Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Textbook Case of Cluelessnes

Sep 20, 2005 1:54 pm

A Textbook Case of Cluelessnes

Friday’s NYT featured an especially awful op-ed piece by law prof Ian Ayres in which he argues that it’s borderline unethical for profs to assign textbooks they have produced. I held off blogging it because I wrote letter to the editor and was waiting to see whether they’d run it, but they didn’t. Here then, for your edification, is what I submitted:

To the Editor: Ian Ayres implies that professors ordering textbooks they have written is unethical and engenders a conflict of interest (“Just What the Professor Ordered,” Op-Ed, September 16, 2005). Prof. Ayres says that by giving students who buy his book a rebate, “we will all know that I assigned the book for the right reason.” One wonders, then, why he authored a textbook in the first place. Presumably he thought he could contribute something to his students’ education by producing a textbook which was superior to others. But if this is his view, then it would be irresponsible for him not to order it. A professor’s responsibility is not to order the cheapest books available, it is to order what he or she judges to be the best ones for a given class, and that would naturally include the ones he or she has written.[end of letter - in signing, I noted both that I am a professor and that I have co-edited a textbook]

They ran someone else’s letter today which makes a similar point, but unfortunately sandwiched among several others supporting Ayres. Two other points I’d make which I was obliged to leave out of the letter for space considerations: 1, Ayres implies that he’s entitled to his profits if anyone else orders his book, so it’s not clear why he shouldn’t be entitled to them. He’s free to turn them down, of course, but his implication is that it’s wrong to profit from his own work, which is absurd. The second letter down today deals with this nicely, IMO. 2, Ayres argues that it would be a good thing if administrations had more control over a professor’s course content and text selection. Um, no.

UPDATE: Eugene Volokh weighs in; agrees with me; says it better.

UPDATE ad absurdum: Sorry Plato, you can't use Republic at the Academy - conflict of interest.

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More Comments:

Andrew D. Todd - 8/20/2008

john mac william - 9/29/2005

Very rightly written article, it arrests the attention of the reader. The subject is outlined with clear understanding and focus.

Roderick T. Long - 9/22/2005

Well, if it were a required class there might be some grounds for grumbling ....

Jay Pastore - 9/22/2005

Chris, I'm with you. The effort to twist this into some kind of misconduct strikes me as kooky talk.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 9/22/2005

My, my, I've just looked at all these comments and the ones at Volokh too! Some are calling for Aeon's prosecution now for "profiting" from the pittance he makes in royalties if he assigns his books to his students.

Frankly, I'm at a loss.

If you teach a course on Marx's concept of alienation, and you happen to have written the book on Marx's concept of alienation, what's wrong with assigning the book to the class? That's what Professor Bertell Ollman did when I took his course on Marxism. And I profited enormously.

And when I teach cyberseminars on my own work, I have to assign my books. I'm teaching them! In a sense, what could be more fulfilling than reading and studying a text that your own professor has written? If you have questions about the book, what better source to ask?

I realize this is not the issue at hand: People are just ticked off that somebody somewhere might be making 4 cents in royalties. Clearly those who are upset over this have no clue about the standard academic contracts that require an author to sell 1000 or 5000 books before even making a dime on anything, on a sliding scale that nets you a couple of hundred dollars a year if you are lucky! (There are exceptions to this, of course, but they are exceptions). If some think we're in this for the money, well... we picked the wrong profession, folks!

As an aside, I've done some work on pre-Bolshevik education in Russia, prior to the Communist takeover. One of the things that really irritated Narkompros (the "Commissariat of Enlightenment") was the fact that Old Guard professors were... HORRORS!... lecturing and using their own books as texts in their classes. Such books projected the individual professor's interpretation of history or philosophy, rather than the politically correct and approved version. As the Old Guard was exiled or shot, the requisite PC texts slowly replaced everything else. If you happen to have been an approved Marxist, you could teach your own PC text at that point. Otherwise, fuhgedaboudit!

Andrew D. Todd - 9/22/2005

Well, you see, the sections have to be compatible, so that a student can go from one section to another section. There are often arrangements for automatically switching students around if sections are full. So they have to use the same textbook. 60 sections might work out to 15 GTF's, each teaching the recitation portion of four sections, with 30 students each, each recitation portion meeting two hours a week, and six lecture sections, with 300 students each, each lecture section meeting for two hours a week. Only one professor is listed in the time schedule (the course supervisor, presumably), the other sections being listed as "staff." The GTF's would spend eight hours holding recitations, two hours attending a lecture section, plus grading duties for a total of perhaps 20 hours a week. There are a total of twelve hours of lecture per week, which can be divided up in different ways. We are talking about a regime in which teachers very definitely _are_ considered interchangeable. The GTF's are likely to be foreign, from third-world countries, with minimal command of English. The working assumption is that anyone with any real mathematical promise will have taken this material in the 11th grade, and gone on to Calculus in the 12th grade, so College Algebra is by definition a dunce's class. No one in the math department really wants to teach College Algebra. It is considered a penance of the same order as teaching in a slum school-- rookies have to do it, and any professor who is willing to do it full-time can practically own the program by default, just as a slum school principal tends to be very much "master in his own house."

