Chapter 4: Ethical Issues in Academic Resource Sharing

Jeff Lowry

Over the past decade, a new type of online educational marketplace of ideas has developed. Rather than creating small study groups to discuss class notes and tackle difficult assignments, post-secondary students can now use online platforms to connect with thousands of other students across the world studying similar topics. Academic resource sharing (ARS) sites such as Quizlet ( [New Tab]), Chegg ( [New Tab]), and Course Hero ( [New Tab]) have emerged as popular platforms. Quizlet was visited by one-third of American college students in 2018 (Wan, 2018), while Chegg boasted 30 million users worldwide as of 2019 (McKenzie, 2019). Course Hero has 1 million paid subscribers and 400 million visits per year (Lederman, 2020). It is not difficult to see why ARS sites are so popular. Quizlet contains over 200 million user-created study sets, along with an AI-powered option that builds unique study plans for individual users (Wan, 2018). Chegg began as a textbook rental company but has expanded to offer detailed homework responses, answers to problem sets, and access to experts who can assist with solutions (McKenzie, 2019). In a similar manner, Course Hero has developed into a broad platform that allows students access to course syllabi, essays, exams, and instructors’ presentation materials (Lederman, 2020). Simply by accessing one portal, students have access to an array of information such as class notes, study guides, sample essays, and assessment materials — access that would have been considered unthinkable by their counterparts a generation ago.

Although ARS sites offer undeniable benefits in terms of allowing students to access materials and receive assistance, these platforms have come under criticism from educators and administrators. As will be discussed, there have been a number of high-profile cases of students improperly using material from ARS sites. Quizlet, Chegg, and Course Hero all have policies aimed to prevent uploading of unauthorized materials, but given the size of their databases and the amount of material added on a daily basis, enforcement has been inconsistent (Gillis, 2019). Consequently, this chapter will examine the ethical issues that have arisen due to the proliferation of academic resource sharing sites, with the aim of identifying best practices that students, instructors, and administrators can follow to reduce the likelihood of academic dishonesty.

Section 1: Description of Ethical Issues in Digital Teaching and Learning (Full Disclosure)

The proliferation of academic resource sharing sites has had a significant impact on both traditional and digital learning. On the positive side, ARS sites allow students to apply their digital literacy skills as active participants in the Web 2.0 era. In fact, ARS sites fulfill the four main digital literacy skills sets outlined by Hockly (2012): language-based literacies (being able to navigate and interpret multimedia-based sites), information-based literacies (understanding how to search for, manage, and critically evaluate online materials), connection-based literacies (knowing how to generate digital content as part of a network), and re-design based literacies (being able to take existing materials and build upon or repurpose them for other uses, including copyright and plagiarism knowledge). As noted by Gillis (2019), active participation in ARS sites leads to “empowering students and giving them more ownership over their learning processes” (p. 225). By consulting experts on sites such as Chegg, students can learn to negotiate the meaning of course material, and to gain a deeper understanding of it. ARS sites also allow users to connect with peers across the world; as stated by the director of academic technology at Marist College, “imagine business students at Stanford, Marist, University of Beijing, and the University of Paris connecting up outside their courses to study together and maybe even work on team projects . . . This may become the ‘study group’ of the 21st century” (Kolowich, 2009, para. 17).

Increasingly, however, ARS sites represent a challenge to traditional university academic honesty policies. Universities have academic misconduct policies often outlining prohibited behaviours. At the University of Calgary, for instance, these include cheating, fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, and unauthorized assistance (University of Calgary, 2019a). Within the category of cheating, two examples may pertain to ARS sites: “having, using, or attempting to use unauthorized materials or devices for assistance in completing academic activities” and “obtaining assistance from another person in completing coursework, such that there is a real question whose work is being assessed” (University of Calgary, 2019b, p. 4). The two other largest universities in Alberta, the University of Alberta and the University of Lethbridge, have similar definitions of cheating. Recent years have seen instances of students finding exam answer keys on ARS sites. At Texas Christian University in 2018, 12 students were suspended after they used answers found on Quizlet to complete a final exam. They claimed that they did not realize the practice exam would be the same as their final exam, but the university argued that it was the students’ responsibility to report that they had already seen the questions (McKenzie, 2018). Additionally, in 2019, administrators at Brandon University discovered that a number of nursing students had obtained the answers to their final exam from a private test bank uploaded to an unnamed website. In this case, however, the students were allowed to take an alternate version of the exam, though with a penalty applied (Man, 2020).

