Online Test Posting Stirs Fair-use Debate

    Imagine a place where you could score prizes for sharing old finals and midterms — where by simply providing your professor’s name and the title of your course, you could gain access to last year’s chemistry or physics final, for free. Good news — St. Louis University graduate Demir Oral has created a Web site that fulfills your every finals-week fantasy.

    PostYourTest.com, sponsored entirely by ads to avoid usage fees, brings in over 1,000 registered users and approximately 50,000 visitors a month. There are over 500 posted tests: some from Harvard, Notre Dame and St. Louis University, but the majority of which come from our very own campus.

    As UCSD contributes approximately 90 percent of this site’s posted tests, concern has arisen among faculty regarding issues such as academic integrity and copyright violations.

    Students and professors post old exams online in exchange for coffee cards, gas cards and electronics. The site follows a points-per-post system in which users earn two points per test posted, which can then be exchanged for rewards. Exams can be posted anonymously, and individuals do not have to be registered users in order to view them. However, only registered users are able to participate in the reward system.

    Oral, who took a summer physics course at UCSD, was inspired to create the site after taking a test his junior year at St. Louis University. On his way out, he overheard two students discussing an old exam they had studied from. Oral thought it was unfair that only select students were able to gain access to these resources, and wished the valuable study material could have been available to everyone.

    “I had to always study hard, and I would have appreciated professors’ previous tests to reference so that I could not only get a feel for how a professor tests, but also for how difficult this class is going to be,” Oral wrote on the Web site.

    PostYourTest.com was launched in November 2007, but only gained its current popularity after a series of news reports in June 2008.

    Former UCSD Academic Senate chairman and biology professor Jim Posakony said he is uneasy about students using the site.

    “I react [unkindly] to someone acquiring a document from other than the copyright owner and making it public,” Posakony said. “The instructors may have no intention of making their exams available to the public.”

    Amid growing controversy, a “banned list” was created on the site in which professors could make sure their material wasn’t posted. Oral said that 20 to 30 percent of the request forms for the opt-out list were submitted incorrectly, such as failing to indicate the identity of the professor. As a result, the site is no longer adding instructors’ names to the list; however, the site continues to honor all previously made requests.

    In June, the UCSD Academic Senate decided to take a different approach. Associate Campus Counsel Daniel Park contacted Oral asking if the university could submit a blanket opt-out list in which professors wishing to ban their tests from the site could fill out customized forms, collectively gathered and sent to PostYourTest.com. Oral consented, and approximately 170 UCSD professors added their names to the banned list.

    Despite questions of academic morality, Oral defends the use of old tests as a valuable study guide and resource for students.

    “Sharing old exams is a study method, not cheating,” Oral said. “It gives an outline of what professors can ask. Professors can also use this site to improve their old curriculum in such a way that students can have an understanding of how that professor is going to administer the exam, as well as set up a better exam.”

    Student opinion of the controversy surrounding the site generally falls on Oral’s side.

    “It’s not considered cheating because the tests that you’re looking at are not the same ones you’re going to be receiving,” Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore Nathalia Torres said. “It serves as a good study guide because it gives a good outlook on what the professor expects you to know.”

    Posakony, who was involved in the UCSD Academic Senate’s response to the Web site, said it was important for the senate not to take sides, but to instead respond to the site in a neutral manner by informing the faculty of the situation and their options.

    “Senate was in a position that was careful — we didn’t want to presume that all faculty would be opposed,” Posakony said. “We felt like whatever we did it couldn’t be something that shut down the Web site; it had to be up to the professor. Some faculty felt it was almost their duty to give students access to tests and answer keys, while others were appalled.”

    The senate’s opt-out list is no longer an option. Instead, if a professor wants their material taken off the site, they must wait until one of their exams is posted and then request that the content is removed. This request must follow the guidelines for completing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown request, posted on the Web site to alleviate concerns of copyright violation.

    All professors in the UC system legally own the copyright to their exams, so Oral faces the possible accusation that posting this material without the consent of the copyright owner is, in fact, illegal.

    Oral argued that the site does not infringe on copyright laws, asserting that all copyrighted material is removed when requested, in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Other Web sites such as YouTube also use this act in their regulated removal of copyrighted material.

    “We do and will honor all properly submitted opt-out requests,” Oral said in an e-mail.

    However, whether or not the copying and distribution of these online exams abide by “fair use” — the manner by which copyrighted material is allowed to be used without the permission of the owner — is still up for debate.
    Posakony said that posting these exams does not constitute fair use, as it grants access and distribution to a larger group of people than was intended originally.

    “When you post an exam on a Web site with free access, then in principle, millions of people could copy, print and further distribute it,” Posakony said. “It is still an undecided question as to whether or not this particular use of exams constitutes fair use or not.”

    Posakony added that the debate over whether the site violates copyright laws could possibly be grounds for a future legal suit.

    “If [the Web site] brings a ground flow of anger from all the UCs, I could imagine legal action being taken,” Posakony said.

    However, as of now, UCSD is the only UC campus that is significantly influenced by the site, and reactions vary among faculty and students.

    “I think there are good things about PostYourTest.com,” economics professor Kate Antonovics said in an e-mail. “For years, fraternities and the like have kept copies of old exams from various classes. PostYourTest.com just levels the playing field; now any student can gain access to old exams. What’s more, it drives home to instructors the importance of writing new questions each year.”

    John Muir College freshman Elena Coupal is also on Oral’s side.

    “Obviously they’re not going to use the same midterm every time,” she said. “I don’t understand what the problem is because it would be good practice for the students.”

    Meanwhile, Thurgood Marshall College senior Raymond Robles sympathizes with professors that are frustrated by the site.

    “I support free exchange of information, but I understand how this could be really irritating and counterproductive for faculty,” Robles said. “If they want to cut down on academic dishonesty, they should change tests.”

    Oral plans to make his Web site as global as possible. He added that an individual from the Arab country Oman recently posted an exam on the site. Oral also plans to expand PostYourTest.com by making standardized tests such as the MCATs and LSATs accessible for free.

    “I feel that PostYourTest.com will have a large impact on the improvement and evolution of higher education for both students and professors across the world,” Oral said in an e-mail.

    Whether it results in students gaining access to better study guides, professors changing their exams on a regular basis or action taking place in the courtroom, the Web site has undoubtedly made an impact.

    “We as professors have entered a new era in which information and documents are so much more distributable and accessible than they ever were, and we have to take this into account,” Posakony said. “We have to respond to this one way or another, either by adjusting practices accordingly or through legal action.”

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