As exam time is just around the corner, many of us are scrambling to finish our essays and assignments, and making sure we have notes for all our class lectures and readings. For some people, that includes buying and selling their notes, but does this actually help? Can those who grade our exams tell? Is it even ethical?
Since the Office for Students with Disabilities at McGill decided to stop paying their note-takers this year, there has also been a decrease in the amount, and quality, of content available for those who actually need notes, thus propagating this issue even further.
I decided to contact different members of the McGill community to get a broader understanding of what people think about the impacts of buying and selling notes. I contacted Professor Christa Scholtz, PhD, of the political science department at McGill, to see her views on the issue. When asked her opinions on the ethicality of selling notes, Professor Scholtz said:
“I suppose it depends on what the author’s claims are about the product they are selling. Are they claiming these notes will guarantee you an A-? Or that the notes will save you from a D? Anyone who would believe such a claim is in more trouble than I thought they were in by wanting the notes in the first place. Presumably there is an information asymmetry here, where the purchaser likely cannot evaluate the quality of the product without having done the readings themselves. But of course doing the readings yourself would presumably remove the need to buy the product. I think the adage of buyer beware holds. I have some experience with using a different professor’s notes (eg. when filling in due to illness or sabbatical), and my conclusion was that those (voluntarily shared) notes felt like an ill-fitting suit. Enough perhaps to cover the bare essentials, but never enough to convey actual fluency. There is simply no substitute for reading and distilling the material yourself, even when your note taker has a PhD.”
It seems that Professor Scholtz believes that the real problem is the people who actually believe that buying someone else’s notes will afford them the same level of success as doing the work themselves. Similarly, Claire McPhee, a fourth-year environment student said,
“Reading someone else’s notes is never going to be as good as reading your own—so it’s your own decision if you want to rely on them. I don’t have sympathy for people who just don’t feel like making their own notes.”
McPhee also expressed that, “It feels morally wrong to sell someone your notes. It’s one thing to let your friends or peers borrow notes that they missed out of the goodness of your heart, but to sell them feels like cheating in some way—benefitting from someone else’s laziness or inability.”
I also asked a current TA at McGill (who will remain anonymous) their opinion on the ethics of selling notes. They said:
“I don’t really have a position on the ethics of selling notes, but I do think that this practice makes it easier for students to skip class. A huge part of learning happens during class interactions and can’t be captured in writing.” They also expressed that they, “think it’s appropriate/polite to have the professor’s approval.”
So, it seems there are mixed opinions on the ethics behind buying and selling notes, but there is agreement that it will not provide the same level of information, or allow for the same amount of success as making your own notes.
I also asked the TA if they can tell when students are using the same set of notes, they said, “100%. It’s really obvious when the same set of examples/sources are used. Doubly obvious if there are errors”.
When asked if this affects grading, they said, “I do check for plagiarism, but that’s it. However, it is a bit upsetting to see that a lot of students don’t fact-check and just take someone’s notes as the final authority on the issue.”
So, although the TA can definitely tell when students have bought notes, it may not necessarily impact their grades, just how they are perceived. But, could that consequently create bias when grading?
I also thought it would be interesting to see if the McGill community believes that there should be restrictions on selling notes that are more strongly enforced:
McPhee said, “If people want to sell their notes—fine. If you want to benefit of off others’ circumstances, you can.”
Professor Scholtz took another approach, commenting on the unrealistic nature of this idea, “How exactly is this even remotely enforceable?” she said.
Similarly, the TA expressed that “McGill has more urgent issues to address (mental health, sexual violence, etc.) Nothing can stop people from posting what they want on the web unless legal issues are involved” they also added, that “OSD should just revert to the old model of paying their note-takers. Then the students who actually need notes can get them from an officially sanctioned source”.
So, although this is a widely recognized phenomenon at McGill, there are mixed opinions about its implications. But there is consensus on one thing: restrictions on buying and selling notes aren’t going to happen any time soon.
Images obtained from: