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Statement issued on commercial note-taking

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 11 - November 3, 1994

(Editor's note: The following statement was prepared by Susan Brooker-Gross for distribution to university faculty members. The subject is the Honor System and purchased notes. The statement may be helpful to faculty members as they prepare spring semester syllabi.)

The Honor System Review Board met to clarify the recently instituted practice of commercial note-taking.

Concerns about the practice are many. The Honor System Review Board took the position that the use of these notes is in the same range of behavior as the use of old exams or koofers. In many, if not most, cases, the use of such items constitutes a way to "beat the system," to avoid learning, rather than to promote learning. In those cases, a professor should make it clear that the use of purchased notes (as with koofers) is prohibited in the class. If a professor makes this clear on a syllabus, then a student who is found using such notes could be charged with cheating. To quote the Honor System Constitution: "Cheating includes the actual giving or receiving of any unauthorized aid or assistance or the actual giving or receiving of any unfair advantage on any form of academic work, or attempts thereof."

If the use of such notes is explicitly banned by an instructor for a class, then attempts to sell such notes (directly or through a third party) would also be cheating.

In other courses, a professor may welcome (or tolerate) notes as a supplement to student learning, and no Honor System violation would be charged. As a business, a note-taking firm will claim that notes are for supplementary use; a rational fear is that notes will be used to replace a student's own attendance and attention. Since the context, content, and style of a given course will affect whether notes are likely to be supplementary or replacement, it makes sense to have the instructor of the course decide what the limits will be on the use of such notes.

The Honor System Constitution also bans "work for hire," and "purchased work." Work for hire "includes the preparation for another student, whether in return for monetary or other compensation or not, of work that he or she turns in as his or her own, the turning in of such work, or attempts thereof." Purchased work is its counterpart: "turning in, as one's own assignment, work which was prepared by another person in return for monetary or other compensation, or attempts thereof." Should an instructor request that students' notes are turned in--an uncommon, but not unheard-of practice, any student who turned in Tech Notes or other commercially available notes could be charged with an honor violation. Work-for-hire and purchased work result in penalties which may include suspension; if exacerbated by premeditation and/or recruitment of another student to commit a violation, a finding in such a case could result in permanent dismissal.

Note that this statement of interpretation is made with the intent of protecting students who have been recruited by the commercial firm, and others who may be buying the products. This interpretation stands on the Honor System Constitution as it is written and involves no changes to current definitions. The burden of specifying the limits of aid authorized in a particular class falls to the instructor, as has always been the case. This burden must be related to the goals of the course, and the instructor's way of reaching those goals. Student complaints about such restrictions would be handled in the same manner as any other complaint about a class, beginning with discussion of the issue with the instructor.

Susan R. Brooker-Gross, 1-6122, e-mail: srb144@vt.edu, fax: (703)-231-7211