How #icanhazpdf can hurt our academic libraries

Chances are that while doing a literature search, you came across a reference or a link to a paper that your institutional library didn’t have access to. Yes, it sucks. But what to do?

If you’re on Twitter, you might post the citation with the hashtag “#icanhazpdf” (a play on “I can haz cheeseburger” meme), and the denizens of the intertubes will scuttle off to check and see if they have access themselves.  If they do, they’ll send you a quick message to exchange contact info, and email you the paper.  Baddabing, baddaboom.

But not really.

First off, it’s against the terms of service under which the institution buys access to journals.  Some may call it illegal.  But things not being legal hasn’t stopped the internet before.

More importantly, I think, is that it funnels traffic away from your library’s Inter-Library Loan (ILL) department.  See, librarians are all about counting stuff.  Those notices telling you not to reshelve books?  It’s not because they think you’ll put it back in the wrong place (at least, that’s not the main reason) – it’s because they want to record that book’s use in the library.

Like it or not, but many decisions about what goes on in your library is based on these kinds of user statistics.  When I lived in Newfoundland, we had a fantastic Map Library with some of the only computers on campus that had GIS at the time.  I signed in using their sheet at the door every time.  The librarians can then go to their managers and say “See! Lots of people are using the GIS computers! We have data!”.  This applies to almost every library service out there – reference desk questions, signing out books, attending workshops and other programs … and the ILL department.

When you request an article (or book, or chapter, or thesis or microfiche, or …) through ILL, your institution searches grand catalogues of multiple libraries (like AMICUS or WordCat) to see who *does* have access to the item in question.  They then request it through the lending library’s ILL department, who ships it out.  Sometimes within hours.  Your library pays a (usually nominal) fee to cover copyright and staff time, and you get the item you requested.  Rarely, if ever, is this fee passed along to the patron (i.e., paying for ILL requests is a small part of your library’s budget).

True, it’s not as fast as sending out a tweet to your hundreds of followers (and those monitoring the #icanhazpdf hashtag), but it makes your libraries look at what they don’t have access to, and can inform future purchasing decisions.  If they get a spate of requests for The Journal of Lab and Field, for example, at some point it will be less costly to subscribe rather than bring in individual articles.  Good librarians will also see this trend, and recommend regardless of the price difference.

By circumventing your library (and the fantastic folks that work there), you don’t get counted, and neither does your request.  If ILL requests drop significantly, libraries may reduce ILL staff, or lower their ILL budget, meaning poorer service for us all.  It also means that libraries don’t know which journals that aren’t in their current collection are in demand by its patrons.  Conversely, if you can be bothered to use your library’s off-site access (usually via a proxy server; check your library’s website or ask a librarian if you don’t know how this works at your institution [and get counted, too!]), and get articles outside the library system (e.g., from the #icanhazpdf hashtag), your use of the journal your library is already subscribed to won’t be logged.  When there are budget shortfalls, managers often look at periodical subscriptions (digital and print) for those that aren’t being used.

Some (well, most) things don’t come in PDF, and not everything is online or at your local library/branch.  It takes some serious skills to search out and find articles from partial citations, foreign-language literature (not to be ignored!), and out-of-the-way tomes on a bewildering array of subjects.

During my PhD and postdoc, I had an insanely large number of ILLs and only ONCE could the library not fill it (and to be fair, it was a PhD thesis from Russia, published in 1940).

So the next time you’re looking for an article, send off an ILL request and get counted.

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37 thoughts on “How #icanhazpdf can hurt our academic libraries

  1. What if you’re one of the unfortunate majority that doesn’t have a library to make an ILL request? I.e. people outside academia but who need access to the literature

  2. That’s a good point, David. I don’t know if public libraries would access the scientific literature for you, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Another (old school) option would be to go to a university library in person to check out the print journals (not ideal, and works only if there’s a uni library nearby, and they have a print subscription to the journal of interest).

