Shiken: JALT Testing & Evaluation SIG Newsletter
Vol. 9 No. 2. October 2005. (p. 23 - 28) [ISSN 1881-5537]

Entrance exams breaking copyright law? Academically unethical?

by Tim Murphey   (Dokkyo University)

Every May and June, thousands of professors in hundreds of universities across Japan scramble to find and transform reading passages to use for their entrance exams. However, they may be breaking the law and using copyrighted material unlawfully. Ask any group of entrance-exam-making teachers where they get their reading passages and most (if not all) will admit to finding them in newspapers, magazines, books, and web pages – that is, they use copyrighted material.

Questioning the ethical standards of academia

Another contentious area is the negligence of not giving credit to the original authors. Most professors know very well how to cite their sources in their professional articles. However, few if any entrance exams give credit to the authors of these original works that are used in their exams (although most question makers are required to give the sources for their passages to their entrance exam committees).

Furthermore, the practice of transforming the texts, to fit high school English vocabulary standards, can also disturb the artistic integrity of the original work. Not citing the authors and changing the text combine to make each university appear to be passing off these passages as their own. In the rest of academia, such a practice is called "plagiarism," i.e. the presenting of a text as one's own for personal gain. Students and faculty who are found guilty of plagiarism are usually dismissed from academia.

To recap the situation, this Japanese professorial activity entails three kinds of infringement on the rights of the original authors.

Infringement #1: Making money off others' texts

International and Japanese copyright law (see appendices for full texts), while giving teachers the right to reproduce parts of a book or an article for use in their classes, does not, however, give the right to make money from these texts.

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Universities regularly do make a lot of money through their entrance exams. Above average universities with a good number of applicants will make around 700 million yen (Murphey, 2004) and a top university over two billion yen from their entrance exams – a substantial addition to their yearly budget. Article 36 paragraph 2 of the English translation of the Japanese Copyright Law states, "A person who makes such reproduction or public transmission for profit-making purposes shall pay to the copyright owner compensation the amount of which corresponds to an ordinary rate of royalty." Not only do universities make money using these passages, but cram schools and exam prep book-sellers further exploit them.

While some innocent people may believe that the entrance exams are mainly for judging the quality of students, in fact most exams are never tested for reliability or validity and teachers never know how good or bad their school's tests actually are. The exams are thus simply an elaborate "flip of the coin" way to select students and increase the revenues of the universities. This is an unfortunate and unreliable practice that has grown into a fixed traditional structure – and a lucrative one.

Infringement #2: Authors not cited

While the Japanese and US "fair use law" is vague about citing the original authors, the international law states explicitly, "mention shall be made of the source, and of the name of the author." The common ethical practice of academia also requires such citing of sources. Virtually no entrance exams cite the source of the reading passages, nor the authors.

Infringement #3: Academic plagiarism

Because most of the passages are changed to meet MEXT vocabulary guidelines for high schools and yet not cited, this could be considered slight-of-hand academic plagiarism. It is certainly not accepted in any other academic publications and often considered cause for the firing of teaching staff.

Doing the right thing

There is a way for university teachers to more legally construct their entrance exams – use public domain texts available at many web cites (see Appendix 4). Public domain texts are texts that anyone is free to use for their own purposes. However, academic ethics usually still require that we cite our sources and it would be more professional for universities to begin doing so even on their entrance exams with public domain texts.

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Also, rearranging the text to fit high school English standards can misrepresent the original author. Students need to learn to read texts with some unknown vocabulary anyway – it is a common occurrence in everyday life and some essential vocabulary can be flagged for translation at the bottom of the passage.

Make exams that approximate real life

Finally, when we read in everyday life we know where a text is coming from, whether it is a newspaper or book we are holding, whether we are reading online or on a billboard. We also know the title of what we are reading before we start and that gives a context to help us understand. Thus, to approximate reading in the real world, it would be nice if test makers put the source, author, and title at the beginning of each reading excerpt. Honestly, when was the last time you read passage anywhere without looking at the title first and knowing the context already? When exams do not include these (source, author, and title) they are not modeling real world reading tasks.

Ethics and common sense call for reforms in this long neglected area by the academic community in Japan. While such practices may have begun innocently enough, they have evolved into a blight on academia. We now know it to be improper behavior on the part of any community that wishes to be seen as professional.

Readers are invited to contribute to the research on entrance exams by taking an anonymous poll about English entrance exam use at your school through through either of these URLs up through Dec. 31, 2005: (in English) (in Japanese)

Thanks to Noriko Ofuji of the Law Department of Dokkyo University
and J.D. Brown, of the University of Hawai'i for information concerning this article.
The author accepts full responsibility for the content of this article and the opinions expressed herein.


Murphey, T. (2004, Winter). Participation, (dis-)identification, and Japanese university entrance exams. TESOL Quarterly, 38 (4), 700-710.

Nihon Keizai Sangyou-sho. Nippon Chosatsuken Hou. [Japanese Copyright Law]. Accessed September 15, 2005 at

U.S. Copyright Office. (2004). Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws Contained in the Title 17 Code. Accessed September 15, 2005 at

World Intellectual Property Organization. (1971). Berne Convention for the protection of literary and artistic works. Accessed September 15, 2005 at
Main Article Appendix 1 Appendix 2 Appendix 3 Appendix 4

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