Given the potential for cheating and violating academic integrity, ARS sites have developed strict policies about proper use. Many of these policies stem from a deontological approach, which stresses the importance of following clearly defined rules on right and wrong behaviour (Farrow, 2016). Chegg, Course Hero, and Quizlet all have their own versions of honour codes which emphasize that users must not violate their institutions’ academic honesty policies. Quizlet, for instance, states, “It’s simple: don’t cheat. Quizlet is meant for learning, not cheating. Test banks, exam questions, or other confidential course content should not be shared publicly on Quizlet” (Quizlet, 2020, bullet point 5).

For ARS sites, there are also consequentialist considerations (Farrow, 2016) in wanting to prevent students from cheating. High-profile cases such as TCU or Brandon University could lead universities to take an adversarial perspective. In 2019, professors at Purdue University spoke out against the integration of Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) with Chegg’s writing tools. As one professor argued, “I don’t know why we are lending our hard-earned reputation to a company that is essentially making it easy for students to cheat” (McKenzie, 2019, para. 2). Chegg stressed that it was working hard to prevent cheating, and the integration went ahead as planned. Failing to address cheating could also have negative financial consequences for ARS sites. In defending the partnership, the director of OWL noted that Chegg has a “fiduciary and shareholder responsibility to be ethical and responsible” (McKenzie, 2019, para. 11).

Section 2: Connection of Ethical Issue to Privacy, Data Security and Informed Consent

So far, this chapter has focused on ARS sites mostly from the perspective of students and institutions, but there is one more group that is intricately involved — post-secondary instructors. In many cases, instructors have had their presentation notes, study materials, quizzes, and syllabi uploaded without their knowledge or consent. One professor from Auburn University, for instance, discovered that several notes, articles, and study aids had been copied from his website to Course Hero (Halford, 2010), while a biology professor at Georgia State University came across a set of her final exams while searching Quizlet (Spence, 2018). A faculty member at UCLA whose study guides appeared on an ARS site reflected that “(w)e were already in the digital age, but it still felt like cheating to me . . . I still viewed it pretty antagonistically” (Lederman, 2020, para. 2). Although more instructors are learning about the challenges posed by ARS sites, this awareness is far from universal. A 2019 poll by Course Hero, for example, found that only 43% of educators had heard of their site (Lederman, 2020). In recent years, ARS sites have tried to reach out to educators and include them as partners in disseminating knowledge. Course Hero and Quizlet include sections for instructors to sign up and share materials; as of 2019, 30,000 instructors had created profiles on Course Hero, though it is not clear how many of the profiles were in active use (Lederman, 2020). Ultimately, given the number of ARS sites in existence, it is not surprising that instructors are having difficulty keeping up with potential misuse of their material.

A personal analysis of Course Hero postings relating to the English departments at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta found a patchwork of adherence to copyright and intellectual property rules. From the University of Calgary English department, for example, 295 documents have been posted as of April 2020; they comprise a mix of lecture notes, study review notes, course outlines, essays, and assessments. While most of the uploads are either summaries or student-generated study materials, three documents appeared to violate Course Hero’s rules: a PDF copy of Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House, along with two scanned tests that included answers. Other documents fell into a grey area, such as course notes including slides that appeared to be from a professor’s lecture, with no indication that the professor had given permission for them to be uploaded. The University of Alberta English department section, with 465 documents, yielded similar results. Some assessments were clearly labelled as sample exams for study purposes, though again with no clear permission given to share. However, an entire set of quizzes was uploaded from one introductory level course in 2014. There were also a number of course outlines and rubrics present, which are covered under intellectual property regulations. In addition, both university sites contained many examples of uploaded student essays, which will be covered in more detail in Section 3, as they raise the potential for plagiarism.

