ask a scatterbrain: unethical to assign your own books?

My colleague Neil McLaughlin has a blog post over at Canada’s Academic Matters that argues that it is unethical to require students to buy your own books, or at least to profit from the sale of those books:

There are, of course, good pedagogical reasons why a professor might want to assign a book they have written. The professor might genuinely believe it is the best textbook on the market, there is an advantage to going through the material that a professor knows well and has covered in a textbook she has written on the topic and there are few better educational experiences than reading a first-rate research monograph and having in-depth discussions of it with the author. But what possible justification could one give for keeping the royalties for oneself, as opposed to giving this portion of the proceeds to a student group or some such public good?

Frankly, this thought never even crossed my mind. When considering whether to assign my own book to my students, I did wonder if it would seem too egocentric or just plain tacky, but the idea that I shouldn’t keep the royalties did not occur to me. Of course, my little book isn’t very expensive, and therefore not very profitable. (I think if I bring a bag of Halloween candy to class, we’ll be about even.)

But while McLaughlin argues that the unethical nature of profiting from your students’ book purchases is a given, I suspect there is a lack of consensus on this issue. For example, as a student, I bought a lot of my professors’ books, and I don’t recall anyone announcing that royalties were going to charity. I wonder what the scatterbrains think.

33 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: unethical to assign your own books?”

  1. I personally think the students at McMaster benefit from reading your book in their class. Intellectually.
    And in Canada, with a much smaller book market, there are lots of good reasons why using research monographs make sense intellectually as well as practically.

    the bag of candy, or whatever else u bring surely would make it just about even.. :)

    and would provide a nice teachable moments, as the students learn a little bit about the economics of publishing, and how professors work (as in not getting much direct money for much of what we write, at least in sociology).
    as well as helping teach students perhaps about how different sociologists are from economists or lawyers.. fair enough…

    the real ethical issue involved textbooks in large classes, where one can be talking about real money.

    at least for a sociologist…

    but i think the principle is the key issue here….
    and the dynamics of what professionals should be about….

    thanks for re-posting this tina (is that the correct blogger word???)

    Neil McLaughlin


  2. Assigning your book seems good – if you don’t think it’s good enough, why should someone else? I don’t know what’s the right ethics on the royalties. Roughly, 300 copies of a $100 textbook could be $3,000 for the professor. The university should have a policy on that.


  3. I was under the impression that sociologists usually receive pretty minimal amounts of money in royalties for even relatively successful books. If this is the case, I don’t think that professors assigning their own books is problematic.

    Perhaps a prof concerned about this could lend extra copies of her book to the course reserve department of the library (or make other arrangements) so that many copies of the book are available to students at no cost?


  4. In cases other than expensive textbooks, I think the whole issue is silly given the amounts involved, and the fact that almost by definition the author of the book is an expert in the field of the course!

    I suppose yyyikes has a point about expensive textbooks, but even in that case, it seems like a basic point of ethics would apply: the university expects you to assign the most appropriate book, regardless of author. After all, the royalties are theoretically how the time spent writing the blessed thing is paid back, and you spent that time regardless of whether it’s used in your class or someone else’s.

    NCSU has a policy about this, in which faculty must forego or otherwise return royalties earned through this route. My father in law complied by bringing snacks, I think – I thought the whole thing was frankly an insult given how little they paid him (adjunct teaching in poli sci)!


  5. Do these “return the royalties” policies turn into a nepotistic system where we all just assign our friends’ books? They keep the money, and we benefit from their reciprocity. That possibility bothers me much more than the forthright “you’ll be reading my book” approach.


  6. I really don’t agree with Andrew here.

    It is certainly the case that the real ethical issue involves textbooks. In larger, lower level classes.
    This can involve some money.
    Most everything else is peanuts.

    Academics, of course, get paid for writing books and articles as part of their salary, if they are have tenured or tenure stream job. It leads to tenure. Merit pay. and the like.
    The issue of low paid adjuncts is vitally important, but a larger one.

    It is true that people who write books are experts
    by defination, but the appearance of them saying “this is the best book” when they wrote it.. well, what can i say…

    so one gives away the royalities to the sociology undergraduate society, if it is real money.
    Bring some little things to class, if it is a really small amount of money, which it almost always will be.
    put a copy or two on reserve.
    problem solved..
    and point made.

    And educate the students a little about the economics of academic publishing..

    and preserve a professional distance between making money and making academic decisions. Symbolic more than anything, except in the case of textbooks where there should be a policy..

    Neil McLaughlin


    1. Would everybody who wrote his/her book entirely during paid business hours please raise her/his hand? Anyone?

      Sorry to be snide, but I don’t think most of our salaries cover the time (or, by the way, even the actual expenses) spent writing the book.

