Sunday, November 30, 2014
As textbook prices climb, re-selling review copies seems suspect
Instructors on college campuses often request review copies of textbooks from publishers. The idea behind this is to give instructors a chance to consider several different texts to find the best fit for the course he or she is going to teach.
But sometimes, instructors who request such review copies have no intention of using them for courses.
A faculty member at a Southern college writes that faculty at his school "openly" sell the textbooks they receive as review copies for a tidy profit to used book buyers who prowl the campus.
"Some of these books are ordered and never opened," he writes, "which leads me to suspect that it's part of a scheme that defrauds textbook publishers and possibly drives up the cost of publishing textbooks."
Still, the faculty member wonders if being able to buy such re-sold review copies online at a significant discount might partially address how overwhelmed many college students are by the hidden costs of higher education, such as textbooks.
"Isn't this actually an altruistic, ethical practice on the part of their instructors?" he asks. "Or should we be concerned instead that this is a fraudulent practice by those instructors, who should know they are modeling a deceptive behavior to their students?"
Adding to the issue, the faculty member writes is that occasionally publishers will promote textbooks by mailing copies to whole departments.
"Are faculty obligated to return these unsolicited books when it's more convenient (and profitable) to just sell them to buyers?" he asks.
About five years ago, I posed a question on the blog for this column asking readers whether it was OK for a professor to sell a copy of a textbook he or she had received as a free review copy. It turned out to be among the top-read blog posts ever. Perhaps the issue hits a nerve because college costs are so high and textbook prices can be staggering.
If an instructor requests a review copy of a text for possible use in a course, but he or she has no intention of using the book for that course, that's deceptive and wrong. If, in requesting a review copy of a book, an instructor agrees with the publisher that he or she will not re-sell the book, then the right thing is to honor that commitment.
If, however, books are sent to an instructor unsolicited by a publisher, and no agreement is made not to re-sell them, then technically, the department members may be within their right to do what they want with the texts.
It would seem that a forward-thinking department might find a way to use any proceeds from the sale of review copies books to help defray the costs of textbooks for their students.
Even if the textbooks referred to in the reader's questions are not being used for classes, if a pool were created in which any proceeds could be deposited, those funds might be used to subsidize the cost of textbooks actually required for courses.
The right thing, however, is not to behave fraudulently and misrepresent the true reason for requesting a review copy. If an instructor has no intention of considering a book for use in class and instead simply plans to re-sell the copy, it's wrong.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.