Jay Pastore - 9/21/2005

I agree ENTIRELY with Aeon J. Skoble. As far as I can gather from his somewhat opaque comments, Andrew D. Todd seems to think that assigning one's own text is somehow akin to an official's taking kick-backs from government contractors. That view is wrong because:

1. Government officials are using money that the public was forced to pay in the form of taxes. Students are not forced to take any particular professor's course or to attend any particular school.

2. The public has no way of knowing or controlling exactly how their tax money is being used (or misused). Students can easily find out in advance whether a prof assigns his own text in a class and how much that text costs, and if that bothers them, they can control the impact on themselves by choosing to take a course by a different prof.

Yes, students are paying a prof "twice" when he assigns his own text. Skoble's critics seem to think that that is ipso facto wrong. Why???

Students are paying him for his service in teaching them and they're paying him for the book he wrote that they own and use. If he taught a 4-credit course he would be entitled to more compensation than if (all other things being equal) he taught a 1-credit course. So why isn't he entitled to more compensation if he teaches a 1-credit course and creates the text for it, than if he teaches a 1-credit course and doesn't create the text for it?

Jay Pastore - 9/21/2005

Even if the text costs $1 billion, there's nothing wrong about the professor's assigning it. No one is forced to take his class! (And presumably no one will.)

Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 9/21/2005


Your math seems quite a bit off. Are you suggesting that a single professor is teaching all of those sections and all 2,000 students? Or is a single professor requiring all of the other professors and instructors to his his books in their sections? If the answer is no to both questions, then your figure of $20,000 in royalty money per semester is quite inaccurate.

Roderick T. Long - 9/21/2005

Oh yes, I've used Jowett too (e.g. in coursepacks) -- but unhappily.

The solution is for some charitable institution to commission high-quality translations to be released free of copyright restrictions. (That's actually the sort of thing the Molinari Institute might do some day when our resources are greater.)

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/21/2005

Roderick: "the 19th-century translations of Plato and Aristotle tend to be godawful. In my judgment there are no pre-1923 translations of either Plato or Aristotle that are really of adequate scholarly quality."
I agree entirely! But I was nevertheless obliged to use the "free" Jowett translation of the selections from _Republic_ in my anthology, because better ones were too expensive, given how much it cost me to obtain all the _other_ permissions. It's the one aspect of that book I'm not proud of, that I wasn't able to work it out so that I could use a better translation of that one excerpt. Fortunately, the other stuff is pretty decent.

Roderick T. Long - 9/21/2005

> In an established subject
> (History, English), there
> are required courses
> (History of Western Civ,
> Freshman English),

Philosophy is a required subject at Auburn. I don't see what difference this makes anyway.

> Just about every Victorian
> scholar seems to have
> translated something or
> other from either the
> Latin or the Greek

Yeah, and the 19th-century translations of Plato and Aristotle tend to be godawful. In my judgment there are no pre-1923 translations of either Plato or Aristotle that are really of adequate scholarly quality.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/21/2005

There's a project at U. Penn which functions as a "National Union Catalog" of open-source books, including things like the Gutenberg Project

For Aristotle:

Just about every Victorian scholar seems to have translated something or other from either the Latin or the Greek. I think it must have been a normal rite of passage. When I read Vegetius (a late Roman military theorist), it was in a curious eighteenth century translation, reprinted in 1944 by someone attached to the Army War College. Certain oddities, such as using "Subaltern" for "Optio."

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/21/2005

Printed the book myself? If I have a valid concept for a textbook, there's no reason to keep it to myself. One aspect of scholarship is sharing ideas. Why publish anything? Other professors may well find much of value in a textbook idea I have. Publishing the book means (a) I have easy access to it when I teach that class - I simply fill out a book order form rather than schlep a box of stuff to Kinko's (b) others who think it's a good idea can also order it (c) others can know more about me even if they don't order it, and for some it can be a useful reference book (d) students really know that they have a knowledgeable prof who has sufficient expertise to produce a publishable text on a subject (e) the college's reputation is enhanced by having its faculty publish books. The only argument for self-publishing would be if I didn't think the idea was attractive to a publisher or if I wanted to circumvent the copyright/permissions process. And by the way, it's not the case that anything written before 1923 is free: using a 1975 English translation of Aristotle means obtaining permissions. So, yes, I could have saved a bundle by using original Greek, Latin, and Arabic texts, but I'm guessing that would undercut the marketability of the text.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/20/2005

I use "established" in the sense of the Church of England, and the First Amendment. That seems a reasonable analogy for the special privileges of certain academic departments. A nineteenth-century Methodist minister, who lived off his collection plate if he was lucky (the "boarding-around" system, otherwise), would have had a certain lack of practical experience with the world of Barchester Towers, and Anglican clergymen who acted as financiers and/or government officials, with all the moral hazard implied thereby. The danger was that when that a Methodist minister came into money, he was likely to act without the wisdom engendered by experience, for example, the typical televangelist.

