(Im)morality of using Google books as sources in science?

Hello, fine folks. I wonder what you think about using Google books as sources in academic works. Here’s teh facts:

  1. Google books are scans of books, available online free of charge.
  2. They each carry a note stating the copyright holder’s permission for Google to do this.
  3. Usually it’s like 1/3 of a book available, the rest is inaccessible. Basically like a demo version, which is also the reason Google gives, or bookshop shelf (which they also say). They’re called previews.
  4. Usually, you’d only need just a passing reference anyway, a couple of pages that are relevant to what you’re doing. Which is sometimes a cherry on the cake, but sometimes the cake is all about the cherries.

Here’s teh problemz:

  1. This looks like a bookshop, not a library, in terms of setting.
  2. While you could technically lend books from a bookshop or use them there without buying, you don’t really want to hang out in bookshops to put together a dissertation.
  3. On the other hand, those books in Google are referenced as sources by others. Google can’t not know what’s going on. Google has copyright lawyers, and huge copyright holders (like worldwide publishers) aren’t blind, either.

What do you think?

Here’s teh linkz:

How the books come about:
About those with limited availability (and I think only those):
Keeping track of the number of pages you’ve seen:
Some little more about the idea:

Pages are pages. Whether you legally read them on Google Books or legally read them in a library, pages are pages are pages. I don’t see why it would be in any way immoral or dishonest to use the information on those “demo versions” which are reproduced on Google Books with the permission of the publisher. I don’t see why it would be immoral either to go into a bookstore and look up a reference in a book without buying it.

I’d turn this around and ask you–why would it be immoral to do so? Information is information, the information is publicly and freely available, so what difference does it make how you come by it in that regard?


I frequently use Google Scholar for my work. And I wonder how it’s possible that a peer reviewed article that would cost $30 to access from a journal’s website is free via Google.

My assumption is that Google must be paying for the rights to make it available, because some articles on Google Scholar are not available for free.

There are other services that provide, through school & public libraries, free access to databases of books and magazines. The libraries pay a subscription fee to make these offering available.

In other words, if you’re accessing material through a reputable source, (assuming Google is reputable) don’t sweat it. :slight_smile:

The question with Google Books is not a moral question in my opinion. The format of a book – print or electronic – is not an issue. Either is just fine.

The question becomes one of scholarship. Are you getting the pages you need to do your research or have they blocked those off? Is the information current? In a fast-changing field like medicine or computer science, books in general aren’t going to have cutting edge information and you will need journals or conference proceedings to get what you need. Do Google Books include the scholarly publishers you need for research?

If you are using Google Books as a shortcut to doing your research, it will show in the quality of the papers you write. If Google Books is one source among many then you’ll probably do well.

I don’t think it’s immoral to cite a book that you previewed on Google Books, and I think your comparison to a bookstore is apt. There is an important difference that makes Google Books more like a library though: every book webpage has a link on the left that helps you request the book from a library, and thus Google Books acts in some ways as a front end for an internet-based library system, with the added option of previewing your selections. Because I don’t see any problem with citing Google Books page scans, I use them all the time in my essays for English and other subjects.

Basically, some sort of free-riding comes time. Like, the author doesn’t get paid/that the pages are possibly not used as intended. Sort of like reading at the bookshop without the intention of actually buying (as in no matter how good the book is, you aren’t gonna buy it, you just hang around until you’re done with it).

  1. Google books did things incorrectly. They scanned first, book publishers noticed, and the publishers sued.


  1. Then photographers and graphic artists joined in for unauthorized use of their images.


  1. Yes, some publishers are allowing this but there may be compensation down the road for them, which will cost google an unknown amount. I’m not sure if individuals deals have already occurred.

  2. As a professional researcher, I’ve seen excerpts on google of certain books but I would never use these partially scanned books as a source.

  3. Professionals pay for articles and excerpts from established publishers of academic books and articles. I paid for an article a few years back. That way, when I give the source as a well-known, established academic publisher, I know the article had to pass rigorous review before seeing publication. The reputation of any academic publisher - and sales - rests on the fact that their books and articles do not contain factual errors or other mistakes. Developing a reputation like that means more revenues and assures me that I can submit a report to my boss knowing that the information he’s getting is trustworthy.

