Is receiving royalties as a result of assigning your own textbooks unethical?

by Anna Blanch on March 18, 2010

 Today’s InsideHigherEd has a story titled “Professors Object to Tennessee Bill on Textbook Royalties”

The Quick-take states:

Faculty members in Tennessee are objecting to proposed legislation that would bar them from collecting royalties on their own books, if they assign them for their courses, The Tennessean reported. The professors say that they are entitled to the compensation they earn on book sales, given the long hours involved in producing the works. But the state legislator who is pushing the bill says that such payments are “kickbacks.”

On this one – I tend to agree with the Professor. 

If you have written the textbook and you assign it under the new legislation you would not be permitted to receive any royalties. I am confused about what this achieves? Is this supposed to promote a higher level of academic integrity by challenging authors to assign their own books even where they receive no financial benefit to do so? They are in effect being asked to give away their intellectual property. Can you think of another industry where skilled experts are asked to that, by the government no less?

Many Professors write Textbooks to fill niche gaps and to provide the support material for their own courses. It is gratifying if these books are then picked up by Schools other than their own but often the only reason why they are published in the first place is because the author can show the publisher that there is a sufficient market – often satisfied by showing that the textbook will the assigned text for a large group of students and the only way this can sometimes be done is to assign this book to their own class. Is this good in every case? Not always. Sometimes there is an appropriate textbook on the market that would do the job but who am I, or the legislators of Tennessee, to say that one exists in every case. I would have thought they would have been happy with having leading teachers and leading scholars teaching in their institutions. It should also be noted that, in my experience, a Professor rarely assigns his or her own textbook in isolation. That is, other material and other texts are often assigned to show contrasting viewpoints or for additional information.

The alternative (should authors decide not to pursue publication) would see bound notes being supplied (costing money anyway) to the students in place of the textbook. Actually, that’s how it worked when I was an undergraduate at the Australian National University and it was not something the students welcomed. The “bricks” as we called them cost alot of money and we couldn’t even resell them, as you can with textbooks, at the end of the semester because they were 1) copy paper and light card bound with large staples, and 2) usually revamped again the next year.

Is it possible that some Professor behave unethically by assigning their own books unnecessarily? Yes. Yes it is possible and it does happen. Believe me, Students are the first to work that out and say something about it. But I don’t believe that this is the common morality of the matter. In fact, one of my final Courses as a Grad Student was a Literary Theory class in which the Professor did not assign his own book and now 12 months later I really wish he had. Now that I’ve read it, I see that he based our syllabus on the first 2/3 of the book. He had a pedagogical reason for not assigning the book – he wanted us to develop our critical thinking skills and come to our own conclusions about the place of theory in our work – but I would not have thought him unethical if he had chosen to do so; indeed, it would have supported my learning immensely.

Are these professors rolling on piles of money?
Do the legislators really think that this is a behavior worth spending loads of money on to regulate. It would have cost a packet just to put this measure through the legislatue – and don’t think it won’t be challenged in the very near future: I can see a challenge on the basis of restriction of free trade and commerce on the horizon. Nevertheless, to answer my little italicized question…I cannot imagine that on average the royalties amount to very much. In some cases where it is a basic textbook for a required class at a very large institution they may provide a small additional income. Given how poorly Educators are paid in the United States I am not going to begrudge them that. do you? The Tennessee legislature seems to.

And ‘kickbacks‘ ? could you be anymore inflammatory? Providing money to a single employee as a “thankyou” for ensuring a contract with your company is obtained is generally described as a “kickback.” I think the Legislator does quite understand the definition. It seems that they are discounting the immense intellectual input of the author in this equation. It would be a “kickback” if the Professor assigning the book hadn’t written the text but received a sum of money for assigning it. This isn’t money for assigning it, this is a royalty based on sales of the text. Now i know you are going to think that I am splitting hairs, and i am. But you know what? There is a difference. Especially where, and this I think can be shown in a significant enough number of cases to apply as some sort of principle, it can be shown that there is not a comparable textbook that could be assigned for that specific syllabus.

One of the commenters at Inside HigherEd, Jim, had this to say: 

This restriction on assigning your own book for profit is already in place at The University of Oklahoma, and I think in the whole state. Your royalties, etc., elsewhere are your own, but when you can compel your students to buy a book for which you receive royalties, it raises all sorts of accusations about the real motive. Several years ago, a faculty member attempted to require a self-published, poorly done textbook. The entire price went into the instructor’s pocket.

You can assign your own book here, if it is published by a reputable publisher, or if you can make an argument that your class needs it, but you are expected to donate any substantial royalties or personal proceeds on the books required in your own classes back to the university. Usually, this is such a small amount that the administration waives the requirement, but it is good ethics to keep such a rule in place.

I think Jim raises some valid concerns. That a Professor may be behaving unethically is a real issue. But i guess I quibble with Tennessee legislating for this for the entire state and not a single institution making a policy that applies to its own staff and, it seems, not offering the same possibility of a waiver acknowledging cases where it is clearly ethical and the royalties involved are not substantial, as is done in Oklahoma. It seems that the University of Oklahoma may have a wise policy in place designed at promoting ethical behavior and acknowledging that the money involved may not be large. I do still contend that the inflammatory language used by the sponsor of the Tennessee bill infers that the status quo is one of deception.

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

  • lastwordsmith

    While I understand the rush to prevent unethical behavior by professors, I think the state legislature should stay out of this. It is an issue that should be addressed by individual institutions, which are in a better position to judge whether students are being exploited financially by individual faculty members. Personally, I don't object to faculty receiving royalties when students buy their textbooks, so long as it is a real textbook published by a reputable press. Pedagogically speaking, it might be redundant for a professor to assign his or her own textbook. If I ever write a textbook myself, I couldn't quite see the use in having my own students buy it, since the book would be based on information I'm already giving them in class. I think it's pedagogically useful to have at least two authoritative voices–the prof and the book–in the same classroom, if only to offer students a broader view of the subject.

    In sum, if assigning your own textbook is pedagogically sound, then there is little reason to deny the professor the added economic benefit of teaching well. But if the practice is not pedagogically sound, then the problem is not economic but pedagogical, and the issue of royalties is a red herring.

  • Rose Bexar

    The more I think about this issue, the more it's starting to seem to me like another legislative attempt to do something without doing anything helpful. If the prof doesn't get the royalties, that doesn't necessarily mean that the cost of the book is going to go down, does it? And even if the publisher keeps the money that would normally go to royalties, it probably won't be enough extra profit to significantly reduce the cost of later editions (assuming the publisher and/or the bookstore really is pricing the book reasonably according to the market and cost of goods sold, not simply trying to soak the consumer).
    The Oklahoma rule seems sensible if the concern really is over unethical behavior, and I agree that such policies should be handled by the individual institution and not the state. But if the real issue is the cost of textbooks statewide, a proposal I've seen that makes more sense is to exempt textbooks from state sales tax. That may not look like much of a savings on paper, but it can really add up if you're having to buy $500 worth of textbooks every semester.

  • Goannatree

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