Practical question Entirely hypothetical question of ethics here. Wanting to know what the great ethicists would say.

There's a paper concerning a particular topic of math I'm interested in. The paper is behind a JSTOR soft paywall. Meaning that in order to read it for free, you need to

  • Register a free account on JSTOR;

  • Put the paper on your "shelf";

  • Read the paper online, one page at a time.

JSTOR is set up so that you can't download the individual pages except as images, one page at a time; You can't download the pages as a single article.

However what you can do, and what I did for my own private use, was to download each page, one at a time, as an image (the only way JSTOR lets you download pages); and then put the pages together, in order, as a pdf. For a lengthy paper it's a fair amount of clerical work. I'm probably one of the few people if not the only person without an academic JSTOR membership to own a clean pdf of this paper.

At the moment I'm involved in a discussion in an online forum in which I need to refer someone to parts of this paper. I can't possibly make my point by referring them to JSTOR. Nobody is going to sign up for JSTOR and go through their shelf process to see what I'm talking about.

Now on the one hand, the paper is freely available to anyone who chooses to jump through the JSTOR hoops. On other other hand, there is no version of the paper accessible online without going through JSTOR; and no full pdf version available online at all. And on the third hand, the author of the paper is deceased and not likely to care at this point.

Is it ethically permissible for me to upload my private pdf so that I can make it easy for a few readers to see it without jumping through the JSTOR hoops?

(edit) What would the great philosophers say about this entirely hypothetical situation?

  • 1
    What sort of answer are you expecting for this question? Are you expecting someone to come along and say "Well Kant said... but at the same time Mill said ..." or do you want someone to given their opinion about JSTOR's draconian practices? What does an objective answer to this question look like to you? The last sentence really seems like you're just looking for opinions as to what you should do, which I don't see as leading to objective answers.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 1:28
  • @Not_Here A practical answer from someone who knows ethics. I'm conflicted about the ethics of my situation. Yes you're right that there's no objective answer. I figured there might be some ethicists hanging around here who can offer practical guidance. Surely my question is a philosophical one. I can't help it if the Stackexchange format discourages asking questions with genuine philosophical content.
    – user4894
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 1:31
  • This is probably going to be closed as "primarily opinion-based", I'd recommend asking in one of the chat rooms if it does and if you're just looking for a practical answer.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 1:34
  • @Not_Here See my edits in the first and last lines. Better now?
    – user4894
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 1:37
  • @Not_Here By the way, what is the Practical Ethics tag intended for? It's a pre-defined tag on this site. My question certainly falls under that tag.
    – user4894
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 1:41

1 Answer 1


One way of looking at it would be to ask yourself these questions: 1) would you gain anything from uploading this paper beyond intrinsic joy of distributing knowledge? 2) are you distributing knowledge? If you answered no to the first question and are NOT gaining anything, as well as your action is yes or potentially yes, then I would deem it an ethical action. However, if you were uploading papers that were held behind a paywall, did not give proper credit to the author(s), or sold downloads of this paper, I do not believe it would be an ethical action.

For further reading on why it could be ethical, given the premises, I urge you to read John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.

  • You’re very welcome.
    – M. Weber
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 3:44

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