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The bookstore at my American university is an outpost of Barnes and Noble, charges much higher prices than can be found on Amazon, and in my opinion offers very poor service. Among other things that upset me, they prohibit students from browsing the stacks of textbooks -- instead you are supposed to tell the staff what you want, so they can retrieve it for you.

I prefer to mass e-mail my students in advance of the course and urge them to buy their books for my class at Amazon, used if at all possible.

Is there anything unethical, or that could possibly get me into trouble, about this?

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You don't have to outright tell them they can save money in the email, just tell them the price the university bookstore is setting, and then you can just mention Amazon's price for, you know, interest's sake. ;) –  NauticalMile Aug 8 at 0:40
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Quite honestly: why do you feel you need to do price comparisons for your students? Just tell them the name of the textbook. A college student ought to be able to figure out where to get it cheapest. (I just read in the newspaper that 6-year-olds are more computer-savvy than 45-year-olds nowadays. Chances are your students do more online shopping than you do.) –  Stephan Kolassa Aug 8 at 5:50
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I suggest changing the question to be less of a plug for Amazon: "Should I inform students that there are cheaper alternatives to the on-campus book store" or something in that fashion. –  Lilienthal Aug 8 at 8:04
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If you want to be more political correct, just state that the book can be bought from the campus or from other sources, such as amazon, and that is the same book. –  Soccerman Aug 8 at 8:24
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If you really want to be helpful/save them money give the name, the ISBN, and whether the international version will suffice. –  Daniel Cook Aug 8 at 19:07

15 Answers 15

Politically?

Sure, but there is always a chance to tip on someone toe if you do anything. I fully agree with Nicholas that you have subtle ways to do it.

Ethically?

In the given situation the bookstore is a for-profit entity that gives below-average service to your students on an above-average price. Whatever approach you use define the main mission of a university, it should include a good and fair service to your students for their 10-20-30 k$/year they pay. So I would say it is unethical to not tell them that they are not obligated to use a sub-par money-sucker service, they are free to buy from internet, e.g. Amazon. If anyone is unethical in this situation, than the person who is supervising the B&N shops license to run at your university. But it is again a politically sensitive issue.

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I do not agree that it is in any way unethical to not tell them. First of all, below-average service is a very subjective criteria (maybe they offer other things the OP never used or does not care about. Other people might think the service is superb.) and I don't see why one should be morally obliged to recommend students cheap stores - I would also not feel morally obliged to recommend them the cheapest office supply store in town. It might be a nice move, but I see nothing unethical in not doing this. –  dirkk Aug 8 at 14:33
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10-20-30-40-50-60 k$/year... –  Kyle Strand Aug 8 at 15:24
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@dirkk First of all, I didn't say he was morally obligated to recommend the cheapest service. I said the moral move is to at least to tell they don't need to use one that OP believes low quality. The final choice is of the students, anyway. Second, quality is subjective and opinion based, it is true. But if I sell you something that is crap based on my opinion, I am still dishonest. –  Greg Aug 8 at 17:13
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@Greg I feel like we could have cultural clash here. You wrote "to at least to tell they don't need to use one". Well, as I (and no other student I know of in Germany) would have never though I am obliged to use this bookstore, I would also not offer this advice. We just get told "We need book X" and no-one cares were we buy it and certainly it is not obliged to use the campus bookstore (not even many have one). That's why I see nothing unethical in not telling them, because it is common knowledge. Maybe the US campus system is more tightly integrated with their on-side bookstores?! –  dirkk Aug 8 at 17:40
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@KyleStrand I get amazed at how you get those prices, here in Spain it's 1-2-3 k$ and everyone's complaining because nowadays is more like 3k$ than it is like 1k$ –  Francisco Presencia Aug 9 at 21:17

Not wrong per se, but as others have mentioned, you may well be stepping on some toes. If you don't feel like dealing with the owners of said toes (whether in the bookstore, or the relevant person in the university), then there are ways to do so without blatantly stating that the bookstore is ripping off students. (Note that I'm not implying that you are blatantly saying any such thing!)

One option is to tell the students on the first day of class. The obvious downside to that is that many students will already have purchased the needlessly expensive bookstore texts by then.