  3. Hi there David, actual librarian here. Public libraries worth their salt cannot refuse an ILL request, even for academic journal literature. Good public library systems are part of the same ILL systems as university and special libraries and so they can make the same requests. You will need a valid public library card. For academic monographs, you should be able to make your request through your public library’s website.

    For articles, however, I would either phone your main branch or visit in person. Don’t go to a smaller branch, as there is usually not a librarian there, only library technicians, who may not understand what you’re asking for. However, Master’s degree-holding librarians at a main library have all been trained in the various ways that information is published, including journal articles. They may not make many of these requests compared to an academic librarian, but they should know how, and likely won’t charge you anything.

    Alex’s other suggestion, to browse a university library print journal collection is a fine one if your citation is for an older article. Most print journal subscriptions have been abandoned for purely digital ones in the past 10 years. Also, in an effort to save space, many university libraries have put their print journals into retrievable (closed stack) storage. If you make a request at their reference desk, they may request university ID that you don’t have.

    Thanks for this article Alex. To some this may seem like a trivial issue, but bypassing one’s library by engaging in this type of Copyright abuse weakens all library budgets. If subscription cuts follow, then our ability to source these journals are reduced. Not to mention, by having researchers contact libraries to make ILL requests, librarians and researchers have a point of contact with which to offer broader services like research/reference asistance.

    Cheers, Warren

  4. I’m at one of the U15 universities in Canada and I wish #icanhazpdf this entire issue of Phil Trans Royal Soc B. I’m surprised we don’t have access – and so was the librarian with whom I spoke –but instead we have 1-year embargoed access.

  5. I sympathise with your sentiment here, and I have user ILL in the past. Two practical issues to consider, though:

    * It usually takes weeks, not days (never mind hours). I’ve found a paper in my in basket more than a few times long after I no longer needed it; a couple of times I never even remember why I needed it in the first place.

    * What I always, invariably, get is a paper copy. Not a PDF. Which is not quite worthless, but not far from it. I can’t add a paper copy to my reference software. I can’t search a paper copy. I can’t send it to collaborators or add to our project-wide paper dump.
    A couple of times I’ve been unable to actually read it; it’s been an actual paper copy of some bound yearly digest, with the text in the inner margin cut off and unreadable.

    So I sympathize, but unless I can actually get a PDF, not a printout or copy, it just isn’t what I wanted, needed or was looking for.

    • I can’t search a paper copy.

      Sorry to jump down your throat, random stranger, but this has to be the Best #21stCenturyProblem ever! What the F are your I’s for? Apparently you can “search” and interpret internet discussions with them, but this doesn’t extend to paper based documents?

      I can’t send it to collaborators or add to our project-wide paper dump.

      How about a scanner. Ever heard of those? I know it’s 20th C technology, but it still works nicely for electronic distribution of scanned paper docs.

      I’ll close by saying that paper based ILLs are sometimes the last resort, but remain an extremely valuable service! (unless your precious time is that much more precious than the time of the authors, publishers, curators/librarians… of the article you want)

  6. I am reminded of this Oatmeal cartoon:

    Our interlibrary loans are very good, but unless they make it so interlibrary loans are as simple as sending a tweet, I’ll keep using #ICanHazPDF as my first option to get a paper.

    Speed: Minutes (usually) to hours for #ICanHazPDF, days to weeks for ILL.

    Paperwork: A DOI link for #ICanHazPDF, but my library want me to fill out all this for ILL

    Describe the item you want:
    * Title (Journal, Conference Proceedings, Anthology) Please do not abbreviate unless your citation is abbreviated
    Issue Number or Designation
    * Year
    * Inclusive Pages
    ISSN/ISBN (International Standard Serial/Book Number) If given will speed request processing
    Call Number
    OCLC or Docline UI Number
    Article Author
    * Article Title
    * Not Wanted After Date (MM/DD/YYYY)
    Will you accept the item in a language other than English? If yes, specify acceptable languages in the notes field.
    Notes / Willing to pay: Put any information here that may help us find the item, as well as any other pertinent information. Additional fees MAY be charged by lending libraries. Requestor is responsible for charges for requested items. Please indicate the total amount you are willing to pay.
    Where did you learn about this item?
    Where did you find this item cited?
    Examples are Dissertation Abstracts, Dialog (specify which database), or a specific journal or book.
    Date of the work that cited the item.
    Volume number of the work that cited the item.
    Pages where the item is cited.

