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Professors Call Online Service for Class Notes Dishonest

By Graeme C. A. wood, Contributing Writer

Psychology Professor Richard J. McNally was surprised to learn that the lectures for his introductory psychology course share a Web site with an advertisement for the Discover card.

Someone, apparently one of his students, had paraphrased McNally's lectures and sold them to Versity.com, an online "knowledge center" that collects lecture notes from colleges across the country, then publishes them on the World Wide Web.

"It's news to me," McNally says. McNally says he had heard of services like Versity, but didn't know his own course, Psychology 1, "Introduction to Psychology," was online. "I'm not pleased."

Versity pays students for their notes on 24 Harvard classes, in spite of a longstanding Harvard ban on the sale of lecture notes. For their risk, the note-takers receive about $8 per lecture.

According to Freshman Dean Elizabeth Studley Nathans, selling notes is a serious offense and could mean disciplinary action and a meeting with the Administrative Board.

"Any Harvard student who is employed by or who uses the services of Versity.com or any similar organization, is in violation of College rules regarding the integrity of academic work," Nathans says.

Charles Berman, chief executive officer of Versity, says college administrators have misconstrued the company's mission.

"I think that Versity is dramatically misunderstood. We are focused on being a learning center," not a path-of-least-resistance for students too lazy to wake up for lectures, Berman says. "But if it's used properly, we can create a great product. And that's clearly what we're trying to do."

As of yesterday, Versity had set up Web sites for two dozen Harvard classes--mostly Core classes and popular large lectures--but only 14 of the sites include synopses of lectures. Versity is recruiting note-takers for another 70 or so more.

According to their Web site, Versity covers 3,500 classes on 88 campuses. They do not charge money to view the notes, but they do require that uers register for a username and password.

The sites boast vibrant colors and flashy layout, plus a synopsis of 500 words or so for each lecture. The Web site does carry advertisements for credit cards, Internet companies and other businesses that target college students.

Versity was established in 1998 by Jeff Lawson and three other enterprising undergraduates at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Last year the founders dropped out of university and moved to Menlo Park, Calif., to work full-time on their business.

Take Notes at Your Own Risk

Charles Berman says the company warns all its note-takers that their colleges' administrations may not agree with all of Versity's activities, and that they may suffer penalties or discipline. "Specifically, we absolutely tell people that some campuses find this controversial. We do not happen to agree with agree the policy" of the deans at Harvard, he says.

The penalties note-takers face may be grave indeed.

Harvard administrators point to page 302 of the Handbook for Students: "Students who sell lecture or reading notes, papers, or translations or who are employed by a tutoring school or term paper company [...] may be required to withdraw."

Dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis '68 says Harvard's rules have been on the books for decades, possibly since the 1930s. "Selling lecture notes actually is not a new concept," Lewis says. "As is often the case, the World Wide Web is just an enabling technology for an old practice."

At the beginning of the year, when Versity was recruiting students to take notes for its pages, the Freshman Dean's Office issued a memo warning first-years about companies selling notes, says Nathans.

"The reasons behind [the rule], I suspect, have to do with wanting students to take full responsibility for their own work, and to become engaged as fully in each course as possible," says Senior Associate Registrar Thurston Smith. "It is not difficult for me to imagine that students who go to every class and take their own notes will be more involved in the courses they take."

Notes You Can Trust?

Disciplinary risks aside, professors warn students that the notes may not prove helpful--or even accurate.

Professors whose notes appear on the site say the published notes are generally of poor quality.

Versity executives contacted the anonymous note-takers, but report that they refused to comment.

James E. Davis, Senior Lecturer on Chemistry and Chemical Biology and on Molecular and Cellular Biology, says the notes online from his chemistry class contained "two humongous errors." He held up a copy of the Versity notes on his Introduction to the Principles of Chemistry class in one of his lectures recently.

"I read [the errors] to them and cautioned them that based on that sample, these things are potentially unreliable," Davis says.

