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In a course, students were required to sign a consent form to share their final course project. There were two options that they could choose from: either anonymous sharing or sharing with attribution/credit. There was no option to opt-out. But the scope of the sharing was not limited in any way:

I permit the instructor(s) to publicly post this work electronically or physically, and to digitally or physically handle the delivery, cross-posting, deposit, or other distribution of this work...

Is this ethical? Or would this violate any University policy in the US? I know that different universities have different policies but here, it seems, that students are being softly coerced to give consent since they need the final-project grade and it seems reasonable to assume most students would be somewhat fearful of asking to opt-out.

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  • 17
    Was this policy made clear at the start of the course or only much later?
    – Buffy
    Dec 28 '20 at 23:27
  • 7
    Ethics and policy are different things and should be separate questions. I suspect your student handbook either explicitly permits or explicitly forbids the university to redistribute your work. Dec 29 '20 at 1:07
  • 25
    If it's required, it isn't consent, it's coercion. Dec 29 '20 at 13:07
  • 6
    Actually, that doesn't quite answer my question. Was it clear in the syllabus that the results would be required be published in some form? The actual wording of the consent form is less important.
    – Buffy
    Dec 29 '20 at 13:53
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    @ScottSeidman the student does not owe the instructor a “credible reason” for anything. Just like if you ask me to give you $100 I am not obliged to give you a credible reason for refusing.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 29 '20 at 21:22
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The red flag here is that the instructor is requiring students to sign away a legal right they have. What gives them the right? A university may reasonably make such a requirement as a matter of university policy in a few situations where that makes sense (e.g., as someone mentioned, it is standard that PhD theses are made public). But the instructor’s mistake and clear point where they are overstepping their authority here is their assumption that they can set arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with the educational goals of the course, and that students must follow as a condition of getting their grade. We have seen this before unfortunately.

US universities simply don’t endow their instructors with such absolute-ruler powers. In fact, as someone who was a department chair and experienced the administrative side of running a university, I can confidently say it would be very undesirable from the university’s point of view to give individual instructors the authority to make students sign legal statements whenever the instructor thought it was a good idea. To put it mildly, some instructors are less sensible than others and probably should not be trusted with these sorts of powers. Nor is this a recipe for consistent policy-making.

To be clear, an instructor can set rules on where a student sits during an exam, or impose deadlines for homework submission etc, since such rules are necessary to accomplish the goal of teaching and testing the students. But at the end of the day the instructor is required by the university to assess the students’ performance and assign grades, and may not hold the students’ grades hostage to arbitrary conditions that make the instructor’s life easier or help them teach future classes, showcase their teaching achievements, or otherwise achieve other goals tied to the instructor’s self-interest.

To summarize: yes it’s unethical, and violates the “don’t be a jerk” policy, and probably other ones.

Edit: I was asked to spell out the specific ways in which the instructor’s behavior is unethical. They are:

  1. Coercion: the instructor is coercing students to agree to give up their legal and moral rights to control what happens to their project work, where this does not provide them any legitimate educational benefit tied to the course.

  2. Abuse of power: the instructor is using their power over grades, a technical power they are given by the university but that’s supposed to be used only for the specific purpose or assessing the students’ work, to coerce them to behave in such a way. This seems pretty clearly done for the instructor’s personal benefit.

  3. Violation of employer’s trust: the instructor is violating the trust their university puts in them to use the authority the institution is giving them only for specific purposes and in specific ways.

Note that versions of these sorts of behaviors are illegal in many countries. For example using the power of your office to benefit yourself has been the reason for many holders of political office to be sent to prison in the US, and for a president to be impeached. In this particular case the behavior is probably not serious enough for these laws to apply, but the principle is the same.

