JUDE BARBACK looks at the rise of note-sharing sites and the tenuous legal and ethical questions they raise for universities.
Stuvia.com’s homepage features a video entitled ‘Mr Party Pants’ in which we meet ‘Bob’, who awakes on a couch among empty bottles of alcohol with what appears to be a raging hangover. We learn that amidst all his partying, Bob has neglected to study for his test, which is in a few hours. But never fear, stuvia.com is near, and Bob quickly finds a solution by accessing the notes of a more conscientious classmate who, in turn, benefits by receiving cash for her efforts. Win-win! The clip concludes that Bob can maintain his partying and sail through university; “Stuvia’s got your back,” quips the voiceover.
Is Bob cheating? Before we can answer that, the issue of note-sharing warrants closer attention.
There are a plethora of sites like Stuvia. Flashnotes.com features a leaderboard showing the students who are earning the most money from selling their notes. Notesale.co.uk summarises its function as “Girl who paid attention uploads her notes. Guy who didn’t pay attention finds them. Girl gets rich, guy gets benefit. Classic story.” Notesolution, Sharenotes, and Studentnotes are just a few others to crop up on a rudimentary search.
Nexus Notes has the appearance of a more professional version, yet it is this particular site that sparked controversy in New Zealand recently.
The Australian site was created by former AFL player Hugh Minson and Macquarie Bank worker Richard Hordern-Gibbings in an inner Sydney garage in 2011. The site now has notes submitted from students in universities in Australia and New Zealand and sold for AUD$35 a set, with the students who uploaded their work taking half the sale price.
According to the owners, there are quality assurance measures in place. All notes are vetted and only those from students who received a final mark of 75 per cent or above are accepted. Note purchasers can also give uploaders a star rating and feedback.
However, despite these measures, universities are urging students to take caution.
“Our view is that this has parallels to an informal textbook that offers little quality assurance and is written by students who are not necessarily experts,” University of Otago spokesperson Megan McPherson told the The New Zealand Herald.
“Students resorting to sites of this kind also need to recognise that there is absolutely no guarantee as to the quality or currency of any material they might purchase or access, so it is a case of caveat emptor [buyer beware].”
McPherson also points to potential legal concerns with misusing the site.
“Notwithstanding the comments around quality, the university reserves the right to take action against individuals or organisations who infringe on the intellectual property rights of its staff, but does not regard the act of buying and selling course notes per se as actionable.”
Professor Jim Corkery, a corporations law academic at Bond University in Australia, agrees that sites like Nexus Notes might prompt academics to fear their intellectual property being stolen.
“Eyebrows will be raised by some academics who feel that the service is using their intellectual property indirectly for profit and without their approval,” Corkery told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Corkery suggested that lecturers may also worry about the notes not being an accurate representation of the lecture.
However, Nexus Notes community manager and former University of Otago law student Xavier Collins told The New Zealand Herald that while he accepted universities might not like their business model, the service was legal, provided students submitted notes they had written themselves.
True, universities do not mark notes, so plagiarism isn’t a factor. Also, a clear distinction needs to be made between note-sharing sites like Nexus Notes and their more controversial cousins – those sites that sell completed assignments or essays.
Collins talks about the “changing face of academia in the digital age” and he is right. Sites like Nexus Notes are not dissimilar to models where universities provide students with the opportunity to download lecture notes and recordings. The age of distance learning and flipped learning – whereby students take in the lecture in their own time and use class time to discuss concepts, seek help from lecturers, collaborate with peers, or work on assignments – has seen a marked shift towards more information being available online.
“Students trading their notes is just another way for students to learn,” Nexus Notes co-owner Hugh Minson told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Some students who have used note-sharing sites have described them as a much cheaper alternative to buying the recommended text books, with the notes often more up-to-date than the books.
It comes down to a question of students’ approach to their own learning.
When students at Concordia University in the USA started using note-sharing site Notesolution, academic staff were not concerned that the site would spark an outbreak of academic dishonesty, but that it had potential to fool lazy students into thinking they didn’t have to attend lectures.
While it may not be cheating by definition, total reliance on the notes of others is unlikely to do students any real favours on their academic journey. The
‘Bobs’ of the student world are probably only cheating themselves.
Megan McPherson said the University of Otago considered a student’s academic prospects would be enhanced by attending lectures, taking their own notes and working with staff. A spokesperson from the University of Auckland agreed.
“Simply reading and regurgitating someone else’s notes will not ensure success at university.”