      That’s distinct from the principle of it: whether there’s a conflict of interest; here I see little or no more concern than, e.g., grading the exams of student-athletes on teams of which we are fans, or similar low-level “conflicts” that just require a measure of professional good faith. Bottom line for me: if it’s the right book, I ought to assign it, and if I ought to assign it, I ought to capture the royalties associated with that assignment.


  7. The funniest story I know on this is about a statistics professor at a university in Italy who would make students bring the text — which he wrote — to the exam (many exams in Italy are oral). He would then sign the book for them, thus ensuring that they had bought a new copy.

    On happy stories, Art Goldberger who taught Econometrics at Wisconsin used to use his (excellent) book. But he’d also give $5 to each student who bought it. He insisted. I also know of a text at UW law school written by some of the faculty who give all royalties to a student scholarship fund.

    In general though, yeah, unless we are talking about large amounts of money from expensive textbooks and/or large classes, it’s not a big thing. When we are talking about real $$ though, I do agree w/ Neil.


  8. I had to see this post in the moments before I was headed to class to – you guessed it – teach my own book. I have to say that I absolutely LOVE teaching my own book. I just have so much info, and I still think the topic is really interesting. I guess the moment that changes is the time I need to change research topics.

    I knew, of course, that Neil was mostly talking about textbooks, probably intro textbooks in particular. However, I agree: the principle is the same. But if I do end up donating my royalties, my inkling would be to support the archives that provided the material for my book. I really don’t see why the students would care which professor ends up with the profits for their books. They’re going to buy a book, someone will get a royalty, and it won’t be them regardless.


  9. Let me correct a few mistaken impressions people have about textbooks to better inform this conversation.

    First, 300 copies of a $100 text, rarely, if ever would result in $3000 of royalties to the author. More like $900 or if you have a co-author or two, maybe $500 or $300 bucks. Expensive books don’t make more money for the authors, that’s for the bookstore and publisher. The authors also have virtually no control over the price of the books, by the way.

    Second, that calculation of royalties only applies if all of the textbooks bought for the class are new. Royalties on used books = $0. By the end of the second year of a book being out, it is making next to zero because of the increased efficiency of the used book market. This also presents an operational problem because you really don’t know how many copies out there are used and new.

    Third, non-textbook books make virtually nothing. My first and probably only royalty check for my last book was just over $100.

    Fourth, even for very successful “real money” books like Macionis’s Intro text, the number of copies sold to your own students is a miniscule portion of the total. I can’t imagine that driving too many people to assign it. Their egos? yes. Their pocketbooks? I doubt it. David Myers has made millions on his (truly excellent) textbooks. Do we really think he is assigning it in his class over some other text because of the extra $200 he’s going to make?

    Fifth, you make WAY more money from TEACHING the class than you do selling the book.

    Sixth, textbooks do not usually “count” in terms of tenure and raises. The logic is that they are neither teaching, research, or service, and that they are done for their own rewards–the rewards of royalties. So, I don’t believe my university is paying me to write my textbook.

    This doesn’t mean there isn’t an ethical issue buried in there somewhere and that there’s no possibility for abuse, but talk about small potatoes!


  10. Oh yeah, Full Disclosure: I’m a co-author of the wildly popular textbook, Social Psychology, and coincidentally was having a discussion today with my co-author about whether we would want to do yet another edition. Neither one of us thought the effort was remotely worth the money on any of the editions we did. But we decided to continue because we think the book provides a service to the field and fills a gap in the textbook market.


  11. I think that most professors write textbooks to get the ideas out and provide gaps in the market for textbooks, not to just make money.
    This is precisely why the points made about the complexities of the book market for textbooks (used books, for example) should be told to the students.
    So the real focus of any anger that exists out there about book prices should be directed at the right place.
    And so that students know where professors are coming from, and what their motivations are…
    Although, i have to say, there are examples I know where intro textbooks in sociology are taught to over 1000 studets a class. And $100 is relatively inexpensive as an estimate, is my guess… So we are talking potentially real money.

    All of this stuff has to be institutionally and nationally specific…

    For example, textbooks writing, in my view, is more potentially socially valuable outside the US than inside the US. Although, of course, lots of good can be done inside the US….A Polish or a Lithuanian or a Brazilian or Salvadorian sociology textbook can be part of building a national intellectual tradition as opposed to just spreading the American version of the discipline.

    The question of whether academics actually get credit for writing textbooks is also a variable that differs by institution and nation.
    My experience (and I have written a little about this), is that Canadian sociology professors often get academic credit, and use textbooks for tenure and even promotion to full professor….
    Peer reviewed monographs and journal articles count for more, but usually the texts count for something, often quite a bit.

