Are PDFs immoral?

Academic PDFs are rapidly approaching the situation the MP3s hit with the rise of Napster. Our Napster of PDFs is much more diffuse than Napster’s well-defined network: we visit websites with PDFs of whole books (not scanned — leaked from publisher’s computers, as far as I can tell), we drop emails to friends at other universities for PDFs of articles they might have access to, we Tweet out requests or make them in Facebook updates or post them in private listservs. We subscribe to Scribd, which appears to exist only to pirate scans of work by pretty much anyone except the person who posts them. You know what I’m talking about.

As was the cast in the late 90s, I don’t have much sympathy for content distributors who don’t create content, but merely ‘add value’ to it by pricing it so high that sharing it with colleagues makes one feel like Robin Hood. I do, however, have a great deal of sympathy for the content creators: the people who actually write articles and songs (and help produce them, whether they be editors or studio engineers) find their livelihood and reputation shifting like crazy as the Internet enables duplication and sharing of their creative work.

One of the downsides of music sharing at the turn of the millennium was the vacuous consumerism that grew alongside demands for open code and open access: the idea amongst listeners that you should never have to pay for music, that pirating it was not morally wrong, and that albums just sort of appeared out of nowhere on someone’s limewire shared folder, the work that went into producing them totally obscured.

I worry that something like this is happening to students today, for whom PDFs emerge magically out of the ethersphere. It seems to me that undergraduates and graduate students today take their texts in whatever form they get them — it seems alien to many of them that paying for a paper copy of a book is something one does to support and author and a press that one believes in.

I think this partly has to do with the ease of sharing PDFs, but I also think it has to do with how we train our students. At the heart of Open Access issues is a central moral notion about the importance of sharing to scholarship, and yet the world we are creating may be one which lacks the scholarly values that we take so seriously. My diagnosis of the present could be wrong, but I think it is something to watch out for.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

10 thoughts on “Are PDFs immoral?

  1. Rex, I think you’re making a great point. I’ve just noticed it again because I gave my 300+ student class a ‘literature review’ assignment, and the sources that came back were weird and disconnected. They were like baleen whales scooping up everything electronically available. My former colleague at Notre Dame, Susan Blum, has been writing about how the understanding of plagiarism is just slipping away with digital media.

    I’m not so much worried about the ‘paying for a copy’ part, but just the shift in headspace that seems to be occurring. I mean, if we went with it, we could create online materials that were easier to cite and trackedback when used. Anthropology as a discipline seems slow, as you folks at SM have been documenting, to figuring out new publishing models.

    Which is what brings me to my current concern: is anyone getting serious about an open access anthropology journal? There’s some great efforts out there, but they’re mostly done by graduate students and haven’t really had the impact that they could have. Looking at something like PLoS, I’m terribly envious of how they work — could we do something similar for anthropology, with all the caveats that apply? If a number of us who work online committed to directling our ‘traditional’ article outputs, or some fraction of them, to a good open access journal, and then write for a general academic audience (so other fields would be interested), we could easily move up the food chain in anthro journals.

    Or have I missed the announcement that one of the flagship anthropology journals has gone open access? And if so, should we be writing online manifestos about committing to publishing this way?

    It’s just that I think one of the problems with the ‘pdf out of ethernet’ process that you’ve put your finger on, Rex, is that most of our pdfs are designed to be treated this way, and the authors’ and readers’ expectations are so different.

  2. I share most of your analyses of the general situation concerning copyright restricted materials, but see some fundamental differences between music and academic texts.

    One important point shared by a hacker and academic mindset is the fundamental claim that all information should be free. This is the most effective way to increase knowledge by allowing others to build upon what already exists and the opposite scenario of restricting access to certain information arises the difficult decision upon who draws the line of what’s available to the public and what’s not. Especially when a cultural work, may it be a text, music or recipe, becomes so widely popular that whole generations are influenced by it, we would loose a lot of our freedom of thinking and acting by restricting it to commercial interests. Walt Disney is such an bad example.

    I am part of the generation you are writing about. For me PDFs are nearly the only source for my academic reading and I love it this way. I have grown up in the digital age and I am used to reading on screen, organize and backup digital and most of all: share the things I like.
    That’s the most essential value added by lossless digital copying which goes hand in hand with the human desire to share (see Marcel Mauss – the gift)!