A better option is your practice of mass-email prior to the start of the course. Instead of urging the students to buy from Amazon (which may imnply that you are affiliated), why not just provide information on prices from the bookstore as well as the prices --for new and used-- from several vendors (Amazon is just a starting place, Abebooks, Ebay, Textbooks.com, etc, come to mind as well). Also, as others have mentioned in the comments, students will appreciate if you mention whether the latest edition is required, or if the previous (much cheaper!) edition will also work. The savvy student will know what you are implying for the alternate vendors, and the rest... well, perhaps they deserve to pay the bookstore prices!

Additionally, if your institution has a formal or informal student exchange, students may be able to buy used textbooks from a student who took the course last semester. You might be able to put your incoming students in touch with this network, as well.

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One way to increase the impact of option #1 is to explicitly mention in the course syllabus (or some similar online resource, or even in a mass email) that the course will be structured so that students will not need the book in the first week or two of class. That will let them know they can wait until class starts to purchase it. –  David Z Aug 8 at 3:41
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From what I've observed in the last 10 yrs as my own kids went thru college, any child with enough brains to qualify for college will find out directly or via his friends about discount textbook supply stores online. So, yeah, for those out-of-country students or anyone else who missed the "gossip," go right ahead and state "you don't need the latest edition. Any edition more recent than X is fine for this course." –  Carl Witthoft Aug 8 at 22:22
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+1 for mentioning student's exchange. Fortunately at our faculty we even had enough copies of most undergrad textbooks in the library, but that was quite specific just for the physicists and mathematicians. –  Vladimir F Aug 9 at 14:46

I wouldn't specifically mention Amazon. It's just one vendor. Just let them know that they don't need a new copy and are probably able to order cheaper used versions of the book "online".

I don't think they'll have any sort of trouble understanding what you're trying to say, and it sounds a lot more reasonable and less rebellious to the rest of the university.

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First, facetiously, if you consider yourself beholden to your university, so that you must shill for all their money-making activities, then, yes, you are not doing what they'd want. :)

Second, many universities' bookstores have become financially-independent, in effect for-profit, entities, taking advantage whenever possible of convenience and misunderstandings... Their being for-profit already corrupts their function, and their selection of available (=profitable) books, not to mention their pricing structure.

Third, for-profit textbook-writing is a huge industry, with the pursuant corruptions (wherever there's a dollar to be made...). New editions with pointless changes, ... In my opinion, given that the internet exists, we, collectively, can do better, in many ways. Information is not entirely free, but it's not as expensive as all these scalpers (!) would like us to believe.

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So umm... how does this answer the question (people's agreement with your views notwithstanding)? You rant against for-profit books and education, but Amazon is just as for-profit as any bookstore, and has certainly done its fair share of sleazy things to corner the market. –  Chris White Aug 8 at 7:04
    
Maybe I missed something, but how is a private bookstore that happens to be located on or near campus a part of the "money-making activities" of the university? –  O. R. Mapper Aug 8 at 7:14
    
@O.R.Mapper because the university gets kickbacks. –  Pieter B Aug 8 at 9:05
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@PieterB: Now that sounds extremely unethical to me (on the side of the university) and I would argue it is ethical to actively fight such an arrangement by advising against buying at such a store. On campus stores are fine as a convenience, but if they are a means of effectively limiting the freedom of choice on where to buy one's stuff, I'd consider that a severe issue that calls into question the credibility of the university. –  O. R. Mapper Aug 8 at 9:13
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@ChrisWhite, in the face of for-profits, it is not unethical to pay the lowest price, I think. –  paul garrett Aug 8 at 12:21

It turns out that Richard Stallman is on my department's mailing list, and each time someone mentions Amazon in some email (e.g. Amazon giftcards for miscellaneous experiments, Amazon feature in Ubuntu, etc.) he will adamantly recall a couple of reasons why we should not to buy from Amazon: https://stallman.org/amazon.html

Reasons not to buy from Amazon

If you want to order a book (or something else), don't buy it from Amazon. Amazon harms its customers, as well as workers, the national treasury, and many others that it affects.

If you want to order a book, order it directly from the publisher or through a local book store. If you want to use a URL to refer to a book, please don't use an Amazon page.

Here's a good (though long) overview of why Amazon's overall activity is harmful to society overall.

Here are specific reasons — plenty of them.

Restricting and Shafting Customers

Amazon distributes ebooks in a way that strips users of many freedoms (PDF or html).

Amazon's on-line music "sales" have some of the same problems as the ebooks: users are required to identify themselves and sign a contract that denies them the freedoms they would have with a CD.

The Amazon Swindle has a back door that can erase books. We found out about this when Amazon remotely erased thousands of copies of 1984. In response to criticism, Amazon promised it would never do this again unless ordered to by the state, which I find not very comforting.