    In any case, at research universities like where I am (and I don’t where others are based), faculty are paid and evaluated 40% for research.
    If one chooses to write a textbook instead a series of articles or a scholarly piece of original research, one is still getting paid for that….
    That is true even though one would still be getting paid if one stopped writing all together, and took up a lot of various hobbies with the time outside of teaching and administration..
    That is another issue.

    I love the good stories posted here. The $5 and the student scholarship.

    The point is not the money, but the principle.

    And the ways in which neo-liberal ideology makes it harder for us to see the basic point, which is symbolic and not about individual motives…

    and the issues cut close to the core of our professional purpose, even though this is not an issue worth fighting each other over…

    a public purpose linked to our research and teaching…

    I really like the idea of giving the very small amount of money to archives associated with the book and research itself…

    getting out of a pure consumer mentality, where the students get the money back directly…
    although the $5 story is still a good one…

    Neil McLaughlin


  12. Yes, it definitely is an ethical issue. The amount of money made (or not made) is not what determines ethics. I had a prof who assigned his own book. He left it to each student whether or not he would give them $1 or donate $1 to our department’s general scholarship fund.


  13. The cost of texts can be prohibitive for students, and it is good if faculty think about that in assigning texts, whether or not they authored them. I think it can be a big ethical issue if the prof is profiting from a captive market (i.e., is the class in question required, with limited alternative options for students?).

    The key thing that jumped out at me in Neil’s post is his experience that students notice and resent it when profs assign their own texts. This was definitely true of me as an undergraduate—this was almost 20 years ago now, and I still remember feeling very cynical about one prof in particular (large, required class), who had assigned his textbook, which wasn’t very good, wasn’t very long, but was very expensive. In elective classes I had profs who assigned their own books and it didn’t bother me as I had chosen the class because I was interested in the topic. Also, in those cases the books were of the $20 mass market paperback variety as opposed to the $500 we have students over a barrel variety.

    I would agree with a policy that required disclosure and mitigation of profits (assuming they are easy to calculate), though I probably wouldn’t actively push for it. If you were to address it, I think students would probably think more highly of you, and it might give them more insight into the publishing world as well. Other aspects of fairness toward students are more important, in my view, but addressing this is a positive.


  14. Echoing neilmclaugh (@11). I wrote a textbook because I couldn’t find one I liked. Wildly successful? (BlueMonster@10) It sold literally dozens of copies nationwide. The royalties I got from assigning it to my own students were so small as to make it not worthwhile to do the calculation for purposes of contributions and then tax deduction for the contribution. I suspect the same is true of all but very expensive texts with authors who have both very large classes and very good royalty deals. I suppose that there are unethical things that professors can do with books to make money (@7), but what Tina’s doing isn’t one of them.


  15. I think it’s less about profits, and more about your students’ willingness to dissent. Part of what I teach my class is to be critical of texts. And I’d imagine that would be harder for them if the text was my own. No matter how “open” I seem, tearing into my work is far different than tearing into someone else’s (I’m sitting there; I grade them). I think that puts students in a tough place.

    On the less ethical side: I also feel my own voice is fairly present (dominant? loud?) in class. So I like bringing others in, rather than more of me…

    That said, it’s nice for students to be able to ask questions of texts that can be answered by the person in the room, who knows what the answer of the author would be, because they are the author.


    1. This is definitely a problem I have when I teach my own book. I have the students write anonymous reviews of it to mitigate this somewhat, and I also go way out on a limb to ask them to critique it. But I’ve also only taught it in my first-year seminar, where I already have pretty strong rapport with the students before they read it.


      1. This problem also adheres to articles. For years I was modest about assigning my own articles and didn’t do it. Then I discovered that I was “required reading” at every major program except my own! So now I do assign myself. But the problem about critique remains.


  16. Appearances matter in teaching. It is really important to give the appearance of caring about students and teaching.

    If you have written a textbook for a course you teach a lot, it is only efficient to use it, because you doubtless went to the trouble to prepare a text because you had opinions about how material should be presented. (In this I disagree with Shamus.) But students will think you are making money on them, and this can hurt class morale. The way to deal with appearances is to explain clearly that you assigned the book because it is most compatible with how you want to teach the course, explain how much money you make on each newly-sold copy (and that you make zero on used copies), remind the students that you pay taxes on royalties so that your net income per book is $X, and then offer to hand them $X in cash or donate it to someplace logical, like a student sociology club or a scholarship fund. They would find a short lecture on the economics of academic books to be instructive.