    In the immortal words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

    • Any librarian worth their salt can get your article / chapter with the citation info you’d find in a lit cited section. Adding a field for DOI would greatly improve things, I agree.

  7. I’m struggling to get worked up about this. Given that #icanhazpdf and similar backchannels are much faster than ILL, cheaper (i.e. free) and typically deliver a better quality copy (i.e. the original PDF instead of a scan), why do we ever care if ILL budgets are decreased? I’d much rather libraries spend their money elsewhere.

    • We care that ILL budgets (and staff) are decreased because not all information is in PDF form / online. I haven’t paid for an ILL since 2007 (when the library changed their policy, and absorbed the nominal cost, about $2, themself). ILL requests is a major source that libraries look to for additions to their collections.

  8. David,
    Another academic librarian here. Most licenses on ejournal subscriptions that academic libraries have allow “walk-in” access to the ejournal. Meaning that the general public can physically come in to an academic library branch and use one of the public access computers to read these ejournals for free. Bring in your usb key to save articles too (our public access computer is not hooked up to the printer). And the public can purchase a yearly library card too (at our institution anyway). This will give you the ability to check out items or request those older volumes from storage.
    If you have an academic library near you ask them about it. And, I agree with Warren, try to speak with a librarian, we have many fabulous student assistants that work at the circulation desks – but they may not be very familiar with all of these issues.
    And Alex: Thanks for the great blog post! I’m one of your USask librarians :)

    • DeDe,

      I hate to sound condescending, but I wonder if you realise how utterly laughable any solution that involved physically going to a place sounds to anyone outside of the library world? Such solutions are not merely impractical and wasteful, they are comical. They’re Not Even Wrong. Walk-in is stillborn.

      • Ouch that’s a bit harsh, but no offense taken Mike. I wouldn’t call it a “solution” at all – just another option that people likely are not be aware of. Works for some people – I see them coming in. More people would probably take advantage if they knew about it. I agree though, not anywhere near ideal. However, having said that, I’m not only a librarian, I’m a library user and I physically visit my public library frequently. (And I’m far from alone). So I wouldn’t agree that walk-in is stillborn to all.

      • Physically going to a library to obtain a physical book is logically consistent (even if it’s looking increasingly unfashionable). It’s like for like. But physically going to a library to obtain an electronic document is … I don’t even have words for it. I can’t come up with an analogy that’s sufficiently extreme. I’m flabbergasted that the idea made it into the Finch report.

  9. ILL made my dissertation possible. They are rock-stars who take the form of little magic fairies than scour the world in search of obscure, forgotten science. Boffins of the books shelves, Sentinels of the stacks, masters of the mimeograph reports behind that guys desk who retired 10 years ago.

  10. Respect and gratitude is due to all librarians who help people get the reading material they need. But technology advances (namely digitalisation here) and all participants in the publishing ecosystem should find solutions that scoop up as much of potential of as possible. Obviously with the reader’s right to learn as much as possible as the main determinant for the quality of any solution.

    Intermediary solutions should be recognised as only such, without sentiment. ILL may help here and there, but it can’t be a replacement for a OA.

  11. Yet another librarian here. @Zen – that form looks really familiar! In fact I’ll bet it’s the default ILLiad form. FWIW, at my institution there’s a button on the FindIt screen that prepopulates the form so like if you’re in Google Scholar and have your link resolver enabled, you can click the link resolver button and click through from there to pre-populate the form. I don’t know why we can’t just take the DOI. That makes sense to me! I’ll bring that up with our fabulous programmers. Also, my local ILL delivers all the articles electronically. Some are from crappy scans (grrr!), though.

