Underground Resource Sharing

One outcome of the Netflix discussion that took place in the library community is that there seems to be general agreement that adhering to licensing agreements is the right thing for academic librarians to do for a number of good reasons. Not only is it a good way to avoid a potential lawsuit from Netflix or a movie studio, but it sets the right example for students and faculty. How can we expect them to abide by fair use guidelines and licensing agreements if the campus librarians are openly flouting them. We need to take the moral high ground, even if Netflix represents a reasonably good solution to the DVD distribution challenge.

So I find it interesting that this blogger is complaining about not having access to JSTOR as an alumnus of some college or university. Dr. Koshary writes:

I didn’t think this would happen, now that I’m out of grad school, but I’m feeling a fresh surge of hatred for Dear Old University. I tried to log in to JSTOR to look up an article, and found that I no longer have access to JSTOR through my DOU affiliation.

I’m pretty sure Dr. Koshary knows that JSTOR is a restricted database, and that most libraries are prohibited from allowing alumni to gain access (unless they make some sort of arrangement which likely isn’t cheap – and Dr. Khosary suspects his alma mater has such an agreement). At the end of the rant against his alma mater he asks:

I don’t suppose any of my readers has a better/cheaper idea for me to regain access to JSTOR?

Turns out they do, and most of those offering advice don’t seem too concerned about taking the moral high ground – or even abiding by their university or library’s guidelines for sharing accounts:

Do what everybody I know who’s been in your position has done: get a friend who has access to a research library and its databases to share their log-in and password with you. I know I’ve helped a few people out in this way, and I’ve done it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. Sure, it’s technically “wrong” but I’d argue that it’s more wrong to charge underemployed people money for access to scholarly resources.

I just ran into this, where my new school has some journal accesses but not many, and I crowdsourced it on facebook — some current Gradschooland students offered me their proxy server login, and another was already in the library and emailed me the pdf.

Everyone does it. Hell, I’ll give you MY login if you want

Virtually everyone I know who’s not employed by a top-tier R1 has a bootlegged EEBO account: through friends who are still grad students, advisors, or friends with cushier jobs.

Makes you wonder why we even bother with licensing agreements in the first place? As long as you can get it for free somewhere else that’s all that matters. Just how rampant is this practice? Wish I had a way to do an anonymous poll of faculty, grad students and alums to see how many think it’s all right to provide or take an account to give someone else free access to restricted resources. Based on this post – probably a lot more than we think. So much for setting good examples.

18 thoughts on “Underground Resource Sharing

  1. In April we did a series of focus groups with faculty and grad students to get more detail on how they are coping with the fairly significant cuts we’ve made in licensed resources over the past two years. We were not surprised that the issue of a thriving “black market” in journal articles came up spontaneously in every session. It was somewhat more prevalent among the grad students & junior faculty, but it occurred at all levels. Despite the fact that we have significantly streamlined and improved our ILL/PPV services, it’s still not as effective as checking with a colleague or two to see if they can supply an article. People are generally aware that there’s probably something not quite legit about doing it that way, but when they feel pressed in order to get their work done, they’re willing to cut those corners.

  2. I used to work with an ILS librarian who was in charge of monitoring for this type of activity. He had all sorts of alerts and traps set up to catch users who did this (e.g. if someone logged in from two separate IP ranges simultaneously). In his words, it was like playing whack-a-mole all day long!

    What saddens me the most is the affect this will have on licenses and pricing. If the problems gets worse, it will only drive prices up or force libraries to restrict access in such a way as will frustrate users, if not increase the level of participation in the “black market.”

  3. Steven, thank you for pointing out this inconsistency–I know librarians who will send off these articles to colleagues without batting an eye, and thus I was surprised at the fervor behind some of the objections to Netflix in libraries.

    Recently at my library we’ve discussed the fact that faculty say we don’t have the resources we need, yet our ILL stats don’t indicate this. We know our faculty are going around the library, but it’s hard for us to build our collection when we don’t have good information on exactly what they need that we don’t have.

  4. The inconsistency is built into the databases that invite users to email articles to friends but forbid libraries from providing access to people outside the gates. If Samizdat is what it takes, so it goes. The problem with agreeing to a TOS and then violating it (with the nodding and winking of the vendor) and saying it’s all cool is problematic, unless it’s principled civil disobedience (which usually with librarians it isn’t).

  5. I don’t work in an academic library, but a hospital library. We operate very similar to a research library because that’s what we do. We research. However, I do it all on a tiny budget. While I belong to several resource sharing groups and medical librarians in general are very good about sharing articles, it is sometimes difficult to get hold of an article for free. My budget can handle paying for some articles, but not a lot so when I’m doing a search on an unusual topic, I often have to get the articles the doctor needs in a slightly unethical way, by using a friend of mine’s login info at our local (very large) medical school. This school doesn’t like to share it’s resources so I have to get them on my own.

    I am aware that it’s wrong, but the bottom line is, I need those articles. And in a hospital environment, I often need them very quickly. I don’t have the money for a lot of databases (and I would be the only person using it if I did) nor do I have the money for a lot of ILLs, so I do what I can. I know I shouldn’t, but what else am I supposed to do? Have a doctor make a wrong decision because I couldn’t get the information fast enough?

