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Professors requiring their own written work is a conflict of interest

by Talia Raoufpur, Senior Staff Writer

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It’s that time of year again. Students are faced with high textbook costs and with the pressure to purchase them to avoid a negative grade or feeling left behind. In some classes, students are required to purchase textbooks their instructors wrote — which is a conflict of interest.

According to NBC News, the price of textbooks increased by over 70 percent since 2006. Instructors should not gain financial benefits from students’ learning experiences. The goal should not be to profit from the educational tools needed to earn a high grade.  

According to San Diego State’s University Senate Policy File, “it shall be a conflict of interest and a violation of professional ethics for a faculty member or academic department or school, or segment thereof to accept or solicit payment of royalties or commissions for assigned course materials, other than those published for general (national or international) sale.”

Although the rules do not prohibit instructors from requiring their own published tools for their course, it’s a contradiction to the spirit of academic teaching.

Supplemental teaching guides, or “course readers,” are also instructional materials that are written by faculty and required for students to purchase.

Course readers can only be purchased at the SDSU Bookstore and often must be new, since the material may change each semester. Astronomy 101 professor Douglas Leonard, who has a doctorate in astrophysics, is one of the professors that has a course reader for his class. His sells for $43.99.

“I do not receive any royalties from this course reader and have never even thought about the possibility of receiving any possible royalties,” he said.

His reader contains the course syllabus, weekly outlines, all his PowerPoint slides and supplemental required readings.

He claims the course reader to be a “cost-saver” for students since he no longer requires his students to purchase multiple textbooks. He has since consolidated the necessary readings into one reader. Students solely pay for the publishers’ royalties. The photos featured in his PowerPoint slides are free and the required readings have been printed on less pages, reducing the cost of printing and copyrights.

When asked about professors who require students to purchase their own books, Leonard says if he was in such a position, he would consider issuing a refund to his students from the royalties he earned to avoid a conflict-of-interest. He claims it would only be acceptable to receive the royalties if the book is used in other universities.

Not all professors are as considerate to their students’ wallets as Leonard.

If a professor requires their students to purchase their own material, it must be the most comprehensive book given the course subject. Even then, professors should keep the costs as low as possible.

Charles Tatum, who has a doctorate in psychology, has been teaching the psychology and learning course at SDSU for 30 years and has mandated his students to purchase his own textbook for the last five.

He says he never found a book on the market that was good enough to be used in his class.

“I could do a better job writing a book,” he said.

 Tatum receives approximately a five percent royalty per book and says that if the material is published by a certified publisher, there is no conflict of interest.

His book retails for $65 at the bookstore and the publisher’s website. Tatum’s book is not cheap. A student enrolled in four or more courses per semester may need to purchase a textbook for each class. He says that he likes the results and has received positive feedback from students.

It would be valid for a professor to require their book out of necessity or expertise.

Jewish Studies professor Yale Strom says his required books satisfy both. In his 11 years at SDSU, Strom says he believed that there were no books on the market that would be able to explain Jewish ethnography as well as his own.

“There is no book like it—it’s one-of-a-kind. What better way to teach my own field research. It gives a personal insight to the course,” he said.

 Strom’s expertise is evident in the various books he assigns to his students. In his case, the books serve to enrich their learning of Jewish ethnography through his own experiences—which is often a rare experience for college students. Students’ education comes before any other aspect of college, with the cost having to come second at times. Strom’s literary works—which can be purchased online for less than $10 meet the criteria for both responsibilities. None of his texts exceed the price of $30.

“I am one of the known people in the world to know what was Jewish life during the communist era. It’s my craft. I’m a writer, a composer, musician and photographer—so that all comes through in this book,” Strom said.

Accounting junior Alex Renard says that her English 220 professor required her class to purchase a $15 novel written by her professor.

“If it’s a random novel and one of many books required, then it’s pushing it,” she said.

She says that even though her professor said the subject of the novel correlated with the subject of the class, it seemed like he wanted them to read the book because he wrote it.

Perhaps one way to prevent the rise of costs is for professors to create addendums rather than publish updated editions of their textbooks.   

A conflict-of-interest is made if the instructor’s publishing is a required source and must be purchased by the student. However, their reasoning determines if this conflict will hinder students’ learning potential.

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