I realize that it is really not unethical or illegal for a university professor to assign their own book that they have published as the textbook for a class. However, is it unethical for a professor to assign an expensive book, then require the students to get the book personally autograph to the student, by the professor prior to the professor accepting any work from the student? This creates several issues for me:

  1. Textbooks personally signed can not be sold back to bookstores.
  2. Used books can be sold to other students but when they reach the class, they are penalized for not getting their own book to meet the requirement of "personal autograph" to that student, which forces them to purchase the book again.
  3. Without getting the book signed, the professor will not accept work which results in a "0".
  4. The professor would not allow students to take pictures of notes in other students books but MUST PURCHASE the book, explaining "because you are not paying me".
  5. Essentially, this appears to be a "FOR PROFIT OF THE PROFESSOR" class. It isn't about the education of the student at all.

I feel it is unethical. Do you? What should a student do about this?

  • 8
    Where are you in the world? Not that it affects the ethics, but it does likely affect what a student can/should do...
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 29, 2019 at 16:55
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    As absurd as this sounds, this is blatantly, openly and shamelessly unethical that it fits perfectly our time; as much as I wouldn't like to, I do actually believe that. Either this professor or this university should be fired. Aug 29, 2019 at 17:56
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    I realize that it is really not unethical or illegal for a university professor to assign their own book that they have published as the textbook for a class.Well, that depends.
    – JeffE
    Aug 29, 2019 at 18:12
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    This is not unethical or something, its blatantly criminal. The legal term for such behaviour is coercion. Dont bother complaining to university officials, just call up your district attorney, and have that prof dragged out of his office into a courtroom.
    – Karl
    Aug 29, 2019 at 19:09
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    @Karl: Do you have experience with this approach? The district attorney in my country would probably lough and fine me for calling them for such a silly reason.
    – user112604
    Sep 3, 2019 at 20:10

2 Answers 2


Yes, some aspects of this are unethical. I'm surprised that a university would permit it to happen. They would, I hope, object if they learn of it. Especially if they learn of it from complaints to higher authorities.

In my personal view as a professor and author, I can, certainly, assign one of my own books in a course I teach. But I believe that ethically, I should return to the student any royalty payment that I receive from the publisher. To avoid student cheating, I can purchase their receipt for the book from them so that they can't simply return it to be sold again as new.

I think that the professor in question is trying to do something similar in part of this (autographing the book), but in an unethical way.

I would think that autographed copies can be sold back to the bookstore, but not simply returned as new. Some autographed works are worth more, actually. The professor doesn't profit from the sale of used copies, of course. Only the "first sale" results in any royalties.

I don't know how the professor "verifies" the purchase. Does he keep a list, or just ask to see an autographed copy?

But, the issue of profiting from students when you require a purchase in such a way as to guarantee a profit is clearly a breach. As you describe it, it sounds like a clear form of coercion that should not occur and actually can pollute the relationship between student and professor.

And obviously, most professor-authors think their own books are the best.

  • I dont get your scheme with buying the receipt from the students. You will have to give a substancial fraction of the full price (?), but that way they can still sell the book to next years students, and end up with a profit in total. And which bookshop would take back a book after months?
    – Karl
    Aug 29, 2019 at 19:22
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    An author gets something like 5% of the selling price of a book. I'd buy the receipt for that amount. The student can't return the book to the bookstore without the receipt. But, yes, they can always sell the book on the used market. So I just adjust the price to them so that my net is zero.
    – Buffy
    Aug 29, 2019 at 19:33
  • very commendable! +1
    – Karl
    Aug 29, 2019 at 19:52
  • But you actually buy the receipt from the students so that you dont pay multiple times for books that are circulating on the second hand market, right?
    – Karl
    Sep 3, 2019 at 21:43
  • @Karl, Actually, I would only buy it for new book purchases since those are the only ones from which I would profit otherwise. Used book sales give nothing back to the author.
    – Buffy
    Sep 3, 2019 at 21:46

Yes I think it is unethical. If your university has an ombudsman or similar office, go to them and ask their opinion. You may be able to report this anonymously.

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