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UA student says working as note-taker landed her in trouble

Students cash for notes a gray area by Jaime Adame | March 5, 2017 at 3:57 a.m. | Updated March 6, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The promises from San Francisco-based StudySoup painted a rosy picture: cash for taking notes.

But a University of Arkansas student said she ended up getting in trouble last fall for violating the school's academic integrity policies after working as a notes-taker.

UA faculty members are now debating how to best deal with the selling of lecture notes. The talks come after what one administrator described as increased calls from concerned faculty members and from students wondering if they are free to work with online study resource companies that are known for their aggressive recruiting tactics.

The university in July sent an email to all students that warned, "Any student who is contacted by Study Soup or a similar company should know that many faculty on campus consider this a violation of intellectual property rights and/or copyright law."

Last fall, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz -- in a video on the topic of academic integrity -- told students that "activities such as selling your notes and class materials to online study sites can be a violation of our standards and put you at risk."

UA professors and instructors decide whether to allow students to sell course notes, said Karen Hodges, executive director of the Academic Initiatives and Integrity office at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

"Some faculty view this as a violation of copyright, and others do not and don't care. But some faculty were very concerned this violated their intellectual property rights," Hodges said.

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Last spring, she began hearing from students who described being contacted via email and asked to upload their notes online. The offer was to get paid when other students view the content on commercial study sites.

"The student that called would be puzzled. They wanted to know if that was OK," Hodges said.

Hodges said the university last fall sent an email to the faculty in UA's largest college, the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, advising that if they did not want students to sell notes, they should consider adding a statement to course syllabuses.

"It's not perfect, but it's where we are to try and stop this," Hodges said.

Intellectual property and copyright issues remain unsettled when it comes to student notes, said Jacob Rooksby, an associate dean of administration at Duquesne University School of Law, who has written about universities and intellectual property.

Unlike facts and information, a student transcription of a professor's original ideas or opinions could arguably fall under copyright, Rooksby said. On the other hand, students who add their own "gloss" to a set of notes could own the copyright, Rooksby said.

"If we were to take any given student's notes, it would probably include all these things," he said.

Another legal issue involves the "contract between the professor and the student in terms of what's permitted in the course," Rooksby said. Also, institutions have concerns when course materials become available online for "a much reduced fee" compared with the cost of tuition, Rooksby said.

A leader with an international academic integrity group said that while selling notes isn't exactly cheating, some sites encourage students to upload their exams and solved homework, not just their notes.

Selling notes "is a minor thing, compared to what it leads to," said Tricia Bertram Gallant, co-chairman of the transition committee for the International Center for Academic Integrity, adding that contract cheating services can also be found online.

Hodges listed Course Hero and StudyRoom among others in the market. The idea of uploading course materials goes back at least to the 1990s.

Mya Norman, a UA chemistry instructor, described seeing exams that she wrote on one site filled mostly with older materials.

Norman said she disapproves of a company taking something that doesn't belong to it and charging for it.

"It looks like they've basically data-mined our Blackboard site," Norman said, referring to an online tool used at UA to share class materials and information with students.

Norman said she's also concerned about fairness. "It's not a level playing field."

Katy Tripses, head of growth for San Francisco-based StudySoup, said in an email that the company encourages peer learning and does not allow images of past exams or slides authored by professors.

"We welcome a continued dialogue with the University of Arkansas to resolve any and all concerns," Tripses said. If improper material is uploaded, "we remove the material as quickly as we can, and the student is denied access to our marketplace," she said.

The company claims on its site to have 12,377 "notetakers" from UA who "over the last few years have created 454 documents across 467 classes in 221 subjects."

In her sophomore year, Ashley Evans, a third-year architecture student, worked as a StudySoup notes-taker, she said. She earned $430 after uploading notes and study guides that she created for tests, she said. Students access materials by paying a monthly subscription fee.

Evans, 20, said she received emails from the company asking her to sign up as a notes-taker and praising her as a top student.

"They kind of market it as if it's part of the University of Arkansas. They put the University of Arkansas logo all over it," Evans said.

Last fall, a professor in an architecture course discovered her involvement with the commercial site, Evans said.

Evans said she did not realize that the teacher in the class syllabus included language prohibiting the sale of class notes. She was found in violation of UA's academic integrity policy, according to documentation she provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Under UA's sanctioning rubric, it was considered a lower-level offense -- though not the lowest level -- and Evans said the sanction did not affect her grade in the course. An academic integrity violation results in points that can add up during a student's career.

Selling class notes can fall under a policy that prohibits aiding in any active academic dishonesty, Hodges said.

As of now, "the university does not have a specific policy that says students cannot sell notes, and so this is an issue that a faculty committee is looking at," Hodges said.

Hodges said one student in the spring of 2016 had been found responsible for an academic integrity violation. Evans would be a second student sanctioned.

Working for StudySoup involved getting calls from the company, Evans said.

"They would just read you a list of ways to do better: make a Facebook page and put it on social media, put posters around, send emails all the time. Just better ways of advertising," Evans said.

One requirement involved emailing students in her classes to let them know that notes were available, Evans said. The company provided a script to use, but Evans said she personalized her message to classmates.

At one time, she also created an online page to begin fulfilling requirements for being a student marketer.

"They keep telling you, it's so good to put this on your resume," Evans said.

While Evans said she's no longer selling notes, she would do so again if it were allowed.

She said she thinks it's wrong to upload materials authored by a professor but that her own notes are different.

"You have no right to gain income over their words. But then, taking my interpretation of it, I don't think that's wrong in any way," Evans said.

Metro on 03/05/2017

Print Headline: Students selling notes online a legal gray area, schools say


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