I have a professor who has published his lecture notes in the form of a book. The only way to get access to his lecture notes is to purchase them from an off-campus bookstore. To me, this seems like a highly unethical, if not illegal, practice. Shouldn't students have access to lecture notes as part of the tuition fees that they have paid?

A common question seems to be whether we are actually required to purchase the notes. To clarify, he routinely skips teaching chapters in class and asks them to read them from the notes on our own. So yes, we have to buy the notes if we want to be taught the entire syllabus.

Edit: The notes are different from the textbook. The textbook is not really needed, while the notes are fully needed. I'm seeing people confusing the two and claiming that many professors prescribe their own textbooks for the courses. My question is to whether access to notes should be free and universal for every student in the lecture.

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    Highly related: Is it ethical to profit by having my students buy my textbook
    – Anyon
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 2:11
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    @MichaelHardy The "book" is simply the slides printed out and bound together using a spiral binding. Commented May 29, 2018 at 2:16
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    It sounds like the professor is just not very comfortable with technology, rather than being sketchy. While it’s nice if it’s all available online, the school may not require instructors to list textbooks at registration. (Students at my school get that info from the bookstore.)
    – aeismail
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 2:48
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    OK. I won’t try to figure out the motivations. However, the real issue here is if there’s a markup going on. If it’s being sold “at cost,” then there’s really nothing untoward going on.
    – aeismail
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 3:51
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    OMG, how lucky were we. When the flood took away the textbooks in the uni's library (where one normally could lend them) the professors made a collection among themselves to find as many copies as they could and they lent us their personal copies so that we had textbooks to learn from. If I compare that with this. Commented May 29, 2018 at 8:19

4 Answers 4


(This answer is based on US university practices. I don't know if it is directly applicable to Canada, but the two systems generally tend to be similar.)

It's hard to be sure, but this might be a practice that's old-fashioned but not unethical.

First of all:

Shouldn't students have access to lecture notes as part of the tuition fees that they have paid?

Not necessarily. If the course requires materials that have a non-negligible cost, then typically students will be required to pay for them separately. This includes textbooks, lab supplies, and, as in this case, custom-printed "course packets" of notes or other reading material.

Now, normally the university has its own service for printing course packets and selling them "at cost" through the university bookstore. However, it sometimes happens that professors decide that some other bookstore or print shop can produce the packets better or cheaper, and so they have them made and sold there. This may or may not be technically allowed by university rules, but it may be tolerated, especially if it's actually saving money for the students. Note that in such cases, the professor normally doesn't receive any of the price of the packet; it all goes to the print shop.

So this isn't a completely unheard-of system for distributing printed material.

You could certainly ask the professor why they've chosen to do it this way. My guess is you'll get a response like "I used to use the university bookstore, but the packets were always late / fell apart at the binding / ran out of stock / cost twice as much." So you could try and complain about the use of an unofficial distributor, but be careful what you wish for.

It raises the question of why the notes have to be distributed in printed form at all, instead of electronically (in which case there should be no costs at all). I can imagine this happening if the professor is very old-fashioned and hasn't ever realized that this would be better, or if the notes don't exist in electronic form (e.g. they are handwritten or typed on a typewriter), or just "has always done it this way". But it would be reasonable to suggest, either directly to the professor or in a course evaluation, that they consider electronic distribution.

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    Maybe it's a legal matter? Possibly a misunderstood one. But perhaps it is thought that distributing electronically is more likely to lead to copyright infringement issues with some of the material (say if the packet, which includes partial copies of protected works, is then shared to non-students by someone, someone gets hacked, etc.) than a physical copy would be. Commented May 29, 2018 at 2:46
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    @Gummybears: Assuming the instructor isn't profiting, I don't see where there's any conflict of interest. Making students buy materials is normal, as I mentioned, provided that the price goes to the producer of the materials. Not listing it on the course website is probably tied to wanting to use a third-party printer; the university might insist that "official" required texts go through the university bookstore, whose services the professor considers inadequate or overpriced. Skipping chapters and having students read is normal pedadogy. Commented May 29, 2018 at 3:45
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    @Gummybears: So it might be awkward and inefficient, but I don't see any ethical breach. It may very well be a technical violation of university rules, and if you contact some university office, you might be able to get them to crack down. But before you do, you might want to think about unintended consequences, and whether everyone would really be better off if you bought the materials from the university bookstore. Commented May 29, 2018 at 3:46
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    @Gummybears: Remember having a conflict of interest is not unethical. What's unethical is acting on that interest in an unethical manner. (Circular, I know. You get my point.) So if you have a complaint, you should look for an example of something that is actually being done wrong, not something that could potentially go wrong. It's very fashionable to accuse people of things that aren't actually inherently wrong these days, so make sure you keep the distinction in mind.
    – user541686
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 6:35
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    ... for example, if those "books" were sold at highly inflated prices, and there were no alternative sources to purchase them from. I've seen cases of having to show the receipt from the bookstore that you have bought the book (instead of lending it from another student) in order to pass the exam, and that was in my opinion highly unethical.
    – vsz
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 8:16

You might be interested to know that U. of Kentucky has just initiated moves to fire a tenured professor who did exactly this. https://www.chronicle.com/article/U-of-Kentucky-Moves-to-Fire/243509

However, the professor in this case had also used the university's funds to print the book, so its possible this is what they were upset about.

