23 August 2013

Using textbooks you wrote in your own class

I have a little e-book that you can buy on Amazon called Presentation Tips. (If you get it through this link, you’ll support my friends at the Science... Sort Of podcast.)

I also teach a class about presentations from time to time: BIOL 4100 Biology Seminar. There’s a lot of demand for it, because it’s a required course for all our majors.

There is nothing to stop me from assigning my own book as a textbook in that seminar class, and requiring all the students buy it. I am willing to bet that this happens routinely, because faculty are given a lot of freedom in choice of learning materials.

That is a conflict of interest. I have a financial gain that I can make by selling my own book as a textbook.

That might not sound so bad. After all, students are expected to buy textbooks. You could make a good case that if a faculty member has written a book on the subject, she wrote it because she thought it would be the best book on the subject out there.

This post started because I received a report that sounded like a professor at another institution was doing something like this. As I understand it, the professor is asking students to pay for a manuscript of a book that is supposed to be published by a small publisher later. The publisher is so small, it’s nowhere to be found through a Google search. The students were instructed to use a PayPal account.

This seemed to me to be very strange and suspicious.

Textbook pricing is notoriously opaque to begin with. And as distribution moves to the digital realm, more and more sorts of shenanigans are possible.

Let’s consider my book for a second. Because it’s an e-book, I could set the price to whatever I wanted. I could gouge each student for $30 instead of $3. (When I talk about it, I say, “The version on Amazon is for people who want something that looks good on their Kindle, but the ideas in are free. You can find them on my blog or a PDF on my website.” But nothing obliges me to do that.)

While a professor might not get rich doing this, a hundreds or maybe even thousands of extra bucks in the pocket is nothing to sneeze at, either. And the amount of money raised isn’t the issue; it’s about the ethics of charging a captive audience.

If a student felt an instructor was abusing her power to choose textbooks, who would provide the checks and balances on textbook selection?

Additional, 26 August 2013: Some people seem to think I am suggesting that no professor should use her own textbook, ever, even if it’s the best or only one available. No, that is not what I am saying.

When a professor makes a decision about textbook use, if she stands to profit if she decides to use her own, that is a conflict of interest, plain and simple. But there are plenty of good ways to manage conflicts of interest. For example:

  • Transparency: Does the professor explain why she adopted this book over all others? Can she demonstrate that the price is in line with the rest of the books on the market? Does the professor recognize that there is a conflict of interest, and invite colleagues to review the decision to ensure that it is fair?
  • Oversight: Does anyone else review the textbook decision? Do students have any mechanism to say, “I don’t like this book, there are ones out there that are better.”

Update, 22 November 2017: This story is the first time I have seen a university take action against instructors for requiring students buy their book. The instructors wrote their own $50 ebook, and the only way students could take many of their exams was through the book.

Requiring students to buy stuff to do assessments is common, but having that book be from the instructors themselves, and not through a publisher? Looks mighty dodgy.


rogier said...

I was once taught by a professor who assigned (among many other materials) his own book as course material. During the first lecture he asked everyone to bring his book to him after class, after which he would sign it and return the 3 dollars he would receive in royalties, stating 'I come from a time when it was considered unprofessional to profit from your students'. Perfect solution IMHO.

Eric Charles said...

I have had a small number of professors use textbooks they had written. As a student, it never seemed like a conflict to me. I am paying big money to take a class from Professor Y, because they are supposed to know their stuff. If they wrote the book, and Oxford thought it worth publishing, that seems to reaffirm that I made the correct choice.

That said I might not have had the same attitude if asked to pay an exorbitant amount for an ebook. (Or a photocopy bound by the office secretary, as my undergrad was pre-PayPal.)

Looking at the problem now, as a professor, I'm not sure my opinion has changed much. I am doing more late-20th century history and theory stuff, and i doubt textbooks would exist at all if people couldn't use them in their own classes. The profit from any particular class wouldn't have been much, but I couldn't imagine asking someone to turn their lecture notes into a book, with the stipulation that they would then be prohibited from using the book. Quite the opposite: I think it should be expected that faculty offer courses in subjects they have written, or are writing books in, and that the book, or manuscript, should obviously be assigned.

John Hawks said...

The American Association of University Professors has a statement on professors assigning self-authored books in their courses:


My university (UW-Madison) shaped its policy explicitly in reference to that statement, others may be similar. (In some cases, state laws may also directly address this issue).

John R. Vokey said...

Hi Zen,
I use my own textbook (Thinking With Data, now in its 7th edition!) in my second year stats class. We publish it through our own registered non-profit publishing society (Psyence Publishing Society)---so there is no conflict of interest, and the students get a nice, bound copy of the book: plus, an epub (in hyperlinked pdf) of the book is always freely available on the web.

-John R. Voket