people getting paid for their work.) – Joanna Bryson May 5 '18 at 18:52

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