  12. Yet another librarian here. We do use ILL data a little bit in collections decisions, but we know that people have to jump through hoops to request an ILL, and that the service is being used less and less. (I don’t mention #icanhazpdf in instruction sessions, but I do mention that the researcher could consider contacting the author or co-authors for a PDF of the article.) If anything, we should take a look at publisher turn-away data. That shows what people tried to click on to read, but they couldn’t since we don’t subscribe. That shows what people really wanted to get their hands on. But, mostly, we use Counter Compliant data to see what people are not using, so we can figure out what to cancel (assuming we can cancel if it isn’t part of a big deal bundle.)

  13. Our ILL for articles usually takes a terribly slow and appalling inefficient 24 hours to deliver an article. Sometimes six hours or so. Sorry for the snark, but putting random strangers out so that I could have a copy within minutes is not something I generally would do readily. We actually employ people to do that work, and they do it pretty well. (It’s really too bad if it truly takes days and comes with snarling and horrible forms. The library could do better. Or it’s stuck without cooperating libraries that make it work efficiently.) Like Joe, I mention contacting authors sometimes to students and from time to time they hear back and are so excited to have contact with the actual researcher. That could get old, too, though, for authors inundataed with requests.

    I wouldn’t tell people to use the library because it’s good for libraries. Libraries exist to help, not to be good for libraries. However, authors thinking about readers when they publish would be nice. It kind of sucks for a library to have to buy articles for people for $35 or $50 a pop, which my library does routinely because publishers like it that way and their authors apparently don’t give a ****.

    • “Like Joe, I mention contacting authors sometimes to students and from time to time they hear back and are so excited to have contact with the actual researcher. That could get old, too, though, for authors inundataed with requests.”

      Speaking as an author, it never gets old having people contact me because they want to read my stuff.

  14. Great post! I think this demonstrates what a huge opportunity #icanhazPDF provides for libraries – it’s essentially a template for the services researchers require. I’d like to know if libraries would be able (technically and legally) to provide a service that would do the same as #icanhazpdf:

    Has anybody done any work on the legality of making ILL a single-click operation? For instance, at PubMed, there often is a single button to the full-text article. These buttons depend o from where you access PubMed. Couldn’t one try to get one button that says “get article via ILL” and all you’d have to do is wait for it to arrive in your inbox?

    • If you’ve logged in via your institution, clicking the “get full text” button. If your library has a subscription, you get the article. If not, you are often prompted to search the catalogue, or submit an ILL request. But the smoothness of the operation depends on how your library has their system set up.

  15. Unfortunately, making an ILL at my library (for a paper published in one of the most glamorous journals around, to which my library apparently doesn’t have ‘early online access’) quite recently required email exchanges with four (!) librarians, arguing, and the suggestion that I pay for the article myself. A week or so later it appeared a as a paper copy, printed and then mailed — I believe from Norway. Seriously.

  16. Never heard of the hashtag, so never used it. But at my uni/library it takes a while to get anything through ILL plus it costs money – e.g. £12 for a paper, £30 for US thesis and god forbid – over £180 if you lost the item. Now imagine you are an undergrad on a budget who is trying to get papers for their dissertation…

  17. Thanks for sticking up for libraries! Alex Bond has got the counting part right, but it isn’t the libraries that are losing out here, it is authors in disciplines who have not faced up to the problem that toll access presents to people who want to read and use the results of research funded (largely) by the public. I hope that #ICANHAZPDF will be one of many attempts to make visible what to most authors is invisible, no matter how many ways librarians have tried to explain it: the audience for their work is much broader than they ever imagined. Authors who are inattentive to the copyright transfer process toll access publishers request are doing themselves, their disciplines and their institutions a huge disservice. The scholarly publishing system is unsustainable. Librarians can easily and happily be doing more high level work on different projects than running interlibrary loan service.