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    And, FWIW, I don't really like this policy either. But I'm having a lot of trouble finding the ethical transgression in it, provided that there was full knowledge of the policy requirements at the start of the course. But the question whether changing the rules late in the course is ethical is not what seems to be the question here. I'll also guess that you underestimate the amount of leeway a tenured professor has to set the rules of courses they teach.
    – Buffy
    Dec 29 '20 at 14:04
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    Sorry, but you are making dramatic statements without any backup reasoning. A form of "proof by intimidation." "It is clear" and "don't make sense" are personal judgments only. Again, which ethical principle is being violated if the notice was early. And, I don't see how this is to the instructor's personal benefit and not the student's. No one has suggested the professor intends plagiarism here. And, I doubt that you, personally, are the arbitrator of what is authorized by the university and what is not. Your own university might have such rules, I admit.
    – Buffy
    Dec 29 '20 at 18:49
  • 3
    This answer generalizes the OP's question to a ludicrous level (is it ethical for students to be required to consent to anything the lecturer comes up with?), and then (rightly) dismisses that generalization for its ludicrousness. It's the "and if your friends jumped off a bridge" school of argumentation. -1 Dec 29 '20 at 19:47
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    @darijgrinberg I welcome your downvote and opinion, but to address your criticism, I think I was very specific: “the red flag here is that the instructor is requiring students to sign away a legal right they have”, and I explained why individual instructor’s can’t do that. Yes, there are issues here at various levels of generality and I mentioned them briefly since they seem worth discussing, but I maintain the answer is pretty focused on OP’s specific situation, and see no similarity whatsoever to an “if your friends jumped off a bridge”-type argument.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 29 '20 at 20:12
  • 4
    @Buffy: not sure whether this helps since the question and this answer are about the USA, but here in Germany, Dan's points 1 and 2 would be spot on and make the professor's behaviour illegal under anti-corruption legislation. (Professors are public servants over here, in particular in their role administering exams that are relevant for the students' profession.) Announcing the requirement in the syllabus wouldn't change anything, neither: the rule is (at least for any kind of exam a student somehow needs to take to get a professional degree) that the student may sign their work over after Dec 30 '20 at 22:39
20

I don't know what my university's policy is (if any), but it seems clear to me that students should never be coerced (subtly or otherwise) into giving permission for their work to be shared. My students do some spectacular work, and I request their explicit permission to archive and share it - but I set it up so that they are free to decline, and so that I do not know who has given or declined permission until after I have submitted their final grades.

I can imagine a reasonable exception if the work/project were explicitly performed as a service to, or collaboration with, some outside organization that needed ongoing access to the work, but in that case the conditions should be explicit at the outset.

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    Almost all PhD degrees require a thesis, which is supposed to be published. So it's definitely not true that students "should never be coerced" into sharing their work. The better question is at what levels -- it can be argued that some titles (like the PhD) are given for research and thus require sharing work, whereas others (like a bachelor's) are not and thus should not come with such requirements. Where the line is to be drawn is perhaps best left to universities and departments. Dec 28 '20 at 23:39
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    I teach at a state university, and all work produced by students is considered to belong to the people of our state since the tuition/fees are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. Enrollment in the university is considered consent for public sharing when appropriate.
    – Kathy
    Dec 29 '20 at 0:03
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    @Kathy I'm interested to find out more about this. Could you share a link with background on coursework done by students at public universities in the US? That'd be great! Dec 29 '20 at 14:18
  • 6
    @Kathy is it possible that you’re mistaken? Or that the definition of “when appropriate” is a lot more restricted than you make it sound? The policy that you describe sounds very draconian to me and I doubt there’s a state where “the people of the state” have any wish to be given such broad ownership rights of students’ work. So I second user2705196’s request for more information.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 29 '20 at 18:25
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    Also pretty skeptical of Kathy's claim (seems like one of those "upvoted for incredibility" comments). I'd want to see evidence to believe that. Dec 29 '20 at 21:08
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This document likely only affirms what is already the rule (which you probably already signed when you enrolled). It serves more to make you aware that you are expected to share your work, than to actually establish a new legal obligation.

And in any case, work that you perform at the university, using the professor's time, university lab space, and university resources, very likely legally belongs to the university rather than to you personally.

Although there are exception (classified research projects, for instance), generally the whole point of doing work at a university is to share it publicly.

For classroom work, that's likely not all that big a deal (nobody would be too interest in your calculus test that is essentially indistinguishable from the work of hundreds of other students).

But when you are creating something unique, such as a capstone project, that may well contribute to the overall body of knowledge that universities create.

So, don't be offended that somebody wants to take what you perceive as yours. Take pride that somebody may consider your work worth sharing the same way established scientists share.

Update: The original poster mentioned that the document in question actually asked for release from FERPA provisions (for non-US readers, FERPA is a US privacy law that prevents publishing of certain student information), rather than a general publishing release. That changes the context substantially.

Let's say that a student participates in some research projects (which is common in research universities). FERPA may prevent publishing anything the student contributed, or at least it could be interpreted that way.

It appears that the purpose of the document isn't to allow publishing of the student's work (that's already covered by the student enrolling in such a class), but rather to resolve exactly this conflict.

