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I teach at a community college, and my experience with textbook reps is that they're very friendly and persistent, but ultimately all they've really done is to give me a copy of their book and try to convince me to adopt it. There are certainly many unethical things about textbook publishing, but as far as I could see, they were decisions made by executives in New York (e.g., bringing out new editions to kill off the used market, or shrinkwrapping the book with useless trinkets so that it couldn't be returned). In online discussions, I've often heard people who seem to be students make claims that professors were "bribed" to use a particular publisher's book. I never believed these claims, and when I asked these people to supply evidence, they never had any.

But recently I was talking to a colleague in another department, and he told me that his department would never change their book for a particular course, because his colleagues got ethically questionable inducements from the publisher. When I asked him what they were, he said that the publisher would, e.g., repeatedly invite faculty who were using the book to "meet-the-author" events in Florida. He said that these faculty had grown to expect this as a perk that they were regularly offered as an unspoken quid pro quo for continuing to use the book. I didn't ask him for hard evidence of his claim, and I don't know what form of evidence he would have available.

Is there really any hard evidence that publishers do this sort of thing, or is this an urban folktale?

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    repeatedly invite faculty who were using the book to "meet-the-author" events — Why would anyone want to go to a meet-the-author event for an academic textbook, let alone repeatedly? I'm amazed that people think it's a valuable enough "perk" to impose the book on their students... I know that textbook reps/publishers do try to sugar up the faculty and I've usually heard that they offer to, say, provide X free books/yr (any from the publisher) or a generous discount, etc. – Lorem Ipsum Oct 28 '13 at 3:57
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    @yoda I think the idea is that the perk is a free trip to Florida, not a meeting with the author per se. – dbmag9 Oct 28 '13 at 11:19
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    Wait -- it can't be -- next you're going to tell me that drug companies sometimes engage in ethically questionable practices to ensare doctors. – Corvus Oct 22 '15 at 3:27
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There is some hard evidence that textbook publishers do occasionally offer inducements to professors for adopting their texts. The abstract of this paper in the Journal of Marketing Education reports that

With respect to publisher incentives, 32 respondents reported that they had been offered and 18 reportedly received an inducement from a publisher related to textbook adoption...

Ricki Lewis, author of Freebies and Other Inducements found that "monetary enticement to adopt a book, although not rampant, does happen, and not just in economics. In science, these extras are encountered in large introductory biology and chemistry courses--but less so in physics and geology classes, which tend to attract fewer students."

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A couple of years after asking this question, I came across the following article:

"Selling Out: a Textbook Example," Thomas Bartlett, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2003

The article is paywalled, but you can easily find the full text by googling. It documents a number of clear instances of such inducements, and even quotes several teachers who explain that they knew it was unethical to take the money, but they did it because they wanted some cash. Some choice quotes:

I bought a house in June, and I needed a washer and dryer.

I think most people are susceptible to twinges of guilt. I'm not susceptible to those twinges of guilt.

Apparently the most common form that this bribe takes is that teachers are paid to review a textbook. In some cases they get paid regardless of whether they adopt the book, but in at least one case documented in the article the company, North West Publishing, only paid reviewers if they also adopted the text. In many cases, the payment is made to an entire department and is said to be in return for contributions of material to the book by faculty members, but the payments are disproportionate to the value of the contributed material.

In November 2015, I heard about another instance of this kind of bribery. State legislation in 2012 created the California Open Education Resources Council, made up of faculty from the UC, Cal State, and community college systems. The council was supposed to pick 50 core courses. They were then to establish a "competitive request-for-proposal process in which faculty members, publishers, and other interested parties would apply for funds to produce, in 2013, 50 high-quality, affordable, digital open source textbooks and related materials, meeting specified requirements." As of 2015 this appears to be a second failed initiative (the first being Governor Schwarzenegger's free digital textbook initiative for K-12), and one of the roadblocks appears to have been a controversy over a practice by the publishers of paying faculty to adopt their open-source books. On the face of it, this seems a little odd -- why pay people to adopt a book that is free? The publishers' illogical public justification is that they are doing this because making the materials free takes money out of the collective pockets of faculty who have written books. This makes very little sense, because the people they're writing checks to are not the same people as the ones who have written free or non-free books. Presumably the motivation for paying for adoptions is that the publishers intend to make money off of ancillary products and services, such as $120/semester subscriptions to mandatory online homework systems.

  • Thanks for following up on this. It's too bad that the CA initiative fell through, I had really high hopes for it at the time. – Daniel R. Collins Nov 25 '15 at 0:05
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Other leading tricks: (1) Offer a lucrative "accuracy checking" gig to recent adopters, (2) Create a special university-specific version of the text with e.g. an appendix of university-specific requirements and "share" the revenue with the "coauthor" department.

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I haven't been offered any free trips by publishers yet, but in my area (mathematics) someone once pointed out a different incentive the publishers provide to our discipline.

At the largest mathematics conferences in the U.S., there are "exhibits" which publishers use to show off their books. There is a significant fee to rent space for these. Publishers also purchase advertising for the conference program, provide name tags with the publisher's name, and other such things. This has the effect of subsidizing the conference, reducing the cost for faculty to attend.

I think there is an ethical question to consider about this framework. In the end, students who buy the textbooks provide the funds that the publishers use to purchase exhibit space and advertising, which in turn defrays the cost of the conference for professors.

It seems reasonable to ask whether this helps to discourage the professional societies who sponsor the conferences from setting up committees to develop free courseware -- committees of that sort seem like one way to get "respectable" freely reproducible course materials, and the lack of action by mathematics professional societies seems particularly noticeable.

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