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I wonder if it is appropriate for professors to ask their students in class to type notes (in latex whatever) for the classes they are teaching and if there is any "elegant" way for students to turn down such request of professors they are taking classes with.

There are several specific scenarios that I am interested in asking about:

  1. Professor asks students to take turns to type the notes for the classes and the notes may be used for publication under the professor's name (with students appearing in the acknowledgement in some way), and professor pays students for doing that.

  2. Professor asks students to take turns to type the notes for the classes and the notes may be used for publication under the professor's name (with students appearing in the acknowledgement in some way), and professor does not pay students for doing that.

  3. Professor asks students to take turns to type the notes for the classes and the notes is just a shared free document for academic purpose, and professor pays students for doing that (simply as an act of kindness).

  4. Professor asks students to take turns to type the notes for the classes and the notes is just a shared free document for academic purpose, and professor does not pay students for doing that.

Which of the options above are appropriate/inappropriate (and why)?

Since if the students are enrolled in the class and it might be hard for them to turn down the professor's request since their grades are "controlled" by the professor (one more question: is it appropriate for professors to make notes-typing a course requirement?), or simply that students might meet professor everyday and there might be invisible pressure for students (especially for graduate students). I understand this must be some grey area in university teaching but it seems to me it is also very common in the graduate level (especially for special topics) courses (but I haven't seen any professors paying students for doing that).


By "publication" I mean publishing the notes as a textbook or monograph to publishers like Springer, APS, etc, profit or nonprofit. And as a consequence the public have to spend money to get access.

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    Are you asking as a professor, or as a student? – Buffy Jan 11 at 21:08
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    @Buffy I am asking as a person from a purely objective point of view. – No One Jan 11 at 21:09
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    Does having a shared set of notes contribute to students achieving the learning outcomes for the course? And what do you mean by publish? Put on a website? Incorporate into a commercial work? Be part of an article evaluating the effectiveness of this as a learning tool? – Elin Jan 11 at 21:19
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    Well students often don't think group projects are "worth it" but the data on learning says otherwise. I could see reason to think that having students do this, especially if they collaboratively edit the draft, could contribute to learning. It's hard for me to imagine a real book based on student notes though. – Elin Jan 11 at 22:14
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    I didn't say it was the same, I said that the "students think it is worth it" standard may not be a good one. – Elin Jan 11 at 22:24
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It would be unethical for a professor to publish something written by students under the professor’s name without express consent (which is to be given free of any coercive pressure) and coauthorship for the student. (See this recent discussion on a related type of abuse.)

It would also be self defeating and something that no competent professor I’ve met would ever wish to do. Students do not generally write notes at a level that comes close to the level most professors can write on their own. Publishing someone else’s subpar notes under your own name is a sure way to hurt your own reputation even if you do technically get some publication credit.

Setting aside the publication issue, it’s fine to have note-taking as an official course assignment if there is an educational rationale, which there often is. For example in mathematics graduate programs we try to get students to work on improving their mathematical writing skills, which are extremely important for success in research, and some writing assignments of this type are not uncommon.

If note-taking is not an official course assignment but the professor simply asks students to do it on a voluntary basis, the request should be made in a way that makes clear the students should feel free to say no. To put pressure on the students to do things they don’t want to do and that are not an explicit course assignment is unethical, regardless of whether the professor publishes the notes or not, and regardless of whether some payment is exchanged.

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    I really love your second paragraph. Especially "Students do not generally write notes at a level that comes close to the level most professors can write on their own"... and when students are taking turns to do this, there would be 20+ different styles/notation sets and numerous typos... – No One Jan 11 at 22:10
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    Why would typing up notes be worthy of coauthorship? Acknowledgement, sure, but authorship? Surely not. – Jack Aidley Jan 12 at 8:09
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    @JackAidley well, it’s a bit ambiguous I think. My interpretation is that what OP likely means by “type notes” is “write notes based on the professor’s lecture”, which if done well (though it rarely is) involves not just copying but also paraphrasing things the professor said and wrote in class, adding clarifying remarks, filling in missing details etc. Thus coauthorahip would be warranted. But if OP just meant the clerical act of taking someone’s handwritten document and typing it up verbatim on the computer, then I agree with what you wrote. – Dan Romik Jan 12 at 10:44
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    @Ruslan the fact that it’s not easy makes the rationale stronger, not weaker. Research mathematicians have to know how to communicate their ideas effectively in writing to other mathematicians using the standard medium for doing so (LaTeX). A mathematician who doesn’t have this training will be disadvantaged and have diminished career prospects. So I’m not sure where you’re coming from with this comment. – Dan Romik Jan 12 at 20:12
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    @Ruslan and NoOne, the real-time versus not real time question is a distraction. As far as ethics is concerned, what matters is that the professor reasonably believes the assignment will provide an educational benefit to the students, as opposed to assigning it for some corrupt, self-interested reason. It could be that the professor is making a bad decision and that the excessive, real-time note taking ends up distracting the students from the course material. But making mistakes and being unethical are two very different things. – Dan Romik Jan 12 at 22:50
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I have several personal experiences to add to others here.

I was one of four graduate students in George Mackey's course who volunteered to take complete notes. He then used those to write a book. We were thanked in the acknowledgments. I learned a lot. See The Mathematical Theory of Quantum Mechanics.

Once when I decided to write a text after teaching a course I contacted a student who I knew had taken really good notes. I thanked her in the Preface for providing a zeroth draft.