Amazon did not keep that promise. In 2012 it wiped a user's Kindle and deleted her account, then offered her kafkaesque "explanations".

Amazon's book recommendations are not based honestly on algorithms that try to figure out what users might like. Publishers .

Amazon rents textbooks to students with a requirement not to take them across state lines.

Amazon "sold" someone Disney Christmas videos (via remote access, not a local copy); subsequently Amazon, at Disney's command, cut off access for Christmas. This demonstrates why we should not trust remote hosting for copies of published works. Insist on having your own copy which is yours.

Amazon's service, that offers you an MP3 for CDs you bought there, respects your rights less than ripping the CDs yourself.

Amazon's complex financial arrangements bypass UK credit card consumer protection.

Censorship

Amazon cut off service to Wikileaks, claiming that whistleblowing violates its terms of service. It had no need to go to court to prove this, because if you rent a server from Amazon, you have no rights.

Amazon censored an ebook that exposed how ebook bestseller lists can be manipulated (and therefore are meaningless).

Exploiting workers mercilessly

Amazon's shipping in the US is done in a sweatshop. More info, including paramedics standing by for workers who pass out from the heat.

Workers in an Amazon warehouse and shipping center walk all day under the orders of a computer, and are forbidden even to speak to each other.

A stress expert, looking at an undercover report about an Amazon warehouse, says these conditions make physical and mental illness more likely.

Shafting others in the publishing world

Amazon squeezes small publishers. For instance, Amazon cut off Swindle sales for an independent book distributor in order to press for bigger discounts. (The article ends by promoting ebooks for another platform, the Shnook from Barnes and Noble. While that company is not as nasty to small publishers, its ebooks do violate your freedom in most of the same ways.)

Amazon doesn't just compete with independent book stores, it arrogantly seeks to destroy them. Independent book stores urge people not to buy from Amazon.

Amazon appears to treat self-published authors well, but it can unilaterally cut the price of their books. And when it does, the authors are the ones who lose.

Amazon is bad for books and writing.

Amazon is demonstrating its dangerous power by punishing one publisher with all sorts of unofficial discouragements to buy.

We should not allow any bookstore to be as big as Amazon.

Amazon's hardball tactics against a publisher show its dangerous power.

Not that Hachette deserves any sympathy. The point is that we need to break Amazon's power.

Dodging taxes

At least 10% of Amazon's success is due to avoiding the taxes that physical book stores pay.

Amazon's tax avoidance means it sucks money out of your country's economy.

Amazon charges publishers for 20% sales tax in the UK even though the tax it pays is 3%.

UK independent bookstores condemn Amazon for not paying taxes as they do.

Political harm

Amazon was a member of ALEC. ALEC is the right-wing lobbying group that promotes voter-suppression laws and "shoot first" laws, as well as attacks against wages and working conditions in the US.

Amazon quit ALEC after public pressure in May 2012, but I am sure it still supports the same nasty policies and is waiting for a new tool to achieve them.

Copyright (c) 2011-2014 Richard Stallman Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire page are permitted provided this notice is preserved.


Answer to comments:

  • My answer aims at showing that you can argue it is unethical to buy items from Amazon for various reasons. Ethics is often very subjective. I personally don't see anything that can be ethical around selling textbooks to students at over 100 USD, whether it is on Amazon or elsewhere, but if one has to buy it I would totally go to Amazon if it is cheaper, which is the case in most of the time.
  • My vision of a professor's ethics is that he should feel free to do anything he thinks that can benefit students, even if that means that some other faculty might complain that students aren't broke enough (i.e. I believe it is unlikely to get in trouble in the Amazon case). When you teach a class, you should focus on students' well-fare. As pointed out in another answer, that's probably the best way to behave ethically, but you might enter some political territory.
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"Amazon appears to treat self-published authors well, but it can unilaterally cut the price of their books. And when it does, the authors are the ones who lose." This part is highly probable. They did the same to web affiliates. Once everybody built web sites linking to Amazon to be part of their affiliate program, they cut all the commissions in half -- knowing that most affiliates wouldn't want to destroy the web sites and tools they already built for Amazon's marketplace. –  Stephan Branczyk Aug 9 at 8:58
    
I think this misses the point of the question. Your answer makes it clear that you believe that redirecting students to Amazon is wrong, but doesn't really address if redirecting students to someplace else is wrong. –  StrongBad Aug 9 at 11:58
    
Answer edited . –  Franck Dernoncourt Aug 9 at 16:14
    
I have to agree with @StrongBad. Completely off topic apart from the last 3 sentences. –  The Almighty Bob Aug 9 at 18:55
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Quoting Stallman doesn't help anyone with anything. At very least, explain why B&N is better according to his rather unique view of ethics if you think his critique of Amazon is a reason to leave them overpaying at B&N. –  bmargulies Aug 10 at 17:42

Writing an email to your students advising them to obtain their textbook from somewhere other than your University's preferred supplier - B&N - might well earn you a telling off.