    By the way, I often also lecture briefly on the academic ranks, what tenure means and how you get it, etc. There is a lot students don’t know about the system they work in, and it is helpful to them to explain it.


  17. “I’d imagine that would be harder for them [to be critical]if the text was my own.” (Shakha @15). It depends on what you mean by text, and it depends on who your students are. If by “text” you mean textbook, where I am, students seem to think that textbooks are all written by the same author, someone known as “They.” I blogged this back in January after Kieran made some comment about students and textbooks. I told this anecdote that happened when I was teaching using my own textbook:

    Several weeks into the semester, a student had a question about some point I was making or some data I was presenting. I don’t remember the topic or the issue. All I remember is that the student said, “But didn’t they say . . .” and she went on to offer some bit of information.
    “They?” I asked, “What they?”
    “In the book. Didn’t they say that . . . .” she repeated the information.
    “They is me,” I said. “I wrote that book.”
    She seemed genuinely stunned, and I sensed that many in the class shared her confusion. The book was a school textbook; therefore it must have been written by the same “They” that churned out all textbooks. Yet here was someone they knew, a very ordinary person they saw two or three days a week, claiming to have written the book, and the evidence on the cover seemed to support his claim.
    I don’t think they ever truly resolved the dissonance.


    1. I love the story! This is ranging off topic, but a friend, Herbert Lindenberger at Stanford Comp Lit, told a great story related to this. He was reading a student’s paper, on opera, and thinking “wow, this is a really outstanding paper.” He realized that it seemed rather familiar, and began looking for a source to evaluate whether it had been plagiarized. Indeed it had — from HIS OWN BOOK on opera! When he confronted the student about the plagiarism, her only defense: “I didn’t think my professor would have been the author of a book on opera.”

      Now, the guy is named Herbert Lindenberger, not John Smith; he’s a professor of Comp Lit at Stanford, and teaching a course on opera. If not him, just who would write that book?!


  18. It strikes me that this issue is not the most important or high stakes question around in the contemporary university. that is for sure.
    But I do think it is important to think about the issue in professional and political terms not personal terms.
    Especially since the amounts of money are so very low, except in certain cases…
    And to think in historical-comparative ways.

    Professionally it means professors taking the lead in keeping things squicky clean in terms of appearance as well as reality, taking the time to spell out how things work in terms of tenure, books, royalities and the like maybe in formal mini-lectures ( i love that suggestion made here) and showing leadership in terms of not feeding the cynicism that too many of our students have today (for many good reasons!).

    Politically, this means seeing that if professors work too hard and do not get paid enough for their writings, that suggests the need for faculty unions, collective action, raising questions about some of the out of control aspects of the American academic competitive system and a broader critique of the overworked and underpaid American, more generally.

    And comparatively, we should see that the dangers of grading students who are also on teams that one is a fan off is largely an American problem – something that flows from allowing money and competitive sports to take over too much of the attention space of contemporary universities.
    And we should also see that some of our discussion surely is linked to historical changes, where we increasingly see the profit motive invading spaces where it does not belong – like health care, my American friends, and university course book selection…

    That is my bottom line, as much as i dislike the metaphor…

    Neil McLaughlin


    1. Neil, first of all – welcome :)

      Thanks for bringing up this issue, which clearly has spurred a very interesting discussion.

      I guess I’m still not convinced that “we…see the profit motive…[in] university course book selection,” at least insofar as faculty authorship is concerned.

      Granted that the student-athlete issue is a US issue, almost exclusively, and it’s not really an issue at all, but my point is that there are lots of places where we are called upon to exercise judgment and good faith. IMHO it is more important that we do this than that we erect systematic “walls” to foreclose the appearance of a conflict where one does not exist.

      I, too, very much like OW’s practice of explaining academic culture and practice to students.

      While I generally support the idea of collective action, faculty unions, etc., I worry a lot about complaining that we don’t get paid enough for writing books when our lower-status co-workers are in much direr situations!


      1. “my point is that there are lots of places where we are called upon to exercise judgment and good faith. IMHO it is more important that we do this than that we erect systematic “walls” to foreclose the appearance of a conflict where one does not exist.”

        While actual ethics or morality is (of course) more important in life than the appearance of ethics or morality, I’m afraid that appearance also matters a lot to the teaching relationship. You have to not only care about teaching, you have to convey to the students that you care; you have to not only grade fairly, you have to make your standards accessible enough that they seem fair to the students; you have to not only know your material, you have to convey to the students that you are authoritative.