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    An important aspect of this relevant to the OP is that “University rules say professors must get special permission to assign their own books, and when they do so, they must donate any proceeds to the university or to a charity.” Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 4:14

It's a scam, but you are stuck with it. Historically, the cost of the pamphlet covered the printing costs. With PDF technology, that's bunk. If you are truly broke, the University Library should have a copy. If not, ask that they purchase a copy as it is a required book for a course (they may already have done so).

Also for that reason, books are not 'required course material' and so are not covered by tuition. While a joke, the lecture notes are effectively a 'book' that the library should have a copy of.

  • Why is OP "stuck" with it? A group of students can essentially force the teacher's hand, or just go right around him. Also, I think if OP could access a library copy he wouldn't ask here. (I haven't -1'ed you though.)
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 18:25
  • The question was about the ethics. It's perfectly legal, but not ethical, as it represents coercion by a person in a position of responsibility.
    – Mox
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 22:06
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    I don't see how your comment addresses my comment.
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 22:21
  • There are ways around it. A group could buy the book, split the cost, and make a copy for each, via scanning. But that would probably be copyright violation. But the OP's question was not about methods, but about ethics.
    – Mox
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 20:34
  • Well, you've written OP is stuck with this, while, as you acknowledge, he isn't. As for copyright violation - that's not true. First of all, there's fair use. Second, if the Professor showed this material in class, students are allowed to copy it anyway. Finally, nobody would ever sure them.
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 20:53

The university and/or the teacher must, in my opinion, do both of the following:

  • Make a copy available as a file (e.g. PDF).
  • Have multiple printed copies available at the university libraries.

Doing just one of these is insufficient, but not terrible. Doing none is basically a shake-down for extra tuition, which I believe students (and junior faculty!) should not tolerate.

However, as @Wetlabstudent has pointed out - perhaps you should first give the Professor the benefit of the doubt, for, shall we say, having been remiss in his duty, or not having taken notice of how problematic this is. If that's the case, then just asking him to make the notes otherwise available could work. I'm skeptical of course.

Assuming it's been made clear that the Professor will not allow access to his notes except by purchase at the store, I suggest you do the following:

  1. Talk to fellow students in your class about this.
  2. Approach, together, the course teacher, demanding that at least one of the above forms of availability be realized.
  3. If he refuses, confront him, jointly, in class, demanding that this be addressed and trying not to let him get away with it. Caveat: This may theoretically get you into disciplinary trouble, although that's unlikely. I would still do it though.
  4. get your student union reps to intervene and pressure him and/or the department - if they exist, are willing and are able.
  5. If your student union reps don't act, pool some money together and by a copy which you could define as "owned jointly by the students taking the class". Scan the printed lecture notes and distribute the file everyone who contributed or to every student in class who asks, depending on your generosity. Caveat: This may theoretically get you into disciplinary/legal trouble, you have been warned. I would still do it though.
  6. Make sure that if anybody asks, this be described as a collective class project rather than something you did, so that you don't get singled out.
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    -1: "demanding", and involving "student reps" or the "department" before simply politely asking? Always start with a friendly conversation where you go in assuming good faith. This answer comes off way too aggressive and seems to be needlessly escalating the situation too quickly. One can demand later, but a simple 1 on 1 private conversation in office hours is a better first step where you explain why the issue is so important to you. More likely than not, the lecturer is simply doing what they had done previously (when shared pdfs were non-existent) and never thought about changing Commented May 29, 2018 at 13:40
  • @WetLabStudent: I assumed the politely asking part had already happened; and in fact, I would bet this is the case even after your comment. But - you make a fair point, let me edit my answer. Having said that - there's really no need to explain why access to the lecture notes is so important, and why young, typically broke students need to avoid spending even more money.
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 14:16
  • @einpoklum You are correct in assuming so. The first day itself I asked the prof whether there was a reason that the notes weren't available online. He ignored the question and asked if purchasing them would be too difficult a task. Commented May 29, 2018 at 16:31
  • @WetLabStudent: In light of OP's comment - would you care to retract your comment?
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 17:10
  • @einpoklum if the OP puts in their question something like "I specifically asked the professor if they can put the notes online, and when they asked if purchasing them was too difficult of a task, I stated this is why that is problematic ____ and therefore I'd really like you to put them up online" then yes, I'd be willing to retract the comment, and even upvote. I still believe this is escalating the situation too much unless there has been a polite back and forth where the OP has specifically asked what they want and explained why it is important to them [this isn't in the OP's comment yet] Commented May 30, 2018 at 9:01

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