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As a relatively new assistant professor, I'm beginning to write recommendation letters for a few students. Recently, a student asked me to write a recommendation letter for him. The web link which was sent to me contains text which reads:

Please note that, under the provision of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance of Hong Kong, information contained in your reference report will be shown to the applicant upon request.

This was extremely surprising to me, because it was my impression that in the US, all recommendation letters are private (i.e., the student is not able to read them). Even though I am employed in Hong Kong, not in the US, I had expected that this practice would be the same in my current country.

Questions:

  1. Am I correct in my understanding that typically students are not allowed to read their recommendation letters?
  2. If it is the case that the student would be able to read the letter, should that affect what I write in the letter?
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    Could you indicate what is your "current country"? I am asking because etiquette around LoRs varies considerably by place - if you look around here in related questions, you'll find that in the U.S., it seems to be common for students to have the right to see their letters, and just as common for them to voluntarily waive that right. At the same time, in some other places where LoRs are maybe not that common, the mere idea that a student would not see what's written in the LoR appears as an alien concept, and LoRs are generally handed directly to the student to be passed on to the recipient. – O. R. Mapper Dec 8 '16 at 13:57
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    For U.S. universities, the student gets to decide whether the recommendation will be confidential. Things may be very different in your own country. (I decline to write letters when the student does not waive the right of access on grounds that a) the student doesn't trust me and b) the institution to which he is applying will possibly give my letter less weight.) – Bob Brown Dec 8 '16 at 14:14
  • @O.R.Mapper I added my current country in the question. – I Like to Code Dec 9 '16 at 6:41
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    Why do you expect that the practice about LoRs in Hong Kong to be the same of that in the US? Related: academia.stackexchange.com/a/71440/20058 – Massimo Ortolano Dec 9 '16 at 7:36
  • Fun fact: as part of my application for a Japanese government scholarship, I had to submit a LoR to my local Japanese embassy. Later, the embassy returned my complete aplication file, including the LoR, for me to forward to the universities I wished to attend, so I saw the LoR. The referer was definitely not aware of this beforehand (neither was I), and I haven't told him since (here's hoping he does not frequent Academia.SE). – fkraiem Dec 15 '16 at 17:09
14

As noted in the comments, law and custom about letters of recommendation differ by country. In the United States, the student does have access to letters of recommendation unless the student waives that right. There will generally be a notice such as the one you describe, letting you know whether the letter is available to the student.

The second part of your question, "should that affect what I write in the letter?" is the more important part because you already know the letter could be available to the student.

It should not affect what you write. The institution to which the student has applied is depending on you for an honest evaluation of the student's abilities. The student presumably believes your evaluation will be a good one, or you would not have been asked to write a recommendation. If that turns out not to be the case, the student may be disappointed; the potential for disappointment should not influence your recommendation.

Although potential access by the student should not affect what you write, it might affect whether you write. As I wrote in a comment, I decline to write letters when the student does not waive the right of access on grounds that a) the student doesn't trust me and b) the institution to which he is applying will possibly give my letter less weight.

Finally, If you would write a negative recommendation, you have an ethical obligation to decline to write a recommendation and to tell the student, at least in general terms, why not.

Encourage your students to talk with you before giving your name as a referee. That will help you avoid problems like this one. Here is what I tell my own students about such letters: http://ksuweb.kennesaw.edu/faculty/rbrow211/recommendations/index.html

  • 8
    Students can waive their right to read the letters, but that does not make the letters confidential. The institution to which the student applied is not required - unless I am mistaken - to keep them confidential. If the student sues you for libel, then surely the letter will be revealed in discovery. Always assume that the referee will read the letter. – emory Dec 8 '16 at 17:04
  • @emory: Your hypothetical libel suit has a chicken-or-egg problem. The letter is needed to decide whether it is libelous. The student who has waived right to access does not have access-by-request to the recommendation letters. Beyond that, one should not write libelous recommendations. – Bob Brown Dec 8 '16 at 17:43
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    @BobBrown I think the point is that even if the student waived their right, the letter is still an educational record and could be subpoenaed someday or ordered released by a court in the event of a (libel or other) lawsuit, and that's something that the author of the letter may not wish to see happen regardless if the letter is libelous or not. It's true that it is highly unlikely to happen, but stranger things have happened. – Dan Romik Dec 8 '16 at 17:48
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    @DanRomik, and moreover, unless I am misreading something somewhere, waiving one's right to access the letter only means that no one is legally obligated to show the letter to the student—in no way (that I can find) does it inhibit the letter recipient's right to show the letter to the student themselves, if they so choose. – Wildcard Dec 9 '16 at 0:22
  • @Wildcard yes of course, that is correct, though I don't quite see how that reinforces (or weakens) my earlier point. – Dan Romik Dec 9 '16 at 0:25
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Legally, in the USA, students are entitled to access their educational records. (I assume that there are similar regulations in some other countries.) This poses an obvious problem with letters of recommendation, the contents of which may ideally be unknown to their subjects; this makes it possible for the recommender to give completely honest evaluations and discourages students from "shopping" for the most positive references.

The solution is that students normally waive their right to view the recommendation letter. Most colleges now have online recommendation systems for references to use, and there is always a prominent notice that the student has waived access to the letter. I have never had to write a letter when this waiver was not in place. I know a couple colleagues, however, who have gotten recommendation requests that did not include the waiver; their solution was to write a polite e-mail to the student, reminding the student to waive access. (That the faculty involved would not be willing to write the letter without the waiver may or may not have been made explicit.)