The final consideration in terms of privacy, data security and informed consent pertains to the personal information that users agree to share when signing up for ARS sites. Course Hero, Quizlet, and Chegg all have detailed privacy policies outlining what information they gather from users and how that information can be utilized or shared. All three sites store standard personal information given upon signing up (i.e. name, email address, school, gender, and birthdate), but promise not to share personal information with third-party sites. They also make use of cookies and other tracking technologies, which may lead to targeted advertisements based on usage. If users choose to upgrade to a paid version, their credit card information is not stored on the ARS site. Overall, it would appear that ARS privacy policies are similar to other websites that require personal accounts, and, to date, there have been no reported data breaches. However, as with any other website, users must familiarize themselves with how their personal information is stored and used. In fact, a recent survey revealed that 91% of users agreed to the terms and conditions of a hypothetical social media site without actually having read them (Cakebread, 2017). Users do have control over what additional information they choose to include. On Chegg, for instance, users can create an optional personal profile with a photograph and information about personal and academic interests. In this case, users could rely on their digital literacy skills to decide how much or how little they want to add.

As with using tests for cheating purposes, a deontological perspective (Farrow, 2016) can be applied to the issue of informed consent. Simply put, posting an instructor’s copyrighted material without consent is in clear violation of institutional and website policies on acceptable use. However, the issue can also be approached from a consequentialist perspective (Farrow, 2016). By using notes or study materials posted without analyzing their usefulness, students may actually end up harming their learning. The Purdue professor who opposed working with Chegg further stated that “(i)f this were a site that genuinely helped students to master the materials, it wouldn’t be a problem. But it’s not set up like that — it dangles the solution in front of students” (McKenzie, 2019, para. 2). Additionally, as noted in Young (2010), students who take shortcuts in learning class material tend to perform poorly on assessments. On a positive note, instructors can stress that developing one’s own notes and materials can lead to more positive outcomes. As they progress, students can also be encouraged to learn about the ownership they possess over their own work, thus considering informed consent from a virtue ethics standpoint (Farrow, 2016). Chegg has also attempted to address academic honesty from this perspective, explaining to students why it is important to adhere to academic honesty policies. Their Chegg Intellectual Property Rights Owner (CHIPRO) program includes an FAQ section about why posted notes need to be paraphrased and how individual professors may have differing perspectives on posting material from their classes (Chegg, 2020). It must be noted that the CHIPRO program link is located along with dozens of others in their terms of use, which students are unlikely to seek out. However, it is a good alternative to simply state not to do this.

Section 3: Connection of Ethical Issue to Educational Integrity by Avoiding Harm and Minimizing Risk

In addition to cheating on tests and violating copyright infringement rules, ARS sites raise the risk of students engaging in plagiarism. Plagiarism represents a significant and continuing challenge to post-secondary institutions. A 2014 survey of Canadian universities discovered that plagiarism made up over 50% of reported cases of academic misconduct, more than double the next most common category of unauthorized assistance (Moore, 2014). For students looking for an easy source from which to plagiarize, Course Hero in particular represents an open marketplace. The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary English department sections on Course Hero each contain over 100 essays, projects, or writing assignments. It must be noted that users are not in violation of Course Hero’s terms of use by sharing their own written materials; however, copying others’ materials is a clear infraction. In addition to simple copy-and-paste plagiarism, there is also the potential for getting assistance with finding solutions on ARS sites. Chegg Study, which is available for $15 a month, contains a section called “Ask an Expert Anytime” in which students can post a picture of their homework problem and receive a solution in 30-45 minutes (Chegg, 2020). The site also contains a database of more than 20 million homework solutions (Chegg, 2020). Unless it is forbidden by the professor, getting outside help with difficult problems is a valid approach that could be compared to asking a friend for help. However, the existence of so many prepared answers surely raises the odds of students submitting copied answers.

