Those in the medical field may be illegally distributing academic journal articles, a recent report reveals.

Thousands of journal articles not available through open access have been posted online via a web forum geared at medical students and professionals, according to a study published in The Internet Journal of Medical Informatics. Users of the unnamed website requested a total of 6,587 articles within a six-month period last year, successfully retrieving 83 per cent of them.

Academic journals usually require paid subscriptions, so researchers who cannot find and pay for the articles must find an alternative. In total, the forum’s users saved an estimated $1.4 million a year. The figure was calculated based on page views and individual prices for each article, ranging from $7 to $100.

“Most remarkable is that the activity described in this paper did not occur within closed, secure, password- and firewall-protected environments, but within open environments, easily publicly accessible, and easily searchable and referenced by general search engines such as Google,” wrote Ken Masters of IT Health Ed, who conducted the study.

In January 2009, the forum had nearly 130,000 registered users. Users could make up to three requests per day, and members who had access would post articles on the forum for all. Nature and Science were the most requested journals, with the oldest article dating back to 1884 from Science.

Since early 2009, the website has narrowed its availability to a small group of people.

“In the field of medicine, ethics plays a pivotal role,” wrote Masters, “and yet the site displays activities by medical students, teachers, and practicing professionals that are ethically dubious.”