Berman says Versity is working to improve the notes' quality. "We've set up an auditing department to improve the consistency and quality of the notes," he says.

Ideally, Berman says, Versity will start partnerships with professors and colleges. The professors could use the Web sites to post information, and they or their assistants could correct problems in the students' notes, Berman says.

Davis says that faculty cooperation with Versity was not out of the question, but would not be desirable, either. "On the one hand, I don't want to give my blessing to this operation, and on the other hand I really hate to see misinformation given to students. I don't know what I would do if I were invited. I don't like the idea of endorsing it," Davis says.

William L. Fash, Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology, called the notes for his classes posted on the Versity site "poor."

"I think these notes are essentially Cliff Notes, and you get what you pay for," Fash says. Fash teaches Foreign Cultures 34, "Mesoamerican Civilations."

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles says he sympathizes with the instructors' frustration, but was not worried about misinformation.

"I can perfectly understand the distaste of members of the faculty who discover that some crude and inadequate summary of their lectures is being offered, but our students are certainly wise enough to understand the very limited value of such things."

Berman, however, says the online notes need not "replace" lectures by professors. "People use notes in innumerable ways," Berman says. He suggests students could use Verity's notes to clarify concepts that they didn't understand in the course of the lecture or as an extra study aid before exams.

Copyright Chaos

Publishing lecture notes online also brings Versity into the murky region of copyright infringement.

"My view is that they're stealing my intellectual property, but I didn't know my course was on it. I'd be happy to join a class-action suit," says Mark Kishlansky, Baird Professor of History. Kishlansky teaches Historical Study B-27, "The English Revolution," a large Core course.

Professors have precedent in claiming ownership of their lecture material. Richard McNally notes that when lectures at conferences are taped and distributed, copyright scuffles ensue.

But Versity.com is on firm legal ground, Berman says. Berman says appellate court decisions from the 1970s had always ruled in favor of note-buying companies. "Two plus two has equaled four for a long time, and professors can't have copyright on that." Frank J. Connors, a university attorney in the Harvard Office of General Counsel, disagrees.

"In terms on a legal level, it seems to me that if students take notes in class of what a professor says--verbatim or almost verbatim--and then publish that, that arguably constitutes a copyright infringement," Connors says. "It's well-established as a matter of law that professors own the copyright on their own lectures."

One professor has started to fight back. Indiana University assistant professor of sociology Mathieu Deflem learned that Versity had his lecture notes in early September, so he immediately wrote and asked them to remove the notes from their site.

"Distributing information is all good and well," Deflem says. "But this is offensive to the relationship between professors and students.

"Teaching is a very specific environment with very specific characteristics, and I as a teacher want to have some control over that environment. Why else would I be a teacher?"

Versity replied with an offer to collaborate on a Web site, Deflem says, but he refused. "They first barge in telling me how to do my job. Do you know what it took me to get this job? I didn't get this job because I'm a pretty boy. You expect their teachers to do their jobs, and not rely on companies run by university drop-outs."

Deflem has since begun an Internet campaign against note-buying services. He maintains a Web site devoted to the issue and has been corresponding with administrators about the problem. Recently, he said, the University of California at Los Angeles has had some success in stopping Versity from buying notes.

Berman says much of the uproar is due to the site's novelty. "Students have for years shared notes, and the universities have had no problems that. Why can't can't they share them through the Web?" Berman asked.

"This is simply applying the power of the Internet to allow people to do that in an easier way. The Web disrupts many of the things we're used to, but if you believe it's acceptable to share notes, then Versity should be in the clear," Berman says. "Whenever something new like this comes along, people get disrupted. The Web is disrupting."

For now, the professors are complaining, and the Web site is growing. Berman says the site will soon feature lists of frequently asked questions for various subjects, plus online study groups.

As an offensive against students who rely on Versity, professors have toyed with the idea of basing exam questions on material omitted from Versity's site.

"If there's money to be made on this, then I should be making it," Kishlansky says. "But that's my view about everything."

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