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  • If it contributes to the overall knowledge one should make a proper publication in a peer reviewed journal out of it.
    – lalala
    Dec 30 '20 at 16:20
  • The document assumes the work is the students' own work and asks them to relinquish privacy rights set by the law, FERPA: "My work is my own original work and does not, to the best of my knowledge, infringe upon anyone’s copyright. To the extent the work is an educational record as defined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), I consent to public disclosure of it. " Dec 31 '20 at 1:42
  • Do note that as a student you are paying to be educated. One could maybe argue that part of student life is being an unpaid intern which is ethically accepted in certain countries, but as exactly the nations that allow such unpaid internships are the nations where the state isn't paying for the education that sounds like a fairly abusive argument. For whatever it is worth, a central European university I am aware of has some unpaid PhD programmes which explicitly remove certain copyright transferrals for those programmes. Dec 31 '20 at 8:51
  • @DrPangloss Of course it has to be the student's own work, else it would be academic dishonesty. That has no bearing on who actually owns the work. You mentioned in passing a very important new piece of information: this was a release specifically from FERPA privacy laws. I'll edit my answer to incorporate that. Dec 31 '20 at 17:36
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This is somewhat more of a comment than an answer. I think there are a lot of pedagogically valuable assignments that involve student work being shared with people other than the instructor, and it would be a shame not to be allowed to assign them.

Things I have assigned

  • for the whole class to create a collaboratively edited document of notes on the class.
  • for the class to collaboratively produce notes to be reused for future versions of the class, and to edit the previous's classes notes.
  • to produce a final talk/presentation for their classmates.
  • to produce a final poster presentation, for display at a poster fair in a public lobby.

Things I have heard of other instructors assigning and want to try someday

  • to contribute to a relevant Wikipedia page.
  • to contribute to a relevant open source project.

All of these things require the students to sign away some of their intellectual rights to the material they produce. But (1) they allow students to learn from each other and (2) by having the students produce for an audience who honestly doesn't know the material, I think these lead to much better exposition than having me pretend not to have seen a dozen papers on the same subject.

What I try to do is to be clear in the syllabus from day one about these requirements, and to take the minimal rights I need. Here is language I've sometimes used; I'd be glad to hear improvements:

Note that these [assignments] will be posted publicly online ... with your name attached to them, and that I may edit them ... You give me permission to do this, but otherwise retain copyright to your [work].

I'm not trying to abuse students, but I don't see how I can give assignments like this without making students sign over some rights.

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    I'd say your snippet is too woolly: you imply that the students at your institution do NOT automatically hand over copyright to the Uni ("...otherwise retain copyright to your [work]...") but then you just grab whatever rights you feel like: at the very least you should specify somewhere what licence you will be distributing their work under ("... these [assignments] will be posted publicly under CC-BY-4.0" or whatever, and you have to meet its conditions yourself). Reductio ad absurdam: that snippet still lets you sell their work through an essay mill!
    – Lou Knee
    Dec 29 '20 at 15:16
  • 3
    As someone who was very introverted and consistently bullied based on my work through all my pre-university schooling I'd absolutely hate being assigned any work that was not only publicly displayed but had my name attributed to it. Let alone having my name attributed to it with the teacher being able to edit it as they pleased. Honestly, if I was assigned more than one of the assignments you describe I'd almost certainly drop your class if at all possible and if not I'd still never show and just accept the fail. Not everyone wants their work on display.
    – Thor84no
    Dec 29 '20 at 15:18
  • @LouKnee I've considered a CC license but it seems to me that this takes away too much from the students. If the students license their work under CC, then everyone may reproduce it, not just me. Dec 29 '20 at 15:27
  • @David E Speyer But the moment it's "posted publicly" anyone can and will take it anyway (even if they maybe shouldn't): why do obscure technical presentations turn up on slideplayer.com and similar sites? My point was that the (snippet of) rubric seems unnecessarily vague where it could instead specify the actual license too be used, CC or otherwise. Out of interest, which non-CC license did you have in mind for public distribution?
    – Lou Knee
    Dec 29 '20 at 16:11
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    @David your intentions are obviously noble but I’d suggest more caution. The Wikipedia project is a good example, I’ve assigned such projects myself and think they’re great, but precisely because of the concern of forcing students to publish their work and subject it to a license, I made it clear that the students must do the work but the decision whether to actually submit it to Wikipedia at the end is theirs alone. I also allowed contributions from anonymous accounts. Bottom line: students have rights, please take them seriously. Talking about “minimal rights” seems like a rationalization.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 29 '20 at 18:20
3

Edit: The OP has just now stated that the requirement was not known to students at the beginning of the course, but only added later. That is unethical: changing the rules in the middle of the course after some effort has been expended and possibly not being possible to drop without penalty.

Had that not been the case, I'd still stand by what follows here. Namely, the requirement itself is ethical, if not ideal, as long as it is part of the original course requirement.


Yes, it is probably ethical if you look at the bigger picture. On the one hand, I doubt that it is even legal for someone to require another person to sign something. But on the other hand, if you don't follow the requirements there is probably no reason they need to grant you the degree. You probably have agreed, implicitly at least, to follow all university policies when you became a student there. There is also a likely expectation that those policies will change over time.

So, you could opt out, by not returning the form. No problem. Where it goes from there is up to the university.