    That content producers want to have money for what they do is a fact I know from experience. I am doing my podcast Talking Anthropology and not getting any money out of it so far, but this doesn’t decrease my motivation and pleasure for this project. At one stage I definitely would like to live from it, just because it should be the aim of every human being to be able to do what we really love. But the internet is new and we are still at the beginning of implementing micro or social payment systems, like flattr for example.

    The problem I see at the moment is the fragmentation of the system. In my opinion it would have been the duty of Universities to implement systems were the texts of their scholars are downloadable and discussable. Imagine a distributed repository for all texts of a certain discipline with the space of discussing and peer reviewing them.
    If we would have such a system in social science it would be only one further step to implement a payment system, but not for buying access to the texts, instead honoring the authors of the texts one has just read, because we are all so active readers this would be a much more direct and a just form of quality review, filtering and payment.
    Right now most of the money one spends for a scientific book is going to the publisher, who in most cases does nothing else for this money then giving his name and printing someone else’s work on dead trees. Are these companies the types of gatekeepers we want to have in this digital 21st century and do we want to rely upon them as our major filter or quality standard?

    This comment got so big that I wanted to share it with the readers of my blog here as well.

  3. I’m not sure about the whole concept of referring to either artistic works or original research as “content.” People make what they make for a variety of reasons. They can do so to try to make money directly off it. They can do it because they are compelled to by interest, engagement or obsession. Or they can do it as a function of their larger vocation, in which the bulk of their necessary funds come from elsewhere and they produce because they are called to do so as part of a broader role they occupy.

    Only the first category – the rendering of expression as a form of commodity – I argue, counts as “content.” And, frankly, its not clear to me that this is what musicians and researchers and artists must do. Outside of patronage structures, I can understand the frustration of artists who want to make a living doing what they do in a system of globally decentralized publishing. But, remember, lots of really awesome art was made before publishers got a hold of the distribution rights and before concepts of copy-write were introduced. To equate quality with independent professionalism is probably flawed. Regardless, artists will need to do what they can to fix this situation by institutionalizing some kind of permanent patronage structure. As a society, perhaps we ought to think about art as something we value as we do research.

    But I digress. For researchers, the situation is totally different than for artists. Nobody makes money off of publishing. In fact, we publish precisely because we DO have patrons. They are universities. We make our money because we teach and because we provide a set of services valued by society and institutionalized in an elaborate organizational field. Publishing is a totally necessary part of this process, but it is part of our vocation. We are not producing our work as commodities – instead, they are signals of our worth as teachers and researchers, the thing we actually get paid for. When more people read and, especially, cite my work – regardless of how they get it – my function as a researcher is reaffirmed, as is my position in the university patronage game.

    Which brings me to my main point. The real threat, supposedly, to research from rampant pirating of our is that libraries are in dire financial straits, unable to afford access to the journals. In turn, supposedly, this will lead to a pricing escalation and, eventually, the shuttering of journals. Ok. My response? Big deal. Will peer review and quality indicators disappear simply because there are fewer journals? Not at all. The question that matters to me is whether some other mechanism will emerge to serve the purpose of journals have served in facilitating research – creating exposure and ranking and evaluating the quality of findings. But that is precisely what the internet is, like, DESIGNED to facilitate – open criticism, status affirmation, and engagement with the substance of my research. Journals may close, but distributing research will continue, unabated and much more openly subject to scholarly criticism than it ever was before. So what is the problem? I just don’t get it. Sure, some of our standards will change, as will our professional insulation from the great unwashed. But being in a university has its own logic and its own, arguably irreplaceable rewards. If universities themselves crumble, then call me. Until then, I’m not worried. And yes, I will continue to pirate pdfs precisely because, to me, they are not mere content.

  4. I can’t claim any moral high ground on this issue as I tend to scoop up PDF’s like a whale too, and print them out at my employer’s expense as well. But even in my immorality I have realized that books remain at the core of serious scholarship, so I do regularly order books in the $100 range even at my near-subsistence salary. I would never ever pay much for the stuff you see in edited volumes.

    Good books are something to be treasured. In fact I establish a relationship with them that has a wholly different ethics and morality to it. To put it into Maussian terms, the good books are part of the kula exchange, while the PDF’s are part of the gimwali exchange. In my thesis I even cite them differently by naming them, while the PDF’s just get standard citations.

  5. Rex,

    Great post. I’m supposed to be reading, but now you have me thinking all about media, publishing, and what anthropologists can/should do with all of this.