    About counting: When people use #ICANHAZPDF what is not counted is the use of the article in a meaningful way for authors. If authors retained their rights and put their work in their institution’s digital archive (another higher level library project already available at most universities largely due to the library) then use of that work would be counted and reported to the author and institution. Or if authors published in an open access journal like PLoSOne, counts are updated every day AND counts (see Metrics tab on any PLoS article) include social media. Why can’t authors see the obvious benefits of either route and follow through?

    About following through: I suggest that each discipline that hasn’t done so already figure out that the costs (estimated to be between $400-2000 USD) to publish a scientific article have to be met, and after that it costs relatively little to nothing to distribute the work. I’d like to be part of a working group that discusses how can we meet these costs, plus retain and improve peer review. Instead I find good minds continually distracted by endlessly recirculating myths about open access. See Peter Suber ( Meanwhile libraries are able to afford access to less and less.

    Here is Michal Eisen commenting on #ICANHAZPDF:
    ” Dec 22nd 2011 • 23:12 by Michael Eisen
    “It’s the wrong question – it seems to unambiguously violate copyright. The question is whether they should hold copyright in order to wield it in this obviously destructive way, and whether people should engage in civil disobedience to undermine this immoral system.”

    Don’t worry about libraries but thank you again for the kind support!: (and assuredly yes, we see the ease of the #CANHAZPDF approach and I’m sure interlibrary loan librarians are continuing to frugally innovate, updating request forms and striving for quicker turn-around with less staff). Here is a quote from Paul Courant Dean of Libraries, U. Mich ( in a Dec. 17, 2009 talk at UMN from my notes: “The thing we (librarians) care about is scholarship, not preserving the institutions that support it.” Webcast and notes from Courant’s talk are at

  18. ILL departments can and do get information to people quickly and efficiently today…IF they are staffed with enough well trained people, willing to join consortia and commit to best practices, and supported with large enough budgets. But, many libraries cannot afford to do so, and so there are limits to what they can do. In such cases, it is understandable that people will turn to other sources for information. There needs to be more transparency about what libraries are paying for information from publishers, in terms of buying and licensing it, and what limits there are in sharing information legally. This should contribute to the OA revolution. Meanwhile, ILL librarians can also search for freely available information online and contact authors to share their work. The history of ILL is all about doing whatever we can to connect people and information. So, ILL services should remain at the center of all discussions about the future of information sharing.

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  22. Hate to be a necro, but it is what it is…this is not about libraries, librarians, copyright, or authors’ royalties (which under the current system is a non-issue as they get very little, if anything). Those are disingenuous false flags planted in public discourse by the for-profit publishers to divert attention from the real issue. And it’s not about old tech versus new.
    ICanHazPDF is about righteous civil disobedience–finding a way to stick it to the greedy corporations who sequester valuable academic research behind paywalls. This information should be free to all, for the betterment of society, not to line the collective pockets of Elsevier, Springer, et al. (these being two of the worst offenders). It is disgusting–especially so when the public’s money is being used (in the form of gov’t research grants) but we have to pay for it twice, when purchasing access to the fruits of that research.
    These academic publishers exist purely for profit and serve only to stifle access to information, creating a ‘haves’ vs. ‘have-nots’ disparity between those who can afford to pay to have timely access to information–I’m sorry, librarians, but in this, the Information Age, where years’ worth of education and R & D can happen in mere weeks, waiting is unacceptable–and those who cannot. Evolve, or perish.
    I’m thankful for the growing backlash and my greatest hope is that it reaches a critical mass where the backs of the for-profit publishers are finally broken. They know their days are numbered–they have been fighting tooth-and-nail, through their lobbyists, against changes to legislation which would require them to provide open access to all publicly-funded research. Many authors themselves are increasingly disgusted and are turning to open-access publishers. And as mentioned in a previous comment, they are giving free access to their work on their websites.
    If ICanHazPDF helps drive one more nail into the for-profits’ coffins, then all the power to it!

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