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I just received an email from a lecturer I do not know and have never had contact with, asking for my course materials.

On the one hand, sharing my course materials has almost no cost for me, and I have shared them before either "in house" (with lecturers in my department) or with close colleagues (coauthors/community friends etc.). This is the first time I'm encountering a request from a truly random stranger.

I am inclined to refuse this request.

I put in a lot of effort into my course material, and take pride in my work. Handing it over to some other person (who may or may not credit me) feels like I'm cheapening my efforts.

I am I just being prudish? Is this common practice that I just never happened to encounter? Is there a potential ethical issue with sharing materials that I am missing here?

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    Is there any reason you see why this person chose you? Is there any indication they know and love your materials? Or are you a real expert in this topic? Or is this a very rare course? How do they know you have course materials?
    – user111388
    Oct 27 '20 at 13:24
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    Not an answer, so here in comments. If you do share, stick a copyright notice in the right form for your country on the material. I do that, and add a Creative Commons license, usually BY-NC-SA.
    – Bob Brown
    Oct 27 '20 at 14:23
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    On a separate note: check what your contract of employment says about who owns the copyright in those course materials; and if your contract doesn't specify, check local copyright law for what the default position is for copyrights created by employees. It may be that you can't share the materials without the permission of some manager at your institution. Oct 27 '20 at 23:53
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    @BobBrown NC? Wouldn't that prohibit the use of such course material in courses? (Teaching in a university would be a commercial activity, I'd think.)
    – muru
    Oct 28 '20 at 10:11
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    @muru One interpretation might prevent use of the material in proprietary (for profit) universities. It certainly wouldn't prevent use in private non-profit universities nor state universities. My own interpretation is that my writing can be used by any entity that does not sell access to the material, as opposed to access to a course. I'm trying to take aim at Chegg, Course Hero, and the like, who snarf up professors' intellectual property, then sell it through "memberships."
    – Bob Brown
    Oct 28 '20 at 14:30
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Whether to share-or-not (assuming that you yourself, not your university, own the rights to what you've created) is strongly a matter of personal preference... I don't see a universal mandate.

Many years ago, I did pay careful attention to copyright control, and so on, but eventually I got the impression that it was simply not the case that people were clamoring to get their hands on stuff I'd written. :)

So, for some years now, I've put everything on-line with a Creative Commons license, and whenever anyone is polite enough to ask permission for use, I give it, without any negotiations. In fact, if one of my goals were to maximize the impact I have on ... for example, graduate curriculum in mathematics... unrestricted dissemination seems the obvious choice. True, I may not "get all the credit I deserve", but I already have "enough credit" to survive, so that'd not be a tragedy.

A situation where one should be more careful is when one's institution attempts to use-and-discard people who develop course material. In such cases, "getting credit" probably matters much more. Luckily, till now anyway, that kind of thing has not been toooooo much of an issue at my university, although arising sporadically over the years. (I'm not optimistic about the future...)

In summary: if you don't want to share the fruits of your labors, don't. You may change your mind later, and that's fine, too.

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I am I just being prudish?

You or your university own the copyright to your course material, protecting your copyright is perfectly reasonable.

Is this common practice that I just never happened to encounter?

It certainly happens; I don't know of any statistics on the frequency, so can't comment on whether it's common practice.

Is there a potential ethical issue with sharing materials that I am missing here?

If your university owns the copyright, then you'd need permission to share.

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    It's possible, but by no means certain that your University already grants you that permission, and it's certainly worth finding out what license you do have, for when you want to move and take your teaching materials with you.
    – origimbo
    Oct 27 '20 at 22:21
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Assuming you have a legal right to share the materials, as is common in US universities:

  • Sharing teaching materials is a good way to improve the quality of instruction. It is the right thing to do to benefit students.
  • If you can get teaching materials you have created used widely, this will help you make a case for promotion. Some universities require faculty to be "world leaders" in teaching in order to get promoted to the highest rank. Getting other people to adopt your teaching materials is one of a very few ways to meet that criterion.
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Is this common practice that I just never happened to encounter?

What I have seen increasingly is that associations ask their members to contribute their course material to an online repository. Furthering the discipline by sharing best practice and avoiding duplication of effort is the kind of service that fits well with such organizations.

Being in a repository ensures that the contributor gets some "credit" just by the fact that the name is on the website next to your materials. Anytime a member of the association (often established academics in your discipline) peruses the repository to see if there is anything (s)he can use they will see your name next to the material you contributed.

However, my feeling is that such repositories are initially filled by people who really care about the discipline and the association. If it takes of, then people start adding because they benefited from it, and want to give back to keep it going. So getting credit does not seem to be the main driver of these repositories.

Regardless, you could see if such a repository exists for your (sub-(sub-))discipline, submit your material there, and give that link.

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I would also refuse a request for my teaching materials from a random stranger, especially one not in my department.

Many faculty I'm aware of devalue teaching. The "real" part of being faculty is doing research, and teaching is just a burden that occasionally has to be carried. I've always detested this attitude, and personally think teaching is the highest impact thing most faculty will ever do.

The fact that a random stranger asked for your material is a clear symptom of that. If this was research in progress, not yet published to the public, and a random researcher emailed you and asked for all your research materials, you would immediately say no. Actually you would probably ignore the email as predatory. Because creating original research and publishing it is your job.

If teaching is also important, I don't see how the request you received is any different. Your job is to create it and then present it to your students.

Of course such a request coming from a coworker, or a trusted collaborator, could be a different thing. But you have just as much right to protect the hard work you put into your teaching as any researcher has to protect the hard work they put into as-yet unpublished research.

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    teaching is the highest impact thing most faculty will ever do: Surely sharing teaching materials would increase that impact (assuming suitable acknowledgement)
    – user2768
    Oct 27 '20 at 15:47
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    @Jeff, I'd think a better analogy to "making teaching stuff freely available" would be having all your re-/pre-prints publicly "freely available" on your website. An ethical person gives credit where credit is due, whether the credit is for "research" or for "course notes", surely!?! Oct 27 '20 at 21:59
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    I think sharing one's teaching material is more like sharing published research: if you share your unpublished research you're at risk of being scooped and unable to publish it yourself. That's a huge difference to me. In fact, I recently emailed an unknown professor asking for her teaching material... and offering all of my own. Wouldn't do that with research. Oct 28 '20 at 1:39
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    People who view knowledge as property should not be teachers. The effort you put into something is in no way related to its monetary value in a capitalist system. Value is based on supply and demand. Course materials have a lot more supply than demand (one set needed per course). Also, most faculty I know have never developed an original course, so I don't see why you think it's an assumption that they do it. Oct 28 '20 at 13:00
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    You claimed that putting in labor implies something should not be given away. That seems to me to subscribe to the labor theory of value. Oct 28 '20 at 13:16
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In general, I feel that if some of the material is openly available (and can be found using search engines), then it's ok to ask but if I were to receive such a request for material that is not openly available I would be a lot more careful.

I fact I have actually done basically this: I find some chapter of course notes and I will on occasions email the instructor asking if there is more material openly available.

Dear Prof. Friend,

I discovered the wonderful Chapter 8 of your course notes on basket weaving and would like to know if additional material is openly available elsewhere. I myself will be teaching this topic come next term and your material would be helpful in my own preparation.

I've usually had generous response when I send this from my professional email.

I certainly would have no issues with sharing my own material with someone who would send me such an email (I've done this once) although I would add the caveats that my notes contain copyrighted material (figures pilfered from textbooks etc) and would kindly ask they not be distributed as they are not in finalized form, may contain errors etc.

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