Last semester I've retaken a course and went through the exam. It was a sit-down exam and all students were present. All students are required put their possessions (phones, cameras, etc.) in their bags and put their bags in front of the room.

The students were not allowed to take the question sheets home.

As I was retaking the course, I feel the need to take a documentation to review my answers and to understand the problems better. So AFTER the exam was finished, I take my bag, grab my camera, and then I asked the supervisor (as the lecturer was not present at the site) whether I was allowed to take a photograph or not while gesturing to show my camera (which I had just taken out of my bag). It was denied and I complied without complaining.

Then I told my friend about that incident. He was quite surprised that I complied with that. He told me that he would take the photograph anyway for his advancement in learning, which he said it would be for the greater good but I can't actually spread / redistribute them as it would break the concept of exam itself.

The usual practice in my campus is that if the question sheets are allowed to be taken home, some students would scan and put them into a compilation and share them to the younger students to study and ponder upon as they will get different sets of questions.

Other than that, students that absent at the exam can take it at a different appointed time with a different set of questions.

So I'm stumped whether I should have taken the photograph or not. I thought it was unethical to take it if taking the sheet home is prohibited, but then my friends thought made me reconsider. If I took the photograph I would not create an unfair advantage for those who took the exam at a different date (if there are any) anyway.

PS: I'm sorry if I attracted heated discussions. And I think there is a misconception here. I don't intend to question the rule itself or trying to deceive myself. I only want to know how ethics and etiquette work as I was quite an anti-social from my childhood and I want to start learning about social life. I also didn't intend to redistribute the photograph at that moment.

PS2: My campus was located in Indonesia. I hope this will help to consider the problem at hand


  • The rule was actually enforced by the Department. It would also be enforced to graduate students (and to postgraduate students IF they have any sit-down exams)
  • .
  • My friend which I mentioned above was in fact a graduate student.
  • The guidelines mentioned not to ask "Undergraduate-specific issues that could not apply to graduate or post-graduate academicians". As this question is also applicable to (at least) graduate students, I think this question is quite appropriate for Academia SE. But if it's still deemed as an inappropriate question by many and was closed because of it, then I'll just accept the closure.

    • 8
      Welcome to Academia SE. I am somewhat skeptical that you actually want to ask what you are asking, as the ethicality of the situation is straightforward to me (you gain an advantage by breaking the rules). I presume that you want to ask about something like the general purpose and ethicality of imposing such a rule, copying exams in the absence of such a rule, or disseminating old exams. If this is the case, please edit your question to clarify.
      – Wrzlprmft
      Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 13:41
    • 48
      In most examinations I'm aware of, having a camera or a phone on your person during an examination is prohibited and can lead to the exam being tainted. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 13:42
    • @Wrzlprmft I don't intend to question the ethicality of imposing such rule. I only mean to ask whether it was ethical to actually take that photograph. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 13:49
    • 4
      @BrianTompsett-汤莱恩 In my campus all students' bags should be put at the front of the room so nobody can't get access to whatever tools the brought during the exam. That's why I have the mean to take that photograph after the exam was finished. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 13:50
    • Vote to close - this is an unclear question, but most interpretations lead to the conclusion that this is inappropriate for this site. Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 17:44

    6 Answers 6


    Taking a photo is effectively equivalent to taking the question sheet home.

    For either of these: it’s not inherently a bad thing, and (as your friend said) it can be good for personal study, and so on. However, it can be used for unethical purposes (passing the questions on to students who haven’t taken the exam yet), so the school have prohibited it. Given this, it is unethical, since it’s breaking a rule (and, moreover, a reasonably justified rule).

    If the rules happen to be written in such a way that they just prohibit “taking the sheets home” and didn’t mention photos, then taking a photo may be allowed by the rule as written, but it is clearly still violating the intention of the rule.

    So yes, the supervisor’s ruling was reasonable, and you were right to comply with it.

    Edit. There is, however, no problem with politely emailing the instructor afterwards and asking if you can get a copy of the exam (or parts of it). No need to mention ethics or taking photos in the email; just say that you’d be grateful to have a copy for your own studying, if the instructor is willing to share it. Maybe the instructor will say yes; maybe no; maybe “yes, but not until next week”. But provided you are polite, and ready to accept a possible refusal, then I don’t think there can be any harm in asking.