  • 35
    I realise that this is besides the point, but I never understood why people (in general) are so keen on the student waiving their right. Either you write a nice letter or you refuse to recommend the student... In either case there is little harm in letting the student see the letter... The point about being completely honest is especially ridicules, even if you write a sub optimal letter (for the student) you should do so in way she would understand and in way that that does not induce a mental breakdown... If you can't do this then don't write a letter, ever... – Repmat Dec 8 '16 at 20:12
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    Well said, Repmat. – Navin Dec 8 '16 at 21:12
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    @Repmat One reason for insisting on a waiver is that strong useful letters often offer direct comparisons to other current and former students. But it's really none of student A's business what I think of student B. – JeffE Dec 9 '16 at 4:31
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    @Repmat But without a waiver, Student A has access to the entire letter, including the comparison with student B, which means I can't include the comparison in student A's letter. – JeffE Dec 9 '16 at 4:46
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    @JeffE Per your above case of an LoR written for Student A, one needs to ask does Student B know they are being "compared" (evaluated) in a written document ? If not then you may be violating Student B's rights even if Student A did waive their right to see the LoR. – O.M.Y. Dec 9 '16 at 6:05
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The state of affairs with regards to letters of recommendation in the US represents the very uncomfortable tension that exists between the principle that students should have access to their educational records (a noble idea, to be sure) on the one hand, and the premise (based on an understanding of human psychology) that letter writers become considerably more likely to provide an honest evaluation when they are assured that their letter will be kept confidential from the student, on the other hand.

For this reason, the game of asking students to waive their legal rights has developed, as described in other answers. Ultimately it seems that human nature and human psychology cannot be defeated by a law, however noble and well-intentioned. Thus students end up not seeing their letters in almost all cases, and somehow the world keeps turning.

As for whether what you write should be affected by the lack of confidentiality, that is up to you. It is easy for others to say, as Bob Brown does in his answer, that it shouldn't. Personally I feel that it is a bit inappropriate for any of us to make a recommendation on this point, since we are not you, don't have or know about your personality, and will not be the ones who will be paying the psychological price of our advice. The one practical piece of advice that I agree with (and that I feel is the course of action I would likely take in this situation) is to email the student, explain that as a matter of personal policy you only write letters for students who agree to waive their right, and ask if he/she can kindly click the appropriate checkbox.

4

Not only that the students get to see the recommendation letters, but in at least two countries in EU, you get to discuss with the professor about what to include, so that s/he includes positive things that match the expectancy of the other end.

It is actually just now that I realized that in other parts of the world, the recommendation letters go straight between institutions and do not pass by the students.

3

(Caveat: In my cultural background, hiding references is not customary.)

Am I correct in my understanding that typically students are not allowed to read their recommendation letters?

If you gave a copy of the letter to them, for sure they're allowed to read it. So just do that.

If it is the case that the student would be able to read the letter, should that affect what I write in the letter?

No, it should not in my opinion. If it's a negative recommendation, just decline to write it; and if it's positive, you should still be fair and honest. It should be up to the person you're writing the recommendation to decide whether she/he wants to use what you wrote based on how they feel it reflects upon them.

1

I consulted one university in British who have similar data privacy laws, and the reply I got from their admission office indicates that if I indicate explicitly in the letter or upon providing it, the letter won't be shared with the student without consulting me first (but it's theoretically possible that the university may decide to share the letter anyways with my disagreement, if they see proper to do so). That is, you will have to explicitly indicate that you at least must be asked before releasing the letter to students, in theory.

Whenever you're not sure, you can simply write an email to the program's admission office and ask for an official answer/promise.

Personally, I am someone who either writes a nice letter or refuses to recommend, but I always insist that students I recommend must waive their rights to access my evaluations. The arguments that some comments above on how students can benefit from reading the reference letter are unconvincing. If someone, as the letter writer, feels comfortable sharing advises with the student, he/she can just tell the student face-to-face or directly over emails. Recommendation letter is certainly not the only chance that students can learn about their strengths and weaknesses, and if it is one, it's usually far from the best way to communicate (not only because the letter is not written to the student as its target reader, but also the writer and a student reader may have different interpretations, because the professor have his/her own comparison groups so the evaluations may not match the student's expectation, but this could be better understood by the recruiters especially when the professor has been writing letters to this recruiting program in several years already). The form of a confidential letter not only ensures the recruiters that this letter faithfully expresses the opinions of the letter writer, reducing their concerns of impacting the interpersonal relationship to the minimum level, but moreover, (the letter) may contain confidential information (even it's just summary) regarding the performance of other students which cannot shared with the subject of the letter. I usually tell my students roughly what I wrote in the letter, but I never let them see the letter per-se.

The recommendation process needs to be built on some mutual consensus from the professor and the student. If you don't like the term of waiving the access, don't ``sign the contract'' by requesting my recommendation -- I am by no means the only possible person for students to ask.

0

Under the new General Data Protection Regulations any indevidual in the EU has the right to all personal information held by any private organisation that pertains to them. Most people seem to be interpreting this as including references. Thus while in the UK, at least, it is not customary for students to get access to their references, they could in theory request to see them. Our uni says this about references in its information about data protection:

"References are the personal data of both the referee and the subject of the reference. Therefore they could be released to either party as a result of a Subject Access Request. References should be factually accurate and fair."

I know that many private firms now refuse to give references beyond "yes this person worked for us" because they could be sued if the subject found that anything they wrote prevented them from getting a job.

protected by Alexandros Nov 19 '18 at 21:07

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