Profs: We don’t assign own books for profit

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September 5, 2008

10:58 AM

Professors typically expect their students to complete assigned readings, but they essentially demand it when they have written the textbook.

The College of William and Mary has no specific policies concerning professors assigning their own books, according to Provost Geoff Feiss.

He did say that the faculty receives some instruction on assigning books.

“It should be for a good reason,” he said. “It should suit the best interests of students.”

For many professors, the benefits of assigning familiar textbooks, when relevant to the courses they teach, the potential for controversy from using their own books.

Anthropology professor Barbara King assigned her book, “The Dynamic Dance,” to her primate behavior class this semester. King said her book complements the regular textbook and deals with specifics of primate behavior. Professors are not just teachers, but also scholars who write books after years of research, King said.

“To me, the key is to choose something only when it will enrich something extremely specific and when that book adds something that no other book could add to the class,” she said. “All the other books that I assign, mine included, take up a section of [the main textbook] and explore it in depth. I choose books that explore something new and different.”

King said earning royalties from book sales is not the goal of professors.

“To be honest, I get a dollar per book royalty, [but] that’s so far from my thinking, ‘wow, if I write this book, I can make $30.’” King said. “My interest is in the students learning.”

History professor Kris Lane assigns his students a draft copy on Blackboard of a textbook he has been working on for several years. Lane’s students have provided feedback on the reading.

“I have sought [anonymous] student feedback on this text in hopes of making it both lively and coherent as a teaching tool in the future for use across the country,” Lane said in an e-mail.

Lane, however, has reservations about assigning his work.

“I would not assign this book once finished, as I see two problems,” he said. “Students tend to be less openly critical of a book by a professor, which dulls discussion, and receiving royalties from a ‘captive audience’ can be perceived as unethical.”

In 2004, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement on the issue.

“Professors have long assigned their students works of which they were the author,” the AAUP said. “Because professors are encouraged to publish the results of their research, they should certainly be free to require their own students to read what they have written.”

The AAUP did acknowledge, however, the possible danger of professors “inappropriately enriching themselves at the expense of students.”

Students and administrators nationwide are questioning whether faculty members are receiving undue royalties from the sales of books they have written and assigned for classes they instruct. The University of Utah recently decided to bar faculty from receiving royalties from similar sales in response to accusations that a biology professor assigned his own text for financial gain.

Utah’s response to the royalty question is not uncommon. Universities from around the country have taken steps to prevent professors from taking advantage of students’ textbook purchases.

The University of Minnesota faculty is prohibited from profiting through sales of their work to their students without the approval of the department chair. At North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas, faculty is strongly cautioned against gaining royalties unless their book has become established in the field.

Case Western Reserve University’s neuroscience department gives students in the residency program textbooks written by faculty for free.
Here at the College, Feiss said that, although he has considered instituting an official policy, he hasn’t discussed it with anyone.

“We have not had recent conversations,” he said. “What’s more pressing is the issue of intellectual property rights. We try to make sure faculty doesn’t take material and distribute it in lieu of the students paying for it.”

The prospect of a professor making money off selling their books to schools does not faze Mark Hrisho ’11, a student in King’s class.

“I think it’s a solid practice if the professor is a respected member of their field and their book is one which can readily be seen cited by researchers,” Hrisho said in an e-mail. “It also allows for a level of explanation and depth that you can’t always get with certain books.”

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