When you have half a million dollars per year of procurement authority (a ballpark figure for a mathematics department), you really do have to work at being financially straight. With that kind of money at stake, salespeople will turn into amateur tarts if they think you might like it. That is what Ian Ayres knows, and you apparently do not know. Assuming his Contracts class was at least a hundred students, the disputed sum must have been at least a thousand dollars per year. People do get in serious trouble for accepting smaller bribes.

About your book and your publisher, the point is that you handed over your manuscript to the publisher, before selecting the resulting book. When you write the book, and then turn around and create a market for it, that amounts to using the publisher as a jobbing printer. If you had taken the manuscript to another publisher, on the same terms, it would still be substantially the same book. So one can say that you chose the publisher independently of the book. There is a set of rules for dealing ethically with jobbing printers, but they are not the same rules as those for dealing with bona fide publishers. For that matter, you could have printed the book yourself. Judging from your table of contents,,1144,0136295770-TOC,00.html

your copyright clearance problems cannot have been impossibly onerous, because such a high proportion of the material is pre-1923. If you are clever about using photocopiers, etc., and you keep your overheads down, you can probably deliver a book for about twenty percent of customary textbook prices. If you are acting as entrepreneur, it's probably a good idea to lose a bit of money in actual out-of-pocket terms, just so that no one misunderstands your intentions. But very probably, the campus copy center can print-to-demand from your master copy.

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/20/2005

This seems largely non-sequitur. You don't specify which issues Roderick and I "haven't dealt with." You don't explain why it matters whether a subject is "established" or not (whatever that means). And you imply that our position is equivalent to being "casual about the distribution of non-existent money." RE this third point, I don't know why you would call the money non-existent: obviously the students _are_ spending (someone's) money on textbooks, so the issue is, does the professor get to select the textbook, or does someone else? If it's not the professor's choice, then that's an abridgement of academic freedom. To regard textbooks as interchangeable is essentially to regard professors as interchangeble, and we're not. Part of our job, and our training for that job, is to plan course content and select course materials that best serve that content. Many profs, especially those who have been teaching for a long time, as have Roderick and I, will find from time to time that, given a particular vision of a course, there is no really great textbook. Most often, the response to that realization is to resign oneself to a second-best text and make the best of it; after all, we're all very busy. But once in a while, some of decide to remedy the situation by creating a new textbook, one which best serves our vision of the course. If a publisher agrees that this is indeed a methodology others might find helpful, then the book is published. I don't care how much royalties the math profs make. The principle is the same. Professors need and are entitled to autonomy in course prep, and that includes text selection. The fact that Prof A has authored or edited a text should not only not disqualify him from ordering it, it's a prima facie case for why he should order it.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/20/2005

I would say that Ralph Luker is right about this issue, and Aeon J. Skoble and Roderick T. Long are wrong. I notice that Skoble and Long are both philosophers, and political philosophers at that. This means that they probably have not dealt with certain kinds of issues. Liberal arts subjects break out into two groups: established and unestablished. In an established subject (History, English), there are required courses (History of Western Civ, Freshman English), and you can get a secondary school teaching certificate. Unestablished subjects, such as Anthropology, Linguistics, Philosophy, etc., do not have this kinds of baggage. One can afford to be casual about the distribution of non-existent money.

The situation in a Mathematics department is different. There might be sixty sections of College Algebra (equivalent to high-school Trigonometry), enrolling a total of 2000 students, the vast majority of the freshman class. The textbook goes through a new edition at extremely frequent intervals, possibly even annually, and does in fact cost about $150, and yes, the royalty is about ten dollars. The "annual model change" breaks down the used book market. There are no substantive changes from year to year, but the problem sets are all renumbered, and the numeric values in the problems are changed. These are the sort of changes that can easily be done by a suitably programmed computer. This works out to an annual twenty thousand dollars of royalty money, say half a million over the life of the textbook, and yes, you can get yourself into a whole heap of trouble over that much money. When the scandal breaks, you may very well find that the Mathematics chairperson is politically naive, and the situation may escalate.

