File Sharers Swap Scholarly Materials Too: a glimpse into the real world of “open access”

February 21, 2009, 12:03 pm

For legal purposes, this post is a work of fiction. I do not endorse illegal file sharing, nor do I know anyone who participates in such terrible and illicit behavior. Any apparent violation of copyright is for demonstrative purposes only.

A student sent me a direct twitter message Friday afternoon asking about a book he needed for a paper. I didn't have my phone on me so I wasn't able to respond right away. A few hours later he messaged again saying he was able to find the book online, so not to worry about helping him. (Note: the book was not in our collection, but a library in our consortium bought it as an ebook and so that showed up in our shared catalog. However, he could not access their copy.) We messaged back and forth a little later that evening and I discovered that he found the item in PDF via bit torrent.

This fascinated me because I knew that these “criminal” web services carried music, movies, and software, but I didn't think they would also have scholarly materials. So today I decided to take a peek and see just what I could find. (Note: Big, powerful publishers, don't sue me, I'm just a journalist here!) I started my search with the keywords: CRC Handbook. This is the first page that came back.


The most interesting thing on this list is Elsevier's complete Referex Engineering Collection. We're talking 700+ books of hardcore engineering. 4.69 GB and it's on your desktop in PDF.

Referex1    Referex

What about IEEE? Sure! Do you want books? Do you want journals? Do you want conference papers?


How about a current issue of Science?


Or the Harvard Business Review?


Or Harvard Business Cases?


And what about textbooks?


Or ebooks?


I found this absolutely fascinating. Yet it doesn't really surprise me. I walked away from file sharing apps back when the original Napster was closed down. But during that brief time I discovered a lot of great underground music. (RIAA I'm lieing.) I know as librarians we're supposed to be champions of copyright, but I have to admit that I was impressed by the quality of resources that I was able to find in ten minutes. So of course, I in no way endorse these sites, and I don't encourage you to look at The Pirate Bay or BTJunkie, but if you did, these are the types of things you'd find. Along with the new U2 and Thursday albums.

This adds fuel to the argument “why would I use the library when I can get what I need online?” I picture a student in an instruction session watching the librarian guide the class through a handful of databases, and then he goes home and uses a simple file sharing search tool and gets books on the ethics of cloning. Or an engineering prof who needs sources that are too expensive for the library to purchase. This might be illegal, but the system is easy and intuitive and 100 times better than what we're providing now. I would love to test MetaLib vs. LimeWire in the area of usability. So while I can already see that scowl on your face, step back a minute. We can learn a lot.

If someone, preferably someone I have not met yet and who maybe works in the collections/licensing side of things, wants to do a formal study about the “underground market” of scholarly materials found on free file sharing sites, email me. I'm sort of booked up the rest of the Spring, but this could make for an interesting Summer project. We'll publish in an Elsevier journal and then leak it online.

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