Helpfully informing your students - in a lecture, not in writing - that your preferred textbook is available at the University bookshop - as well as from other sources - is less likely to cause you trouble. It is, after all, a completely true statement, and in the best interests of your students. Everyone knows about Amazon and I would expect any thrifty student to refer to Amazon's website for competitive prices for the textbook.

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Urging student to buy from a supplier rather than another can be seen as advertisement and it's not something a professor should do.

Suggesting to look for alternatives or simply mentioning the book title and letting them do the math is probably the best way to go. You may imply that the most recent version has very small (or no) changes so clever people can go and buy the previous version from other students or used-book stores.

As a final comment I noticed that no-one mentioned to push (in this case urging is allowed) the students to use the University (or the City) Library: books are free to peruse and to borrow, what better option is there?

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If the university library has only two copies of the book and there are over 100 students in the same class, what then? –  scaaahu Aug 8 at 9:36
    
one of my lecturer back then actually suggested the library strategy... she suggested us to form groups, and borrow the books in turn, till the end of the semester.... –  Jeffrey04 Aug 8 at 10:38
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This is a terrible suggestion. Library copies of texts should be there for reference, not for a student (or even group of students) to hold for their personal use for a full semester. –  Carl Witthoft Aug 8 at 22:23

If you have the student's best interests at heart, you can mail them that you'd be following the (n-1)th edition of the textbook, where n is the most recent version. That way, they can get the textbook at less than the price of a cup of coffee(or even free!), and there's almost always the exact same content!

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Except many professors write this stuff, and derive income from it, and they're not likely to want to support such freeloading tactics. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 10 at 0:09
    
Well, have you seen the difference between the successive editions of books which are released every single year? I don't see much writing being done - even the TOC from the previous edition works in some cases! –  TCSGrad Aug 11 at 18:26
    
So? You're still going out of your way to avoid paying the decent price for what you have just said yourself is basically the same thing. It's not illegal and it's barely even amoral, but instructing your students to do it seems like a step too far. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 11 at 18:30

The only thing wrong about it is that you should be telling them to look not just on Amazon, but everywhere on the internet. A convenient aggregator is dealoz.com (there are many other similar sites).

Amazon is perhaps more reliable than many other sellers, but it is usually more expensive too. And: If you just say Amazon, it might sound like you're getting a commission from Amazon!

Also, especially for many of the more popular textbooks, it is not difficult to find free PDF copies somewhere. This may or may not be legal, but considering how evil the US textbook industry is (and the university bookstores as well), it is arguably the morally correct thing to do. You can phrase it in an ironic fashion in your email, e.g. "You may or may not know, but there are many free and illegal PDF copies of this book online. I strongly discourage you from downloading these."

ADDED TIP: Use older editions of the textbook and tell them it's OK to get an older edition (indeed, try to design your class so that it's no big deal even if they use an older edition). For the most popular textbooks, the evil textbook companies pump out a new edition every 2 or 3 years (even for things like Calculus or Spanish 101 where probably no radical advances either in research or pedagogy are made even once a decade!) As a student I was always annoyed when the professors would by default just ask you to get the newest edition, because it's just the simplest/easiest thing for the professor to do, but of course it could cost me easily $50 more.

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In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with suggesting/linking to Amazon, but if you wanted to look more impartial, here is a list of price comparison engines suggested by Consumer Reports. To make it convenient for your students to search, just pick one that allows you to embed a book title directly into each link.

Pick one that works for your books. If you're so inclined, you could even write (or ask someone to write) a script that queries your favorite price comparison engine, in addition to your campus store inventory, your local public libraries, and the local library system of your University.

If you wanted to take it one step further, you could even start your own local bulletin board, or connect your query to search an existing local bulletin board for facilitating a student to student book marketplace that skips the middleman.