    “I worry that something like this is happening to students today, for whom PDFs emerge magically out of the ethersphere. It seems to me that undergraduates and graduate students today take their texts in whatever form they get them — it seems alien to many of them that paying for a paper copy of a book is something one does to support and author and a press that one believes in.”

    I think you have a legit concern here. At the same time, I “take texts where I can get them,” and I also buy at least 3-4 books a month. This whole discussion is interesting, especially considering all of the issues of control with Wiley Blackwell–which grad students hear profs and others talk about all the time. Then there is the problem with publishing books. I have plenty of prof friends who joke about the money they actually earn from their books, which is, apparently, sometimes depressingly minimal.

    I like Greg Downey’s question about pushing the boundaries of publishing models. When are anthropologists going to really push for this? Why don’t we have a solid, reputable, interesting open access journal online? I’d definitely like to see a push in that direction, just as I’d like to see anthropologists continue to write for larger academic (and other) audiences.

    Overall, I think that some of the issues with passing around PDFs might link to the opinions that many people have about the journals who control so much of this content. Maybe.

    So, ya, I second Downey’s vote about pushing for an OA anth journal.

  6. I think it is funny that in the pre-Kindle days — which may be ending soon? — the Internet enabled increased circulation of ‘pirated’ PDFs _and_ cheap print books (both used and new) from Amazon and other online book sellers. It sounds like some people are arguing that the ‘business model’ for some scholars are: give me the article length version for free and I’ll pay for the full length monograph in paper. That’s certainly something I didn’t anticipate!

  7. Are there institutional and legal barriers in the world of academic publishing that preclude an iTunes Store-like approach to access? I don’t feel like a thief when I send or receive a nominally limited access PDF—distributing a copy of a work that two dozen people in the entire world care about seems like the definition of fair use to me, though I know there is also the question of cost for the publisher to be considered—but I wouldn’t mind paying 99¢ for an article like I do for a song from the iTunes Store. I would be curious to know how many buyers UTP Press finds for their online material at $13 a pop (priced by the PDF, regardless of whether the PDF be a four page essay or an entire monograph in the form of a special issue of a journal).

  8. There’s another key aspect about music piracy that hasn’t been discussed here at all: for thousands, literally thousands of musical groups and artists, the piracy of their music was and is a very, very good thing.

    Here’s what I mean:

    Bands I paid to go see in concert this past week that I had never heard of before I pirated their albums: Cymbals Eat Guitars, Owen Pallett, The National, and Broken Social Scene. When their shows blew me away, I also then threw down more money to buy their albums (2 of the 4).

    This is not trivial. Let’s consider The National concert I saw.

    There were at least 500 people there, though I’m being cautious because I really don’t know. Lets say the band gets 35% (pretty conservative) of ticket sales: $26x500x0.35= $4,550.

    If 500 people had paid for the album on iTunes: $10x500x0.094= $470.

    And of course, some of those 500 had already bought the album, but probably not before they had pirated it. I’m willing to bet that few, if any of those 500 would have paid $26 to see them if they hadn’t first pirated the album.

    Best thing you can do? Pirate the album, pay for the concert, and buy the album there so that the artist can make about 50% on the sale instead of 1%. (take a look at this:

    The whole point is this: although it seems counter-intuitive, the notoriety that comes from having your content spread peer to peer is often a far greater asset than the paltry sum you would make with it stuck behind a paywall.

    Consider TED talks for a moment. TED had been going on since 1990, yet who had heard if it until 2006 when the talks went online for free? Since that time, the talks have been viewed over 290 million times. There are only 700 talks. That is like 415,000 views per talk.

    As academics/students/researchers, can you imagine what it would be like to reach that kind of audience? Your ideas could be spread, your books would be purchased, your reputation would be bolstered, you would be taken seriously, new opportunities would open up, etc.

    Are PDFs immoral? No way.

    First of all, like Stated mentioned above, the scholarly publishing process was never intended to be a lucrative source of income for the author. It’s intended to spread knowledge and the pressure to publish comes from the benefits of increased notoriety, not from income (on an unrelated note, the necessitated patronage system for musical artists Stated suggests already exists in the form of live performances, as I showed before).

    Although the audience for most academic fields is tiny,
    a) it’s not getting any bigger by charging $15/article
    b) the best way to let that tiny audience know that you exist is to create quality content that is free (that’s exactly what most science/academic blogs are doing already).

    Also, to all the excited Anthropologists here, check out the Open Anthropology Cooperative.

    It’s not a journal yet, but I think there’s enough energy at that site to make one.

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