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When do I need permission to publish student quotations or photos?

The classroom may be a place of research as well as teaching. What pedagogical practices are most successful in helping students grasp course content, write well, or build community? This question may be especially relevant after more than a year of pandemic-era teaching, in which instructors have been asked to rethink their courses and adapt to an online environment. If you’re interested in writing and publishing research on your classes, there are some special considerations to keep in mind.

Quoting from student writing may require some special considerations. Keep in mind that students typically hold copyright in their own writing. Institutions often affirm student’s copyright in work created for courses in the institution’s copyright or intellectual property policies; see, for example, Emory University Libraries Scholarly Communications Office’s “Reusing Student Work” or the University of California Copyright page on “Student works.”

If your work includes quotations from students, you must get their permission before you publish. (For students under eighteen, permission may be needed from a parent or guardian, as well.) You should also find out whether the student wishes to be quoted anonymously or by name. Formal essays, informal response papers, discussion-board posts, artwork, and other unpublished work may all require permission. Copyright applies only to quotations of fixed work, so it may not be necessary to seek permission to paraphrase students’ written work or quote their spoken comments. However, it may be more respectful to seek permission to paraphrase a student’s original argument in detail. Also, be careful about privacy even when paraphrasing students’ words or describing their interactions in class or office hours. Avoid presenting information that could be personal and identifiable, especially if it might be embarrassing in any way.

In addition to quotations from written work, photos of students giving class presentations, performing plays, or participating in a class trip might support your published research. First, consider whether these images are truly needed to make your argument; perhaps readers will still be able to grasp the points you’re making without the visual illustration. If the images do convey something necessary, then additional permission is needed here. If you’re the photographer, then you own the photo (just as authors own their written work), but the people who appear in the photo must also give their permission for their images to be printed.

Your research project may require approval from your school’s institutional review board (IRB) or human subjects review. Consulting the IRB standards will help you figure out when permission is called for—including situations that might not have occurred to you, such as password-protected class blogs or photos of student presentations. Your campus may have other resources, such as a librarian with expertise in permissions. A list of websites with advice on copyright is available on the Ask UP site, and your acquisitions editor will be able to offer guidance for your specific situation.

If you do need to seek permission from students, be sure to start this process as soon as possible. If you know at the beginning of the class that you’ll want to quote from students’ work, that may be a good time to inform students and secure permission, and the IRB standards should offer guidance here. Students may graduate and move away during the time that your article or book is being written, edited, and published; once they’re away from campus, it may be difficult or impossible to reach them to ask for permission. In that case, you may need to make changes to your work in order not to infringe the students’ copyright.

Students often make insightful observations, using memorable phrasing, and their voices can play a valuable role in an essay or book. Handling permissions with care will show respect for them and their work and will keep the publishing process moving smoothly.

—The Modern Language Association, September 2021