However, knowing that your project will be shared, prior to completing it, you have options about what you include so that nothing that is published will be an issue for you in the future. There might even be a valid educational reason for the policy. It might be intended as a goad to elicit your best work.

This is, however, a different question from asking whether it is a good policy. If you think otherwise, fight the policy itself. But try to do so in a way that isn't self defeating.

The question is a bit dicier, however, if the course is something like a required capstone course. But there, I think that an appeal to authority above the professor's might provide at least an exception. But you may need a reason other than that you don't want it published.

And, if you are working under the direction and guidance of someone else, either in a job or a university, the question arises about who is the owner of any IP.


I've assumed that this policy was made clear at this beginning of the course. Changing the rules late in the game raises a different ethical concern, of course.

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    Did you mean "legal" in your first sentence rather than "ethical"? There are lots of things a university could legally compel in order to give a degree (or more proximately, a grade for a course) that are not at all ethical.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 28 '20 at 22:49
  • 1
    Yes, I meant legal. Your "in order to..." is the key here. If you don't do x they need not do y, but they can't compel x. They can create gates, but you need not walk through. And if you don't, then you don't get to the other side.
    – Buffy
    Dec 28 '20 at 22:52
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    I meant where you said this approach is ethical. Typically ethical boundaries are reached well before legal ones (there are of course exceptions where the law oversteps, but that's not very common in this sense). I agree with you it is probably legal and that a student may have little recourse, but that's not the same as it being ethical.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 28 '20 at 22:56
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    Bait-and-switch isn't legal in retail, why should it be legal in education?
    – barbecue
    Dec 29 '20 at 13:30
  • 1
    @barbecue,I agree that changing the rules late in the game is unethical. But it isn't yet clear at this writing that that is what happened. But I don't see other ethical violations here. If someone would name one, I can probably be convinced. My personal ethical code is pretty strict.
    – Buffy
    Dec 29 '20 at 13:58
2

This opens up a huge can of worms regarding who actually holds the IP for the work.

Simply put, though, if you were given this directive before you started the project, I don't see a real problem with it. You had the opportunity to limit your contribution to items you would have no trouble disclosing.

FWIW, chances are your education on the process is most likely far more valuable than the value of the work itself, in terms of intellectual property, if that's one of your concerns.

2

I usually set master projects related to my current research. So, I need to be able to use or build upon the work of the student, even if they decide they cannot be bothered after they finish the course.

When I announce my projects, I put a requirement that the code developed should be under an open license (usually MIT). The students know this in advance and it's their option to take the project or not. Once they decide to take the project, they sign a project description with the requirements. Also, our university obliges the students to submit their report to an open repository. They retain copyright, but it's open to the whole word to read or scrutinise.

Coming to your question, if the course is mandatory (meaning you have no alternative) and this requirement was not clear from the beginning, then I find it unethical and potentially illegal. When I worked in the UK, his would be a big issue if the student reported it. Where I work now, not so much because it's a public university and students don't pay any fees. Or, to be more clear, their fees are paid by the government through everyone's taxes. So, there is an expectation for "open" work.

1

The OP asks "Is it ethical". I wish it was asked "Is it lawful". Then we could definitely say "NO"!

But I believe that acting in violation of the law to deprive someone of their rights is definitely not "ethical".

People under most jurisdictions retain the copyright to works that they create - except for specific exceptions, for example "works for hire". Though sometimes made to feel otherwise, students are not any less people than anyone else.

Here is a good article on the subject: Who owns student-produced content?

Here is an excerpt:

One thing for certain, Mark Goodman, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center and current Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, said it is almost impossible for a school to claim copyright in the works students create.

“Absent a written assignment of rights signed by both student and parent (if the student is a minor),” Goodman said, “students retain the copyright to works they create.”

That’s not because public schools can’t own copyright, he said, it’s because students are not employees and the works they create are not “works for hire.” The fact they may be getting credit for a class does not change that.

The requirement for a PhD thesis to be published has always been argued to be part of the scholarly preparation of a student. This is from The Scholarly Kitchen:

From the inception of the modern doctorate in the early 19th century, a central purpose of doctoral education has been to prepare students to make significant scholarly contributions to knowledge. The dissertation is submitted as public evidence of your scholarly accomplishment meriting the conferral of the doctoral degree.

But it never was, nor is, been maintained that a student does not still own the IP rights to their work.

The professor in the OP's case goes way beyond just requiring that the student's work be published. He/she insists that the student abdicate all of their rights regarding how and where and in what form that their work may be distributed:

I permit the instructor(s) to publicly post this work electronically or physically, and to digitally or physically handle the delivery, cross-posting, deposit, or other distribution of this work...

Also click on this question/answer in the World Intellectual Property Organization FAQ: Who owns IP generated by students?

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