If you are not in the business of making money, it is probably a good idea to restrict your business activities to the narrowest compass that will allow you to get your work done. The situation would have been different twenty years ago, but now we have websites. The O'Reilly formula seems a sensible compromise-- sell printed books, but make a free copy, in the form of an acrobat file, available on the web for anyone who wants it. I realize that there are issues of publication credit, but are you quite sure that, unbeknownst to you, your editor has not written an internal memorandum discussing the number of students who take your class, etc.? These kinds of things tend to surface in legal discovery.

Michael P Van Winkle - 9/19/2005

Has anyone considered the fact that many students actually have an incentive to spend MORE moeny on text books and not less.

I posted at length on this on my blog:

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/19/2005

I deny the validity of the concept "textbooks of comparable quality" in this case. If I have taken the trouble to produce my own textbook, it's because I find others unsatisfactory.

Roderick T. Long - 9/19/2005

So why not a rule setting an upper limit on the total cost of books a professor can require?

Roderick T. Long - 9/19/2005

Again, I agree with Aeon -- I don't find most textbooks interchangeable at all. As I said, the difference betwene this case and the Rawls case is one of scale or degree, not of kind.

Now there are two different questions here. One is: what policy should be required? The other is: when no policy is required, what policy should professors voluntarily follow?

To the first question I say that the professor's freedom to choose textbooks should not be interfered with. Requiring professors to give up royalties -- in order to prevent them from being influenced by financial incentives in choosing textbooks -- is a much less objectionable rule, though in light of the actual revenue involved I think it would be kind of silly and rather insulting, as well as unfairly depriving labour of compensation.

But, for the sake of argument, let's suppose such a mandatory policy would be justified. It doesn't follow that in the absence of such a policy the professor ought to act as though the policy were in force. The obligation to avoid the (possible) appearance of sin is surely much less strict than the duty to avoid sin itself.

Grant Gould - 9/19/2005

1,000,000 is a boundary case. The point is that given textbooks of comparable quality, a professor has an incentive to choose the one whose profits go to him -- his interests are quite at odds with his students' interests in such a case, because he collects the profits without paying the costs.

Roderick T. Long - 9/19/2005

Well, if the book sells for $1,000,000 a copy he's obviously not going to be allowed to require it whether it's by him or not. So what does the fact that he wrote it have to do with the case?

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/19/2005

Interchangeable? No. The reason I decided it was a good idea to produce a textbook is that I wasn't happy with any of the available textbooks. My text is not "interchangeable" with the others -- that's why I produced it, and that's why I order it. There's no conflict of interest. My job is to order the most appropriate textbook. If that's the one I did, am I supposed to order an inferior textbook? Anyway, I don't know what planet Ayres' publisher is from (and wish I did) that he gets 11 bucks per book. In the 6 years my book has been out, I've earned a whopping 70 bucks total. But more to the point, as the second NYT letter-writer notes, the production of the text is unpaid labor, so any royalties, no matter how small, is simply compensation for work already put in. No one makes a textbook to get rich, but rather to fill a teaching need. But even the lucky few who do make a bundle, more power to 'em. It's still not a conflict of interest if the book is the most suitable one for that class.

Grant Gould - 9/19/2005

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine that an evil professor writes a textbook that sells for $1,000,000 a copy. Ought Prof. Evil to be able to require this book of his students? Obviously not -- this would step far beyond the boundaries of mere academic freedom and into the realm of the outright corrupt.

This would seem to be the case that Ayres is getting at -- Prof. Evil ought not to be able to profit personally by the choice of textbooks.

That said, I think that the op-ed attacks the problem from the wrong end. The right answer to the conflict of interest is to require Prof. Evil to give up the royalties on copies bought at his own direction.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2005

I disagree with both Aeon and Rod. Students in our classrooms are often a captive audience. Unlike Rawls's A Theory of Justice, most "textbooks" are readily interchangeable with other textbooks. Aeon's and Rod's positions flagrantly ignore the conflict of interest in self-selecting textbooks in which professors have a financial interest. Better to avoid the appearance of the venal sin of feathering one's own nest.

Roderick T. Long - 9/19/2005

I agree. (And I haven't written or edited a textbook.)

Here's an example that I think points up the absurdity of Ayres' claim. When I was at Harvard I took a couirse on political philosophy tauight by John Rawls. One of the books assigned for the course was Rawls' own A Theory of Justice. The opportunity to study the most influential work in Anglo-American academic political philosophy in the last 50 years, in a course taught by the author, was rather a boon to students, I think. Should he have shortchanged them by assigning some less important work, out of humility or something?

Ayres might reply that not every textbook has the same status as A Theory of Justice. True enough -- but I think the same principle applies even if the scale is different.