I'm currently interning for a small R&D company. The boss is notoriously tight fisted and prone to cutting corners to save any amount of money he can. In the past, he has attempted to use my student status to get free or discounted software for company use to avoid paying licensing fees. (To clarify, software purchased using my status as a student but not to be used by me but by other individuals in the company) He recently found out I get institutionally provided access to various journals and has started requesting I provide him with pdf or printed copies of papers so he can avoid paying for them. Is this ethical? Legal?

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    Have you asked your University about this? They are giving you access to these papers, and presumable they have rules on how you can use them. Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 16:33
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    Unlikely that it is legal - the university has access to support the education and research mission of the university, and they pay for that. They are not authorized to redistribute material to random companies. Similarly, the software licenses granted to students under a student discount are not authorized to be used for commercial purposes. Bad all around. An R&D company that will not properly invest in the tools (software and literature resources) is not a place I'd hang out at.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 18:14
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    Requesting papers through friends who happen to have access is commonplace in academia, and considered perfectly okay unless it puts pressure on people's time. No one cares about the provenance of a PDF file. On the other hand, buying software through someone else's student account may be problematic, particularly if the software "phones home"; potentially both you and your company could be in trouble (more likely the company, unless you make significant money). Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 18:39
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    @darijgrinberg I totally agree that it's common and accepted in academia. A company requesting paper copies from a student, as in the described situation, is a different framework. Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 20:53
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    he has attempted to use my student status to get free or discounted software for company useWalk away now. This is a company aiming for a lawsuit, and you do not want to get caught up in that.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 20:56

4 Answers 4


It is unlikely that your use of this journal subscription would fall within the terms-of-usage agreed by the university with the journal providers, and agreed by you (as a student) with the university. You should enquire further into the particular terms of access for these resources, but I would imagine that they would be restricted to use for educational and research purposes within the scope of your position as a student at the university.

Either of these practices could potentially get you into trouble, though the use of software beyond the terms of the licence is probably more fraught with danger. Downloading journal articles for work purposes is not that uncommon in fields employing academics and students, though it is probably not legal. While some forbearance might be given for small infractions, certainly it is unethical to agree to access a resource from the university for the purposes of your education, and then to use that resource systematically to advantage a commercial business that is unwilling to pay for the service.


As to downloading articles, it's not ethical in one sense. However, many research articles are funded by public dollars. Is it ethical that they wind up behind paywalls? Institutional access to journals costs a lot of money.

Yes, the publishers are providing a service by disseminating the material, and yes, that deserves remuneration. However, once again - most research has some public funding behind it.

In my view, depending on the context, asking a student intern to download a few articles is not necessarily unethical. If unethical, it's not necessarily the sort of thing that you want to call the cops for. Asking an intern to buy student software for the rest of the company is definitely not ethical. That plus the OP's tone makes me think there is more stuff going on that he or she is not saying. In ethics, your gut does have to play some role in making your decision.

  • My thoughts exactly. My first reaction to reading the title was "of course it's unethical, they didn't pay for it". But then I thought, the publishers didn't pay for it either...
    – user9646
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 14:56
  • It's all how the question was asked isn't it? An owner of a struggling small business is painted as being merely a tightwad acting out his character flaws, and everyone immediately sides with the evil international conglomerates against him. Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 9:40

Why are you asking whether this is unethical? That's something for you to decide. Possible points to consider: is the paywall system underlying most academic journals ethical in and of itself? Is being "unethical" towards something which is unethical actually something that is really unethical?

Is it legal? No.


Based on the title of this question, of course not. It's violating terms of service not just unethical.

  • You say this as if violating the terms of a service was necessarily unethical and in fact even worse from a moral viewpoint. That's far from true. Imagine I wrote "by reading this comment you agree to my terms, which includes your obligation to go and kill a random person in the streets". Would violating these terms be unethical?
    – user9646
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 14:55
  • Pretty sure I'm in violation of the terms of service of every website I've ever visited. Not certain since I've never read them. What's more unethical, breaking arbitrary terms of service or writing terms of service that steal users' privacy? Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 15:48
  • Why on earth would you be in violation of the terms of service of every website you've visited? you most likely are not.
    – matanox
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 18:13
  • @NajibIdrissi your line of though is a logical falsehood. The university is sold access to materials, for academic purposes. It does not allow transferring the materials to third parties, who are commercial entities. Very simple.
    – matanox
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 18:14

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