    • 34
      The professor didn't return the question sheets SPECIFICALLY to prevent distribution. This is well within the rights of the professor, and not within your rights to evade. Attempts to circumvent this are ethically questionable. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 14:07
    • 31
      @Daerdemandt Occam's Razor. The rule is probably meant to prevent distribution. If you want to question whether it is, ask the teacher in question (as the OP did) don't assume there's a contrived reason for the rule
      – Jasper
      Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 15:37
    • 3
      @Daerdemandt: actually, it was your first comment that prompted me to add the edit suggesting an email. I agree with you, the reason could be something completely different, like recycling, or (more likely in my opinion) could be just to temporarily prevent distribution (if some students are sitting the exam a few days late), and so in that case the instructor may well be happy to send a copy afterwards. My answer aims to be reasonable advice for either possibility.
      – PLL
      Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:02
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      I would add that the OP's mention of the difficulty of the course is irrelevant to the actual question. I bring this up because students (at least in some studies I've read) rationalize academic misconduct when they perceive the task as difficult, or tedious, or not worth the time it would take to do it honestly. Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 16:14
    • 2
      @krillgar I would disagree, for one reason. The OP keeps talking about "the supervisor", which to me implies the person he asked isn't the instructor. I think it's very possible the TA/proctor isn't permitted to let the students take home the test, but the instructor might be willing to, once everyone's finished taking make-up tests, if they were late.
      – Patrick M
      Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 1:59

    The contents of the blank exam, including the questions/formatting/instructions/etc., belong to the person who wrote it. This person retains copyright and all associated rights, unless otherwise given away (or unless otherwise claimed by the employer).

    It is irrelevant why the exam's author does not want to permit photography of the exam. Perhaps the author intends to create a book (or paper or patent), in part with this material. Or, perhaps, as the OP speculates, the author intends to create a future exam, in part with this material. Relinquishing a copy of the exam questions may make any of these more difficult in the future.

    In the OP's question, the student is granted permission to read the exam, and write answers in the designated areas. However, this does not mean that the student is granted additional rights, such as keeping the exam questions, or photographing them. Doing so infringes on the exam author's intellectual property; doing so after being told not to is a flagrant infringement. It would be very difficult to build a persuasive case that doing so is not unethical.

    • 8
      This does not fall within the domain of copyright as the exam is not redistributed or copied any further. Now, the question is not about the lawfulness but about ethics, but the ethical backbone of copyright is avoiding economic damage to the copyright holder. Nothing that the asker intended to do would cause such a damage. A similar thing applies to intellectual property: Unless the asker claims that the exam is their intellectual property, this is not touched. (BTW: With your arguments it would also be illegal or unethical to take photographs of almost anything created by a human.)
      – Wrzlprmft
      Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 18:43
    • 5
      @Wrzlprmft It seems plausible to me that copyright law would cover this circumstance, because taking a photo of something on a piece of paper does make a copy of that content - this is basically what a photocopier does, after all. Taking a photo of a building or sculpture or some arbitrary object would not be similarly equivalent to making a copy. Of course, then you could get into a fair use defense, which might plausibly excuse taking a picture of e.g. a painting, and might or might not be applicable here.
      – David Z
      Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 4:54
    • 4
      @Wrzlprmft No. Copyright subsists in any creative work, whether or not it is intended for distribution and whether or not the author intended to charge for distribution. This most definitely includes exams. The distinction between written works and, say, a building is that a photograph of a written work is a copy of that work, whereas a photograph of a building is just a picture of the building, not a copy of the building. Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 13:44
    • 2
      Note that the OPS original statement involved photographing for the purpose of redistribution Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 3:18
    • 2
      @Agent_L: I am rather familiar with German copyright law, and copying a text for private purposes is explicitly and clearly allowed under § 53 (1) UrhG. By the way: According to the sources I could find, it’s not illegal to take photographs of copyrighted buildings in France, Italy, and Belgium, it’s only forbidden to distribute photographs or similar.
      – Wrzlprmft
      Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 19:47

    If you would have taken that photograph, you would have broken a rule to gain an advantage: Even if the exam is not repeated exactly, you gain information as on what kind of questions to expect and you state yourself that you want to use the photographs to your advance (even if this involves honest learning). Taken the photograph would thus have been unfair against those students who comply with the rules and do not have this advantage. This would clearly be unethical.

    As the exam is not repeated exactly and the same can be achieved with memorising, you may debate over how bad taking a photograph would be. Also you can debate whether the examinor’s approach to exams – relying on the contents being kept secret to some extent – is a good and effective one. All of this does not however impeach the ethicality of taking a photograph. If you do not agree with the rules, complain about the rules first; do not just break them.