  6. What’s happening here is no different than how things were done 40 or 50 years ago, from what I’ve read. Then, if you needed an article that was not available at your institution’s library, you contacted a friend at another library and they would possibly copy (by hand, mimeograph, Xerox when it became available) and mail it to you. All that’s changed today is that it has become easier to do so. The resources often are already in digital form and can be easily emailed or shared through numerous different ways.

    I don’t see this situation changing in the foreseeable future until better access is available across the full breadth of scholarly materials. Publishers and aggregators need to realize that as they continue to increase the costs the libraries have to pay, more libraries may have to drop their subscriptions, resulting in more researchers need to look elsewhere and use other means to get what they need. Need is like water, it will flow around obstacles and create new channels when necessary.

  7. I can understand one librarian asking a colleague to provide an article on occasion from a specialized database – in some ways that strikes me as an abbreviated version of ILL. It’s quite another thing for a student or faculty member to give someone else their network account so that someone unaffiliated with your institution can access your network to use a database. The first instance has some element of control; the second one has none.

  8. Steven, is the difference in that the first example (of a librarian sharing with a librarian), we maintain the illusion of control? Both are licensing violations. Are you suggesting that the end justifies the means? Then explain to me again why we can’t use Netflix?

    I think the problem, to me, with the reaction to the Netflix TOS violations is that many librarians acted as if they would never, ever violate a license agreement or TOS no matter the situation (no doubt they never drive over 15 in a school zone, either)–yet here we are, merrily emailing articles off to each other.

    I wish we could acknowledge that these aren’t black and white issues.

    Barbara makes a good point–that the wink and the nudge from the vendor only complicates things. If they won’t enforce their own TOS, why should we? (I don’t actually think that, but the notion that we are defenders of for-profit corporations who don’t bother to defend themselves is a bit troubling.)

  9. This is all indicative of the fact that publishing and libraries working in an environment of physical objects that had to be shared are now working in a world where natural sharing scholarly work requires is being hobbled by an electronic environment forced to mimic print limitations (and then some) to sustain a publishing regime that is more about preseving revenue streams than promoting knowledge. It seems to me that scholars are doing what they need to do and libraries are being told to hinder the flow of knowledge as if that’s the moral high ground. It isn’t. We need open acess and we need to inform faculty that it’s up to them to make it work, because their muddled insistance that tradition defines prestige and worth but they must have access to do their work works at cross purposes. It seems fitting to be talking about locking down access during banned books week, but let’s hang onto that thought for next month’s open access week because they are close cousins.

  10. Barbara is so right! The question here is not about protecting database vendors profits but providing researchers access to the information they need. At this moment in time, database vendors are a necessary evil because we (librarians) haven’t stepped up to the plate to support barrier free access to information. We need leadership that champions open access as it’s number one goal and libraries that have to technical capacity to assist authors in publishing their work to it’s widest possible audience. As for banned books…

  11. Does this mean that it’s a license violation for me to walk into the library building of a school I’m not enrolled at and access the databases through the computers there? What about if I look up an article in the dead tree files and photocopy it? I have to pay the library for the photocopy, obviously, but I haven’t paid the publisher a dime to access the information which supposedly belongs to them.

    The difference between the issue discussed in this post, and the one I just mentioned, is simply a matter of scope. It seems a bit ridiculous to limit physical access to libraries, but that’s where this slippery slope is heading – ID scanners on the library doors, and loaning non-student friends your student ID to gain access.

    Personally, I think that an open model is the way to go, in the hope that increased access to info will lead to more people using resources, whereas restricting access and increasing prices will drive academic research towards extinction, but I’m obviously not the one who stands to make money on the deal, either.

  12. The answer to your question cSoul is “it depends”. Some academic libraries do negotiate for the right to allow access to non-affiliated users for their subscription databases. The problem you might encounter is that many of our academic libraries require you to have a network access account to even get on a computer at all. At MPOW we have a designated group of PCs just for public guests and some database access for the public and alumni has been negotiated. However, the one thing you absolutely can’t do is access the subscription databases from a remote location. That’s a much more serious licensing matter – and you can’t negotiate that without paying lots more – and usually just for alumni. Yes, the open model is the way to go, but creating and maintaining aggregator databases like Lexis/Nexis and ABI/Inform isn’t cheap – so don’t expect those to be open anytime soon. Now, if the content in them was open…

  13. Well, being a researcher and not a librarian (allthough as chairman of the faculty library board I work closely together with our head-librarian) I would like to add that WE (i.e. researchers) get paid with tax money to do the research and write the articles and books, and WE (i.e. researcher sit on the editorial committees reviewing and selecting the manuscripts. If private companies invest in digitization, storage and consulting facilites they are entitled to a fair reward in exchange, but where’s the reward for researchers and tax-payers for what they put in ? This is just not something we should leave to private enterprises to do. Persée provides the same facilities as JStore, but it is free.

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