The development of the Web 2.0 era may be impacting how university students view plagiarism. Collaboration through platforms such as Wikis has become commonplace, and the rise of blogging and social media has led to what Haitch (2016) refers to as “patch writing: a new kind of writing style . . . (in which) younger people, especially, create blogs and posts by piecing together large chunks from various sources” (p. 267). With ideas being shared and remixed so easily, traditional forms of academic-style attribution are not feasible, as it can be difficult to ascertain exactly who has contributed what (Haitch, 2016). The use and sharing of images is another area in which the Internet has challenged longstanding views of plagiarism. Haitch (2016) compared images found online to “toys left indefinitely in the sandbox of a public park” (p. 272), making proper attribution nearly impossible. Interestingly, some research has shown that students view plagiarism from internet sources as less serious. Heckler and Forde (2014) found that 35% of students believed using ideas from the internet was a justified form of plagiarism since the internet was developed as an open way to share information. Some students also believed that copyright laws did not apply to work published on the internet (Heckler & Forde, 2014).

The preceding paragraph should not be taken as an argument that instructors should accept assignments that contain plagiarized work. Rather, it suggests that a strict deontological approach (Farrow, 2016), expecting students not to plagiarize simply because there are rules forbidding it, is not sufficient on its own. From a consequentialist perspective (Farrow, 2016), instructors can stress the importance of adhering to plagiarism regulations in order to avoid punishment; the existence of plagiarism checkers like makes it easier for instructors to spot transgressions. A more positive consequentialist approach could focus on the importance of proper referencing style in achieving a higher grade, as most university rubrics contain a category assessing citations and referencing. Another approach, which takes virtue ethics (Farrow, 2016) into account, is to encourage students to reflect on their understanding of plagiarism. For instance, students could consider the differences between remixing existing material online and copying sentences from various sources as part of an essay. As creators of digital work, students could also gain an understanding of why giving proper credit is important. This would help to develop critical thinking skills in a digital context, which Gillis (2019) claimed is “a valued skill as part of an increasingly digitally enabled society and labour market in which information is a core resource” (p. 215).

Section 4: Connection of Ethical Issues with Respect to Participant Autonomy and Independence

ARS sites have become a fact of life for post-secondary institutions over the past decade; banning students from using them would be impossible. Therefore, all stakeholders should focus on best practices to ensure that students can learn from ARS sites in an autonomous manner, while ensuring that academic honesty codes and intellectual property rights are followed. One major push needs to come from the institutional level. Post-secondary institutions must develop specific policies related to ARS sites that students learn as part of their onboarding. The good news is that some Canadian universities have already done so. The University of Toronto, Queen’s University, and McGill University all have specific wording in their academic integrity policies specifying proper use of ARS sites. The University of Toronto presents students with potential scenarios and outcomes related to posting notes online — a consequentialist approach — as well as strategies that students can use to become more effective learners — a virtue ethics approach (Academic Integrity at U of T, n.d.). However, other university policies could be more explicit. The University of Calgary makes reference to file-sharing websites when giving examples of unauthorized assistance, but does not specifically mention ARS sites as part of their overall policy. Creating a separate subsection relating to ARS sites appears a possible starting point for providing clarity to students.

