News from the Exams Institute, Spring 2012

Perhaps thankfully, it has been a while since I’ve had to use space here to discuss legal matters relating to the Exams Institute. Unfortunately, the concerns related to copyright in general and secure exam copyright specifically, remain. So, I’ll begin this newsletter piece with some clarifying concepts about how ACS Exams and copyright relate.

The Exams Institute has been registering our tests and study guides with the U.S. Copyright Office for years. The exams are registered as secured instruments. This is the same type of copyright that other exams, like the GRE or the SAT, hold. We follow different procedures for filing the copyright, and if you ever went to the Library of Congress to find one of our exams, you’d be shown a highly redacted version, because not a single complete test question shows up in the material deposited with the Office.

Beyond the details of secure copyright, the Exams Institute does everything it can to work with the chemistry education community to maintain security of all ACS Exams. For example, each copy of each exam bears a unique serial number and a permanent faculty member in the department must sign a security pledge committing to efforts to maintain security before a school can obtain any exam. The Institute also subscribes to an internet searching service that provides daily reports of public postings that include reference to any of dozens of keywords related to our exams. The staff at The Institute checks on all the hits that we receive through this service. Sometimes quite odd postings show up, such as the key – just the key – of the 1964 Organic Chemistry exam, which found its way to the internet in the past 5 months. If we do find secure materials through this process, we work with our legal team to have them removed as quickly as possible, and then determine the extent to which they have been distributed. Over the years, exam security has been threatened in this way, but the Institute was either able to ensure exam security or conducted product recalls, providing uncompromised exams to users.

ACS Exams have been around for over 75 years and some misunderstandings regarding the scope of protection the exams enjoy persist. For example, ACS Exams do not enter the “public domain,” as that phrase is used in copyright law. Rather, when new versions of the exam are released, the Institute refers to a subject exam for which two newer versions exist as “inactive.” An inactive exam is subject to copyright protection, and users are still forbidden from posting such an exam on the internet, or copying or distributing it in any other way. Doing so amounts to publishing a copyrighted work without permission, i.e., copyright infringement. There are situations whereby inactive exams might revert to active status, so a general maintenance of security practice remains appropriate for these exams.

Some educators utilize ACS Exams within research projects and have asked what can be published in articles that report on their work. Most importantly, no item from any ACS Exam, active or inactive, can be published in this way. It is possible to use very general descriptions of an item. For example, a report could refer to an item saying it “tested student conceptual understanding of stoichiometry using schematic illustrations” in a research paper. Such a description does not refer to a specific reaction, nor does it indicate the specific area of stoichiometry covered, so it does not impinge on the security of the item described. One set of exams was designed with research studies in mind: The General Chemistry Paired Questions Exams (for 1st semester and 2nd semester). In this case, a paper was published [Journal of Chemical Education, 2011, 88, 1217-1222.] so that researchers could reference examples of what “paired-questions” look like, as well as utilize the statistical analysis provided in the paper.

Educators sometimes also wonder if they can incorporate items from ACS Exams and into their own test for a research project. The short answer is no. The validity and reliability of ACS Exams are established on the basis of the instrument, the whole test, so if items are used in any other way, these measures are not maintained. Accordingly, the Institute does not generally grant permission for this type of work, even if the exam to be used is an inactive exam. However, The Institute may be able to provide limited permission under certain circumstances and we evaluate each request on its own merits. This allows us to support appropriate research while at the same time safeguarding exam security and ensuring that we are in the position to pursue legal action in the event of a security breach or infringement of an ACS exam or study guide. So, to be clear, when it comes to publishing of research, or study materials for students, or any other motivation for publication of items from ACS Exams: This cannot be done without copyright permission from The Institute.

This has been a little on the dry side for a newsletter article, and my apologies for this departure from the norm in this venue. In the summer newsletter, we’ll return to our description of some the exciting new products we’ve been working on. While the legal issues will remain important for The Institute to address for the foreseeable future, our main interest lies in working with the Chemistry Education community to build high quality assessment tools that are useful to anybody who teaches chemistry. If you have ideas for new tests or products that you think The Institute should consider working on, drop me a note. My email is taholme@iastate.edu and I would love to hear from you.

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