Professor files lawsuit to find students who posted exam questions online

CNN/ Newswire | 3/21/2022, 12:10 p.m.
An assistant professor of business at Southern California's Chapman University has filed a lawsuit against five students, whose identities remain …
Chapman Auditorium on the campus of Chapman University. Mandatory Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Originally Published: 18 MAR 22 20:57 ET

Updated: 20 MAR 22 11:13 ET

By Cheri Mossburg, CNN

(CNN) -- An assistant professor of business at Southern California's Chapman University has filed a lawsuit against five students, whose identities remain unknown, alleging copyright infringement for posting exam questions anonymously in an online forum.

According to professor David Berkovitz's attorney Marc Hankin, the students, who took midterm and final exams remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic during the spring semester of 2021, are alleged to have posted elements of the tests on Course Hero, a crowdsourced website dedicated to course-specific study supplements.

Because the professor grades on a curve, Hankin said, Berkovitz believes by posting exam-specific questions on Course Hero, "students may have inflated their grades, penalizing other students who did not cheat."

In an email to CNN on Friday, Chapman University spokesperson Cerise Valenzuela Metzger said the institution isn't involved in the lawsuit.

Metzger also elaborated on the school's policy in this matter, saying "unauthorized posting of exam questions would likely constitute a violation of our academic integrity policy."

"Consistent with our policy, we would encourage the professor to report the incident and students involved to the Academic Integrity Committee for adjudication," she said.

Metzger added that the university's policy allows professors to own copyrights to their work, with limited exceptions, "Professors are free to pursue the removal of their copyright-protected content from websites such as Course Hero, however, we encourage faculty to use internal processes to work with student concerns,"Metzger said.

Goal to help students who didn't cheat

After Berkovitz discovered elements of his exam posted on Course Hero, he requested information from the website identifying the students, Hankin said, but Course Hero declined to provide the information without a subpoena, as stated in its privacy policy. A lawsuit is necessary to obtain a subpoena, Hankin said in an interview with CNN, and he said he expects one to be issued no later than Monday.

With a paid account starting at $9.95 a month, college students from across the globe can pose specific questions on Course Hero with answers promised "in as few as 15 minutes," according to the website.

"Course Hero does not tolerate copyright infringement of any kind and employs a range of preventative measures, investigation, and enforcement policies," the company said in a statement to CNN.

Ironically, the exam elements at the heart of the lawsuit were for a business law class, in which copyright infringement was a topic being studied, Hankin said.

Although the lawsuit includes claims for costs and damages, Berkovitz, who is also a lawyer, said he is not seeking to punish the students financially, but wants to stop the alleged cheating. "He wants to help the students that didn't cheat," said Hankin, acknowledging at this point, "he doesn't know how much harm has been done, if any."

Hankin added professors from universities across the country have been reaching out to Berkovitz, commending him for taking action to help curb cheating.

Once the students are identified, along with the timeline of when the questions were posed, and answers were retrieved, Berkovitz plans to turn the information over to the university to handle any possible honor code violations, according to his attorney.

"If a question was posed during exam time, and a student received answers, it would be a clear indication of cheating," Hankin said.

Course Hero's own honor code spells out what users may and may not use in their quest for answers, and specifically advises against cheating.

"Course Hero never wants unauthorized content on our site and before students and educators upload their content, they must agree to our Terms of Use and Academic Honor Code, which explicitly states they may only upload content they have the right to upload," the company said in a statement to CNN.