In several courses I taught, students rotated taking notes and posting them on a course web page. (This did not work out particularly well. Most days I think it was useful only for the note taker.)

In none of these cases was pay involved.

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    Maybe it would be helpful (to compare with other comments/answers) to say something about how close the students' notes were to Mackey's actual book. – Kimball Jan 12 at 16:05
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    @Kimball Mackey's text was clearly his work and words. not just an edit of our notes. It was a long time ago, so I can't say for sure how much what we provided him made its way nearly unchanged into the book. Not much. – Ethan Bolker Jan 12 at 16:15
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There are a couple of issues, but, assuming that students don't volunteer and aren't paid, the most important consideration is whether it has an "educational" purpose or not. As you state it, it sounds like you think it doesn't, but I've required my students to take notes, though not for my own use. In fact I've required them to give me back (verbally upon questioning) the most important lesson from either the current or previous lecture.

But there is a clear educational purpose in that. Had I asked for them to be turned in to me to be reviewed, there is still an educational purpose.

I can easily imagine that the professor, indeed, is just forcing them to learn better study habits exhibiting that. But if it is done for purely selfish reasons then it would not be ethical.

However, the professor already has the information, though maybe not in a typed format. They could actually ask for a scribe to take down their lectures if they lecture completely extemporaneously, and pay the scribe.

I was once in a senior level undergraduate course where the students actually had to teach the course. We were given (or chose, I can't remember) topics that we would need to prepare a lecture for a few weeks ahead and we created and presented our lecture. The prof was there and gave us feedback later. I don't remember doing a great job and of getting appropriate feedback, though there wasn't any embarrassment generated by the prof. But we sort of knew whether we were doing a good job or not. The prof was actually one of the best teachers and the best lecturers, so it wasn't laziness. Just a teaching technique.

However, if you are a professor considering any of the scenarios you give, then you should check with the department head that they agree that the motive is educational progress of the students, not exploitation.

And if you are a student who objects to this, explore whether there is an educational purpose, perhaps with the professor and perhaps with a department head. If there is not, then you have a legitimate right to opt out.

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I have experienced this in a couple of instances myself. I took a graduate level Natural Language Processing course in my undergraduate, where the professor would have a student, rotating each class, be a scribe for the lecture. This was more of a volunteer thing where a student took notes for a particular lecture and posted them on the discussion board so that other students could go over the notes and understand the lecture better. There was another case in an honors undergraduate theory class where the professor had students similarly scribe lecture notes in LaTeX, with the incentive that the best scribed notes would receive a small amount of extra credit.

However, as far as paying students for this goes, I haven't seen or heard of an instance of this, because from my experience this would be highly unethical. Same goes for taking notes, and the professor taking credit for it, it could happen, but it's just really unethical for the professor to take full credit for something someone else wrote. I have seen instances where professors have posted notes taken by students, but those instances the professor simply just cited the students who took these notes.

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    Thanks for sharing your experiences. But why do you believe that it is highly unethical for professors to pay students to take notes rather than ask them to do it without paying? I believe it is a little bit unethical for students to ask for pay, though. – No One Jan 11 at 21:46
  • @NoOne Unless they're doing it as a paid job, if this is a volunteer thing among a lecture section it's unethical for a professor to pay a student in that class to scribe for one or a few lectures in a class they're taking. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, and OP may be referring to paid note-takers or TA's taking notes, then it's more ethical, but I haven't seen fellow students get paid for taking notes in my experience. – Daveguy Jan 11 at 21:51
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Is it appropriate for professors to ask students to type notes for their classes (with or without paying students) in United States?

I don't think it's appropriate for a professor to approach individuals to do so, in any situation you've listed, this is because it may seem like undue pressure. Proposing a general solicitation for a volunteer seems fine, however.

  1. Prof pays student for published notes: Seems fine to me.

  2. Prof does not pay student and publishes notes: It's unclear what you mean by "publish." If it's just on their website, then sure? As long as it's not directed at one person. If it's a textbook for which the professor is (nominally) paid, then I do not think this is ethical.

  3. Prof pays students to prepare notes for class: It would be unusual (what if there's not enough slots for everyone?) but not unethical.

  4. Prof facilitates shared doc, no payment: Sure, this happens all the time.

As another example, if familiar with one university would sometimes request a student volunteer to share their notes with a student who had a disability. I do not know if they were paid for their notes.

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    Requiring all students to do something which makes some students uncomfortable is probably a good thing! That is, as long as it's relevant to the class or their careers. It gives those students a chance to improve their weaknesses. – jpaugh Jan 12 at 22:45
  • @jpaugh What? Your comment seems unrelated to my answer. – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 12 at 22:57
  • Your answer says that it's unacceptable for the professor to approach individual students, unless they are volunteers. I disagree, as long as each individual is required to do it, and it's relevant to the course somehow. – jpaugh Jan 12 at 23:13
  • @jpaugh If each individual is required to do something relevant to the course, that's just homework. What I am saying is that a prof should not pick a student and say "Can you take detailed notes for me?" That is undue pressure. It is OK, IMO to stand up on the first day of class and say "I will pay a student $10/week to send me detailed notes," and see if anyone accepts. – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 12 at 23:24
  • Approaching individuals is the opposite of requiring everyone to do it, so I'm not sure how you got there – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 12 at 23:25

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