        The public in general over-estimates how much money any author makes from any book, and does not understand that we get no royalties at all from articles and precious little from academic books or textbooks, so it is reasonable that students would have Neil’s or yyikes’s gross misperception of the situation. This misperception will/can undermine or at least affect the teaching situation if it is not corrected.

        I’m not sure it is fair, but I did have a reaction to the idea that we should just act in ways we know are ethical and brush off expressions of doubt that we know are unfounded. While White men are less aware of it, women (especially younger women) and people of color are more aware that we have to establish our credibility in the classroom and are not automatically granted authority just because we are standing in the front of the room. “How dare you question me?” seems to be more of a White guy response. Please, I’m not saying your tone was like that. But it did remind me of other conversations and thus evoked some of those vibes for me.


      2. Interesting exchange. Some of it may be what kind of relationship you want to have with your students, or whether you care what they think of you. In many cases it’s not pragmatic to care because it doesn’t matter that much to your career (though positive relations with students can bring much personal satisfaction). I don’t think the profs I felt cynical about ever suffered for it. In addition to the textbook example above, I also lost respect for profs who sucked up to athletes. I don’t know if they were graded differently–I suspect so, but I never felt shortchanged as a result. I did feel that the athletes were exploited and that the sucking up was actually harmful to them in the end because they weren’t getting the education for which they were working their tails off. The obvious disparate treatment just fed other students views that school was just b.s. and the goal was to get a degree while doing as little work as possible.

        As OW notes, there can be larger pedagogical reasons to open up these kinds of things for discussion–it may lead students to think more critically in general by making oft-hidden processes visible. Kudos to you, OW–this is what the social sciences are all about.

        The best written treatment I’ve seen by someone trying to engage students is When Students Have Power by Ira Shor. Definitely not for the faint of heart.


  19. Thanks for the welcome Andrew. A good discussion, and we probably don’t disagree that much. :)
    I think there is an ethical issue here that should be dealt with, and I do think there are cases out there of real abuse.
    But we agree that tenured and tenure stream faculty should not be spending their energy complaining about how much money they get from books given larger structural unfairness out there.. In fact, i think they should give away the royalties when they assign their own books, and get nothing for that..
    I am not for iron clad walls, of any kind, although I do think major abuses should be dealt with at the university level. Major abuses. And they exist.
    But it something that I, like you, would like to see being dealt with by faculty, starting with discussions like this.. Thanks for the interesting and fun intro to the blog world for a newbie like me.. :)
    I learned alot…

    Neil McLaughlin


  20. It looks likes some professors already gave some practical thinking about this issue. One of my professors sent us this email last year :

    “Dear Students,

    As you know, some of the required reading this semester has been from my book, XXXXXXX. My decision to use this book is guided by an interest in assigning readings that I think will most helpfully illuminate the lecture topics, not an interest in personal financial gain. Nevertheless, the book has sold well enough that I am actually receiving some modest royalties. I am, of course, happy to receive the money from sales elsewhere but I do not think it is appropriate for me to profit from the sales of the book that reflect the fact that I have required it to be purchased. I understand that there is nothing illegal about taking this profit, but I believe it is important to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

    So, in recitation, I am requesting that the TAs ask you to indicate what you want me to do with the royalties I receive from your purchase of my book ($1 per book). I offer 3 options:

    1. use it for a donation to Doctors without Borders
    2. use it for a donation to American Red Cross
    3. please return the dollar to me (the student)

    I will make a donation to each charity based on the responses. Those who prefer a personal refund can simply have the TA record his/her vote and I will pass the cash along to the TA.”

    I would be curious to have some stats, especially regarding the refund…


    1. I think this is a terrific letter that addresses my concerns.
      If more people did this, it would address the issue for me..
      Although i think it is not unreasonable to have university policies for large textsbooks..

      It is not the case, in my view, that I have exagerrated this issue in my original post or the discussion, as one person here suggested.
      Some naunces were usefully explored..

      But I was clear that it is a relatively minor issue, given the amounts of money usually involved.
      And i also believe (and made it clear that I believe this) that there are good reasons to assign one’s own book, especially research monographs.

      But the principle is the principle.

      A letter like this, even as a suggested model passed on my professional associations and departments would go along way to addressing the issue…

      thanks kaznn for posting this..
      Neil McLaughlin


  21. As a former student, I was always more irritated by professors requiring their own books (I have a psychological statistics book in mind…) *when the books were not especially good* than by professors requiring their own books out of profit motive.

    Except for cases where you’re dealing with very large undergraduate classes and especially lucrative books, I would think the greater problem in choosing to use your own book for a class is some very serious, honest retrospection about the book’s quality relative to alternatives (bearing in mind your varying depth of experience with each of the potential texts as well).


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