Also, there is no reason this couldn't be done with a plain pen and paper low tech cork bulletin board, that you'd just post to the door of your office, or in the hallway of your academic department.

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There is no need to specify a particular source lest it border on advertisement, but recommending alternative sources for materials has been fairly common in my experience. In fact, our campus bookstore's website even lists a price comparison tool for all the major online retailers. Taking that as a baseline I think it is only honest to provide information to the students if you find it particularly informative. It isn't uncommon for professors to email the class in the weeks leading up to the start about alternative versions and how compatible they would be with the class "just in case" they are having trouble acquiring the book. Even so far as "I have heard some sources are even 'selling' an electronic copy" has appeared as a subtle nod to the fact that there is a pdf that can be downloaded out there somewhere. Some universities will be happier than others in this regard, but as long as you avoid dropping specific names of retailers in any mass correspondence then I don't see anything outside of standard practice here.

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As long as Amazon is really the best place to buy them it couldn't be unethical.

It feels wrong for me because Amazon competes unfairly due to it's size. It may also feel wrong because you're telling students not to follow the norm.

Bottom line? You're helping your students. That's what you should be doing! Keep it up!

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Just from my own personal experience and less about ethics: my teachers tell me all the time to not waste money at the bookstore. And actually, unless you're a freshmen or a really lazy college student, no one buys from them anyways. I haven't bought a textbook from the university store in years unless (and boy do I hate this) it's a "university specific" text book that you literally can't get anywehere else.

Also, I never, ever buy books until at least the first week of class to better gauge if I actually need them. I'll get them if a teacher makes a point of saying I'll need to (and even then it usually is a 50/50 shot of if they use it or not -_-)

What I would recommend is to just verbally tell your students in class to buy the book from somewhere else (this allows no direct trail from you saying to not buy from the bookstore).

Another suggestion some of my teachers have done is to list the book and then, as others have said, give the bookstore price and an amazon/ ebay price as well and let the students figure it out.

But really, I would say, just tell them in class. Your students should really already know to never buy from the bookstore and it creates less liability (if there were ever to be one) on your part.

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If all students would know never to buy form the bookstore the bookstore wouldn't be in business. –  Christian Aug 9 at 18:58

As soon as you've selected the textbook for an upcoming class, post the information, including the ISBN, on your web page. Books available in electronic form have different ISBNs; list the electronic version, too. If you require a particular edition, say so. If an earlier edition will do, explicitly say that. I try to include a link to the publisher's site for the book, which will have the publisher's list price, information about electronic versions, and sometimes even free resources for students. Here is one of my textbook listings:

Required Textbook: Stallings, William and Lawrie Brown [_*Computer
Security Principles and Practice, Second Edition.*_][1] Pearson / Prentice Hall,
2012; ISBN-13: 9780132775069. The second edition has been revised 
substantially. Only the second edition will do for this course. (Note: This 
book is available for rental as an e-book on Google Play. Kindle editions
and rentals are available on Amazon as well as in the university bookstore.
Other options may also be available.)

I haven't told the students where to buy the book, but I've given them everything they need to make informed purchase decisions. The "other options" note is surely enough of a clue to set people to searching.

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Thanks, J. Zimmerman, for the edit. Someday I will learn to proofread carefully in case I words out. –  Bob Brown Aug 12 at 1:08

My informed guess is that students know anyway, and there's no need to tell them.
FWIW, I don't believe that publisher-direct is a much better option, and I also believe some of the electronic "rent-for-a-semester" deals from the publisher are not that hot.

Interestingly, the publishers are going to track purchases from your campus bookstore. My own experience with one publisher is that they gave me tons of problems about providing me with access to electronic teaching resources associated with my text because they didn't feel the bookstore was selling enough copies.

Without going into too much detail, there are some real interesting (let's just call them) "issues" with modern academic publishing. In some ways, there are problems in that area that are somewhat analogous to what record labels have been dealing with during their recent history. There are just better ways to distribute information these days, and if publishers don't tweak their business models, they'll become dinosaurs.

If there is ONE THING you should be sharing with your students, it's that finding and using illegal electronic copies is THEFT. I'm certainly no hero for the publishers, who I don't have much sympathy for, but I'd love to see textbook theft by electronic or other means specifically listed in our academic honesty language.

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Regarding illegal copies, there's a practical reason as well as a moral reason. Those "free" PDFs may contain nasty surprises in addition to, or even instead of, what you thought you were getting. –  Bob Brown Aug 12 at 1:14

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