Naturally, it is essential to find ways to properly communicate that information, which is where instructors can contribute. Including an overview of academic integrity policies as part of class orientation would prove beneficial. In addition, instructors could have students discuss scenarios related to academic integrity. This would help students to understand their positions as creators and contributors of content, which is an important part of developing expertise in information literacy (Gillis, 2019). Addressing academic integrity in a proactive manner would also be more productive than assigning punishment after students violate rules (Gillis, 2019). Instructors could also place notices on their materials reiterating that they are not to be shared. On the other hand, instructors could also decide that they will allow students to share certain materials online. Giving permission in the form of a Creative Commons license would clearly delineate how others could use uploaded material while helping to build students’ knowledge of proper methods of online resource sharing (Gillis, 2019). Finally, instructors could expand their range of assessments in order to avoid the possibility of tests or answer keys being leaked. Students could complete an in-class problem-solving activity, for example, rather than doing a multiple-choice quiz from a standardized test bank. Although modifying and updating assessments involves extra work, it is a recommended practice for educators and is likely more effective than searching multiple sites for copies of assessments (Lienick & Esparza, 2018).

Finally, students can take a more nuanced approach to ARS sites. The ad hoc rules that exist on other digital platforms are different from the stricter rules that apply when university policies on academic honesty are involved. As previously mentioned, one crucial part of information-based literacy is critically appraising online materials. Students should keep in mind that ARS sites are businesses first and foremost. They all provide limited free access but charge monthly fees for full access to materials and experts. This may prove a barrier for students of limited financial means, so they need to weigh the benefits of signing up for a paid membership. Students also need to be vigilant in assessing the source and validity of uploaded materials. In one healthcare finance class, for instance, over half the class gave similar but incorrect answers to an exam question; the instructor later discovered that the students had been using an ARS study guide that contained numerous errors (Lienick & Esparza, 2018). Instructors could assist by providing students with examples of learning being harmed by improper use of ARS sites. Ultimately though, students will have to apply their knowledge about academic honesty. ARS sites do not actively police themselves, and requests to remove material can only come from the rights holders. It is inevitable that students will encounter copyrighted material, assessments, or essays, but if they can apply their digital literacy skills and analyze the use of material from a proper ethical standpoint, they will be more successful in using ARS sites in a positive manner.


The challenge of ensuring that students follow rules of academic integrity is not new, but it has become more difficult in the age of ARS sites. If students are unfamiliar with the pitfalls of using these sites, they are likely to run afoul of institutional policies, whether intentionally or unintentionally. They also run the risk of becoming overly reliant on information uploaded by others, which could have a detrimental effect on the development of critical thinking skills. This became all the more likely in the age of emergency distance learning that North American institutions dealt with beginning in the spring of 2020. Instructors rapidly converted to modes of online instruction, uploading documents, and recording lessons for student use. Adherence to academic honesty rules become more important than ever as students work from home and become increasingly reliant on online resources. However, if used properly, ARS sites have the potential to deliver benefits to students who are isolated and do not have access to university libraries or in-person study groups. Instructors could also use this opportunity to explore the range of services offered by ARS sites and to figure out ways to incorporate them into their instruction. It is not yet clear what the results of emergency distance learning will be, but there is an excellent opportunity for students, instructors, and institutions to learn from one another and gain a greater understanding of how to use ARS sites in a constructive and ethical manner.

Note: A summary of the principles of ethics as described by Farrow (2016) and how they apply to ARS sites can be found in Appendix A.


Cakebread, C. (2017, November 15). You’re not alone, no one reads terms and service agreements. Business Insider.

Farrow, R. (2016). A framework for the ethics of open education. Open Praxis, 8(2), 93-109.  

Gillis, R. (2019). “Caring about sharing”: Copyright and student academic integrity in the university learning management system. In S. Benson (Ed.), Copyright conversations: Rights literacy: Rights literacy in a digital world (pp. 211-232). Association of College and Research Libraries.

Haitch, R. (2016). Stealing or sharing? Cross-cultural issues of plagiarism in an open-source era. Teaching Theology & Religion, 19(3), 264-275.

Halford, B. (2010, February 22). Professors cry foul over website. Chemical & Engineering News.

Heckler, N., & Forde, D. (2014). The role of cultural values in plagiarism in higher education. Journal of Academic Ethics, 13(1), 61-75.

Hockly, H. (2012). Digital literacies. ELT Journal, 66(1), 108-112.

