EXCLUSIVE: Unauthorised sale of theses and academic papers continues on new Amazon accounts

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Thousands of papers and theses produced by academics from at least eight UK universities have been placed up for sale under new Amazon accounts, after the initial accounts selling unauthorised copies of theses were taken down by Amazon.

Palatinate has identified four accounts selling over 3,000 unauthorised copies of academic journal papers and PhD theses. Electronic copies of each piece of work are being sold for $4.99 (around £3.53).

The Amazon account “Education Books Where To Find Them” became active on the 23rd January 2021, a mere nine days after Amazon took down the previous accounts following complaints from Durham University

The Amazon accounts “EVERYTHING ABOUT EDUCATION BOOKS” and “LONDON READER ONLY NICE BOOK” followed shortly, becoming active on the 10th February and uploading as recently as 23rd February. A fourth account, “Sheffield Hallam Community”, has been active for a few months.

This activity is clearly illegal and contravenes the thesis licence

spokesperson for NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY

Given the speed of the uploads and the similarities between the listings, the accounts are likely to be using automated uploads by a computer program or ‘bot’. The new accounts also use almost identical descriptions as previous accounts, so are likely to originate from the same individual or group. 

The news raises questions about whether Amazon can put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent more uploads on new accounts should the current ones be taken down. It also shows that adequate protections may not be in place in UK University online thesis and paper repositories to prevent automated stripping of documents by bots.

Papers and theses sold on the Amazon accounts have been sourced from at least eight institutions’ online repositories, including the University of Liverpool, Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Plymouth, Newcastle University, Cardiff University, the University of St Andrews, The Open University and The University of East Anglia (UEA). No Durham University academics’ theses and papers are believed to be amongst the listed items this time.

Palatinate has contacted each of the affected universities to inform them of the Amazon accounts and ask what action they plan to take.

A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “This activity is clearly illegal and contravenes the thesis licence which explicitly states that there should be no commercial exploitation of the content. Our legal team is requesting the removal of Newcastle University theses from Amazon and we are addressing this issue to prevent it happening again.”

Students at the University are also being contacted and advised to check their work is not being exploited

spokesperson for The university of liverpool

Meanwhile, the University of Liverpool told Palatinate: “The University of Liverpool will contact Amazon to ensure the theses are taken down.”

“Students at the University are also being contacted and advised to check their work is not being exploited in this way. Any Liverpool student who detects an infringement should contact the University as soon as possible, so that action can be taken.”

A Cardiff University spokesperson said: “We are grateful to the Palatinate for drawing this to our attention. Like other UK universities, all of our PhD theses are free to read online and/or in our libraries. We are now looking into this matter.”

A UEA spokesperson said they had begun requesting removal of theses from Amazon and “if other examples are found, we will investigate further and appropriate action will be taken based on our findings.”

Lindsay O’Dell, Graduate School Academic Director at the Open University said: “The Open University Copyright and Intellectual Property (CLIP) team investigated the issue raised by PGRs whose theses were being sold on Amazon and, working with the author, contacted Amazon to request removal of the content published in breach of the Institutional repository creative commons licences.” 

Sheffield Hallam University spokesperson said: “The University’s legal services team is looking into the claims and will take the appropriate action to ensure Sheffield Hallam University copyright is protected.”

The University of St Andrews and The University of Plymouth have declined to comment at the time of publication. A spokesperson for Amazon said: “Our store maintains content guidelines for books, which address content that is illegal or infringing. We remove products that do not adhere to our guidelines and when a concern is raised we promptly investigate it.”

Image: ActuaLitté via Flickr

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