Since I do academic research, I’m only going to rely on established, professional sources. Books are great, but for many subjects, I find myself cross-referencing other sources since one source may interpret something one way and another source, another way. Ideally, I want three different sources for an academic work.

Hope this helps,

Thanks, Ed. Basically, the field (mostly dogmatic, normative soft science that’s keen on syllogisms and other such tough talk) I’m currently dealing with is one that uses a lot of logic and argumentation to argue from, for and against relatively simple premises that can actually be found in publications as simple as course books for grad students. Except that’s more like a (re)statement of the author’s views but anyway; and when you see it, it’s pretty much obvious while he thinks that, not like it matters much. Your own work is basically semantics and syllogisms and a bunch of venerable fallacies from authority, silence, absurdity and anything else that isn’t a red herring but a semi-workable piece of induction which works if you answer pros and cons like a good mediaeval scholastic would, which you do openly expect you don’t use question marks in chapter titles.

What you need in place is the kind of lip service to the idea of footnoting that avoids saying, ‘we all know what such and such believes, we can all find it with our eyes closed in the library.’ Then it matters that a bunch of other big names agreed or disagreed, but it’s not like they cross-invented the same thing much, it’s basically reporting the agreement or disagreement on issues in the doctrine. The more the merrier, listing 20 titles is overkill but 1 won’t work and 2 is poor. Otherwise authority footnotes are necessary to avoid plagiarism/reinventing the wheel because we do have plenty of 1-sentence conclusions. Or it turns out the groundbreak caused by your 30 pages of heterodox syllogisms based on doubting a dogma has already been mentioned in the passing by one of the greats.

Otherwise books from other fields of science or art can be helpful, mostly either to give a decent footnote instead of a ‘cited after’, but in some cases for actual information.

Part of my difficulty here is that I just can’t comprehend copyrights, having grown up in a culture that didn’t really know much of them until recently other than basic stuff like plagiarism or unlicenced printing, but not this type of subtlety (English isn’t my first language, it just sounds kinda natural because I use it all the time). I know intuitively that I can’t just go to a bookshop and process the books without buying them, but on the other hand when it’s a fusion between a bookshop and a library, then I get lost.

Also, does it change anything in what you said that Google now displays the publisher’s logo and other information, copyright notice etc. with the whole ‘partner’ thing? Doesn’t look like a scam, although anybody can technically download a publisher’s logo from somewhere and slap the phrase ‘our partners’ on it.

I don’t understand how google works their “partner” agreement. I don’t know any of the details. Sadly, everybody seems to know that “if I need an answer, I go to wikipedia.” But who knows if some incorrect information is in there?

The thing that bothers me is the internet has increased the ability for wrong, misleading and pure guesses to eventually end up as “facts” somewhere else. I mean, people are copying and pasting stuff from wherever and who knows if some sources are “real” or some are a combination of facts mixed with speculation?

There are those who hate the idea that “information” can’t be free. So who’s going to pay professionals for their time and skill in getting the facts for you? That’s why there’s “misunderstandings” about copyright. The basic idea is this: Only the publisher/copyright owner has the ‘right to copy.’ In the case of google books, as long as you are certain that what you’re seeing is legal and a true copy, you can cite a portion of it under “fair use.”


I’ve clarified with them through e-mail and found a detailed official description of the whole situation on their website, and yeah, what you’re seeing on Google Books is legally made and true copy, with an actual expres business partnership deal with the publisher, who gets some 75% of the ad revenue, apart from publicising the book. The only scruple I have right now is that it’s a sales-inducing preview kind of thing (as in look to decide if you want to buy or not), which makes me doubt that using those copies to confirm details relevant in my own work.

Speaking of making copies: What do you think about this: when you can only borrow like 2-3 books at the same time time, does respect for copyrights require you only work on-site at the library or from notes from physically borrowed books and never scan/xerox the material to read and compare it more comfortably while home?

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