Kolowich, S. (2009, October 6). Course hero or course villain? Inside Higher Ed.

Lederman, D. (2020, February 19). Course Hero woos professors. Inside Higher Ed.

Lienick, C., & Esparza, S. (2018). Collaboration or collusion? The new era of commercial online resources for students in the digital age: an opinion piece. Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practices, 16(3), 1-8.

Man, B. (2020, February 2). Brandon University says ‘pirated’ test bank led to compromised nursing exam. The Globe and Mail.

McKenzie, L. (2018, May 14). Learning tool or cheating aid? Inside Higher Ed.

McKenzie, L. (2019, March 12). The wrong partnership? Inside Higher Ed.

Moore, H. (2014, February 25). Cheating students punished by the 1000s, but many more go undetected. CBC News.

McGill University. (n.d.). Protecting your intellectual property as instructors. Student Rights and Responsibilities.

Queen’s University. (n.d.). Intellectual property.

Quizlet. (n.d.). Community guidelines.

Spence, N. (2018, September 4). GroupMe cheating: What professors have to say. The Signal.

University of Alberta. (n.d.). Student conduct and accountability. Office of the provost and vice president.

University of Calgary. (2019a). Student academic misconduct policy.

University of Calgary. (2019b). Student academic misconduct procedure.

University of Lethbridge. (2019). Institutional policies and procedures.

University of Toronto (n.d.). Academic integrity.

Wan, T. (2018, February 6). Quizlet raises $20 million to bring more artificial intelligence to its study tools. EdSurge.

University of Calgary Student Success Centre. (n.d.). What is academic integrity?

Young, J. (2010, March 28). High-tech cheating abounds, and professors bear some blame. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Appendix A

Table 4.1 Completed ethics in digital teaching and learning based on Farrow’s (2016) Uncompleted Framework
Principle Duties and Responsibilities (deontological) Outcomes (consequentialist) Personal Development (virtue)
Respect for participant autonomy
  • ARS sites must clearly describe what is available in their free and paid versions.


  • Students may encounter incorrect information if they do not apply digital learning skills.
  • Instructors can explore the possibility of sharing materials, potentially with a CC License.


  • Students can develop their digital literacy skills by assessing material found on ARS sites.


Avoid harm/ minimize risk
  • Users must adhere to ARS and institutional guidelines on academic integrity.




  • There is the potential for failure, suspension, or expulsion if academic integrity guidelines are violated.
  • Students can achieve stronger grades if they follow referencing guidelines.


  • If students cheat, they will not build knowledge or develop critical thinking skills.
Full disclosure
  • Institutions and instructors must provide students with clear policies on ARS sites during orientation.
  • ARS sites need to include honour codes for users.
  • Students can gain empowerment and build knowledge through the proper use of ARS sites.
  • If ARS sites enforce their own rules, they can achieve improved collaboration with institutions.


  • Students can develop their collaboration skills in a digital environment.
Privacy & data security
  • Sharing without consent violates the privacy of instructors’ tests & other materials.
  • ARS sites must protect users’ personal data.
  • If students do not read the terms and conditions, they will not become informed about how their information will be used.


  • Students can learn about the importance of data security and decide what personal info they want to share.


  • Institutions must protect their reputations from cheating scandals.


  • Institutions must enforce their academic integrity policies to the degree necessary to maintain their integrity.
  • Students can evaluate the differences between remix literacy and plagiarism.
  • ARS sites must represent an option for learning, not a requirement.


  • Students can use their knowledge of academic integrity to use ARS sites in a positive manner.


  • Students can discover and reflect on the positive uses of technology in learning.
  • Students will become more well-rounded and independent learners.
Informed consent
  • Many instructors don’t know their materials are being shared; thus, they can’t give consent.
  • Stealing others’ ideas violates attribution norms,


  • Without informed consent, instructors’ copyrighted materials may be remixed and used in any number of other contexts.
  • Students can learn how to offer informed consent when sharing and remixing material.


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