On Campus

Conflict of Interest and textbooks

More on the debate over assigning one's own book.

My pal Carson Jerema takes the Globe and Mail to task for being upset by professors assigning their own textbooks. He is right, it seems to me, that this issue is overblown, and right to say that the argument that students won’t question the book rings hollow. The point he spends less time on, and the most interesting one it seems to me, is  the Globe’s assertion that assigning one’s own book represents a conflict of interest.

The conflict of interest argument goes something like this. If a professor is going to assign a textbook to her class, she has an obligation to choose the best book she can. If she herself is in a position to earn money directly by choosing her own book, her personal financial interest is in conflict with her professional obligations. That is, how can one know whether she is assigning that book because it is the best, or just because she wants to line her own pockets? And depending on the class, this money may not be trivial: it may be thousands in royalties. Moreover, if a professor does not assign her own book in her own course, and that fact was picked up on by competing publishers, the overall sales of the book could suffer, costing the professor even more money. It’s not the same as being paid to teach the course itself.

In practice, though,  the conflict of interest does not cause much harm. In the fields where sales are substantial — Intro Psych, Organic Chem — most textbooks are fairly similar, often indistinguishable in all important ways — I know because I used to sell textbooks for a living. So unless Professor Smith has written the one American Government textbook that really sucks, her students are no worse off than they would be with her own book. In more specialized fields, Professor Smith’s book may be the only up-to-date book there is, in which case Smith would be derelict in NOT assigning it.

To be sure, there are abuses. One professor at my university was said to assign his book in every class he taught whether it was relevant or not. Maybe it was relevant; I’m not an expert in his field and I didn’t take his courses. Or maybe he convinced himself that it was relevant to every single course, but that’s where the conflict of interest comes in. We can convince ourselves of a lot if we are to gain from it. But such cases are, in my experience, the exception. In fact, I think most professors are fairly circumspect about it. When I was a doctoral student, my department decided that all English courses must recommend a standard composition handbook, one that happened to be co-authored by the department chair. In anticipation of the raised eyebrows, the chair announced that he was donating all of the royalties earned thereby to charity. It seemed like a good compromise.

In short, the textbook conflict of interest could be a big problem, but as far as I have seen, it just isn’t.