In the summer of 2020-21 two undergraduate students examined the publicly available web content of five commonly used ‘Buy, sell, trade’ file-sharing websites as part of a supervised short-term research project. This research aimed to improve understanding of the characteristic features of such file-sharing services which in turn can create potential ethical challenges for students and have implications for higher education institutions.

UQ Research Intro 

Research Approach

To find the most popular file-sharing services used by students, the principal supervisor (CS) asked members of the Australian National Academic Integrity Network listserv, about the most commonly used file-sharing sites by students at their institution. Representatives from twenty universities provided 66 responses, and five sites stood out clearly (Course Hero (n=16); Chegg (n=13); Studocu (n=13); StudentVIP (n=5); and Thinkswap (n=3). The team adapted a data analysis framework by Kim and Fesenmaier (2008) that used a user ‘first-view lens’ and included the following:

  • A brief description of each website.
  • An initial site-user experience map (built without subscribing to the website services).
  • Distinguishing features of each website.

We also completed a comparative analysis of the free, transactional, or paid services offered on each site and also the persuasive marketing techniques used by the websites. The complete dataset is available at DATASET: Characteristic features of ‘buy, sell or trade’ file-sharing websites - Student as Partners Summer Research Project 2020-2021 - UQ eSpace

Example of Results

Course Hero is a subscription-based online service for students and educators.

Site-user experience

Figure 1 shows what users encounter and the services they can use without signing up or logging in. Course Hero focuses on offering study materials for students (e.g. lecture notes, student notes, assignments with answers, past exams with solutions, and sample exams with solutions) as well as teaching material for educators.

  UQ Course Hero                     Figure 1. Website map of Course Hero (

High-value study materials, such as answers, solutions, and universities' logos are blurred out in preview mode. To fully access these study materials, users can subscribe or earn credits through document uploads.

A premium subscription unlocks 30 documents per month. Textbook solutions and explanations are provided on a subscription basis. Course Hero subscription also provides ‘24/7 homework help’ where students' posted questions as answered anytime with detailed explanations. Interestingly, a verified educator can have free access to relevant course content.

For those who do not want to spend money, Course Hero provides an option to receive credits that can be used to unlock documents. Credits are earned by uploading files, reviewing contents, and referring friends. Course Hero claims to have no tolerance for, or allowance of, academic misconduct. Students' testimonials are shown on its homepage. Student users can cancel their subscription at any time.

Distinguishing Features

Course Hero offers the ‘Best Grade Guarantee’ that promises a full refund of the premium membership to the student whose grade point average (GPA) does not improve while using the site. Course Hero also provides teaching materials for educators and holds an annual education summit offline to bring educators together to share practice.

Conclusions from the study

While file-sharing sites portray themselves as builders of community, they are businesses that profit from the upload of student-generated and university-owned materials. Students who are willing to pay for access or upload large amounts of material, are more able to access help from the sites. This is inequitable and, depending on the user’s behaviour, may also be in breach of academic conduct expectations.

Though file-sharing been available for a long time, the Covid-19-driven movement from in-person to online, asynchronous assessment has magnified concerns around this practice. Now, most students have the internet to support them when they demonstrate mastery of assessment items, and any extended assessment timeframes given for student equity e.g.  students now situated globally,  allow information-seeking behaviours, such as finding high-quality answers to assessment questions online.

The five sites reviewed in our study all encourage students to share materials and be paid or credited with download capacity in return. Colleagues at other universities report that these sites are used regularly, and that they are concerned about the ways students are behaving. The data presented here should alert more universities to the kinds of things students can access on these sites, the persuasive tactics the sites use, and the sites’ potential to facilitate inappropriate and illegal activity. How do we determine when, or if, a student intends to use shared resources and sharing sites inappropriately? At what point do universities prosecute file-sharing sites and the student users for their activities? These questions are likely to become more pressing as time goes on; the data presented here may help universities consider what to do.

Research Team

  • Dr Christine Slade, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, University of Queensland, Australia.
  • Dr Wuri Prasetyawati, Faculty of Psychology, Universitas Indonesia.
  • Louella Mae Abando and Jingyuan Feng, undergraduate students, University of Queensland, Australia.
  • Professor Susan Rowland, Deputy Associate Dean Academic (Future Students and Employability), Faculty of Science, University of Queensland, Australia.


Kim, H., & Fesenmaier, D.R. (2008). Persuasive Design of Destination Web Sites: An Analysis of First Impression. Journal of Travel Research 47(1), 3-13.