    • Thank you for the answer. The second paragraph is a real eye opener. I've never considered that approach at all. :) Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 14:16
    • 1
      I disagreed with the combination of the two parts, i.e. "if (don't-agree) then {do complain; don't break}". In my opinion, you should complain about them when appropriate, and break them when appropriate or necessary. And - it is indeed appropriate or necessary. Example: In my alma mater, they were about to enact this rule precluding people from using the bathroom during exams except during one break in the middle. We (the grad student union) protested, but were ignored. Consequently, we announced that...
      – einpoklum
      Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 16:54
    • 1
      (cont) ... we were rejecting that rule outright, and that we would back anyone who would be penalized in any way for using the bathroom when he/she needed to.
      – einpoklum
      Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 16:59
    • 1
      @einpoklum: Just to confirm, for your "complain and break" case you are referring to rules that you consider unethical, right? Your bathroom example seems to fit into this category. If so then I think we actually don't disagree; just misunderstood one another.
      – user21820
      Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 17:00
    • 1
      @einpoklum: Agreed, sadly. But I'd say your kind of rule-breaking is not anywhere near the norm! If there were more of your kind and less of the usual kind then the world will probably be a better place because those same rule-breakers will not discard rules altogether but put new better rules into place.
      – user21820
      Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 17:13

    Just a comment too long to be posted as comment.

    Even the instructor allowed, I would still suggest you not to do it. If for any reason the questions are leaked (your phone got stolen or hacked, or other people get to see your questions), you'll automatically become a prime suspect. And worse, even the questions were not leaked through you but through other channels, you'll still likely be included in the suspect list.

    This can create a lot of troubles, the instructor will have to remake the exam. And in rare case all the students might have to retake due to possible mass cheating... the list can go on and on.

    Your friend's argument that "he would take the photograph anyway for his advancement in learning, which he said it would be for the greater good" is flawed. First, knowing how to answer a set of exam questions is really not that much more beneficial than knowing how to answer a set of textbook questions or other published/released quiz questions, etc. Second, the benefit of getting this one extra piece of study material is far outweighed by the aforementioned risks and harms.

    If you're concerned about how you performed, you can always try to communicate with the instructor or TA to discuss your approaches after the grade is released.


    These rules often exist to prevent students from making public the exam questions. Unfortunately, there are some Web sites that will publish such exam sheets, and sometimes even pay students to do so.

    When I was teaching, that particular school re-used the same exams on all campuses, and for several years. I'm not commenting on whether this is a good idea, but that's the way it was. We did find a few of our exams on such a Web site.

    • 1
      Hi, Kevin. Thanks for responding to my old question. At that time, I already got a solution. You see, my goal was to get some materials to review on my own, right? Then I won't be needing the photograph, since I can just ask the lecturers for some reviewing materials. I admit, this would have been a simple problem, but I thought about it too much and forgot my goal. Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 5:22
    • 1
      @WidiWidiyanto Totally understood, and a legitimate request. I didn't mean to say that you were doing it, just that one out of a thousand students might, and just to prevent that, we had to control distribution of the exams for everybody. Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 17:23

    If a rule was clearly unfair, then you'd have grounds to protest. Like if the rule said that white students are allowed to make copies of the test but black students are not, there'd be pretty obvious grounds for complaint.

    But barring that, it is surely fair to expect everyone to comply with the rules, whether they like the rule or not. Whether I was the prof or another student, I'd consider it totally unacceptable for someone to say, "I didn't see a good reason for this rule, so I broke it." It is certainly fair and reasonable to ask the purpose of a rule. But it is not justified to break a rule just because you don't see the purpose. Maybe you're not smart enough to understand, or not creative enough, or haven't thought through all the possible scenarios. Heck, maybe you're not dishonest enough to see how others could take advantage.

    And realistically, if breaking the rule does not give you some advantage, then why did you want to break it? If you break the rule and others follow it, then you have an unfair advantage.

    One could argue that if the intent is to prevent distribution, the rule is ineffective, because a student could surely remember at least some of the questions and pass this information on. But you could say the same of any rule or security measure. If the tests are kept in a locked file drawer before testing day, someone might break into the office and steal a copy. If students are prohibited from getting help during an exam, someone might have a miniature radio in his ear with his friend giving tips. Etc. The fact that it is possible for others to break the rules does not justify you breaking the rules.

    • 1
      "Students with photographic memory are allowed to retain a copy of the exam but those who rely on paper as a memory aid are not"
      – Ben Voigt
      Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 18:59
    • @BenVoigt That sounds like the starting of the Xmen's Mutant Registration Act. ;)
      – krillgar
      Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 19:15
    • 2
      @krillgar: I'm just pointing out that the rule IS clearly unfair and discriminatory, unless all examinees are subjected to neuralyzer when leaving the exam room.
      – Ben Voigt
      Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 19:21
    • @BenVoigt Well, okay. But by that reasoning, history tests are discriminatory because students with good memories for dates and places get good grades while students with poor memories get bad grades.
      – Jay
      Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 5:18
    • 1
      @Jay: There's a reasonable argument that such history tests are discriminating, rather than discriminatory - their explicit purpose is to discriminate between students with good memories for dates and places and those with bad memories for the same. There's a reasonable argument that history should be about more than just dates and places, but that's a separate issue. Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 10:19

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