This question was suggested to me by How can I sell my text book to my students in e-book format? which asked about the practicalities but attracted many comments about the ethics. So this question is to ask about the ethics directly.

Suppose I have written and published a textbook, and I want to use it as the text for a course I am teaching. I receive royalties from each copy of my book that is sold, so if my students are required to buy my textbook for the course, I will make some money. Is it ethical to do so?

Well-reasoned opinions would be useful answers, but even more useful would be pointers to institutional policies, professional codes of ethics, etc, that address this issue.

Of course, there are many ways to avoid profiting from the sale of my book to my students. If my contract with my publisher allows it, I could distribute PDFs to my students, or have the university bookstore print out copies and sell them at cost. Another approach I've heard of is to compute how much I earn in royalties on each copy and refund that amount from my pocket to each student who buys a copy. Or, use my royalty earnings to buy pizza for the class. Certainly, these are nice gestures, but I would like opinions on whether they are ethically required.

  • This question is hypothetical. I haven't published any textbooks myself and have no immediate plans to do so. In any case, my personal preference would be to make the book available to students for free, if at all possible. So I've phrased this question in the first person for rhetorical convenience only.

  • I had intended the question to be only about the potential financial conflict of interest that could arise if I make money by assigning my own book. Some of the answers feel that it is improper for me to assign my own textbook at all, whether I make money or not, but I don't think this point of view is prevalent within the academic community. If it happens that my book (as a pithy but now-deleted comment put it) "blows", I think most would agree that my decision to assign it is pedagogically unfortunate, but not unethical.

  • I don't literally mean that students would be required to buy the book, only that they'd be expected to have it. I might assign readings or homework problems from the book so that the student needs access to the book in order to do them, but they could certainly achieve this by getting a used copy or borrowing from a friend. But probably most students would buy new copies anyway since that is the most convenient way.

  • 5
    You'd sure be in the minority if you found it unethical. Several of my course requirements included purchased books and materials from professors.
    – Wyrmwood
    Dec 28, 2013 at 15:08
  • 14
    You could also ask yourself the question "what if I wrote a textbook and not use it with my students?". Seriously, is your textbook a good one for the course? Is it non-overpriced? Are you a better instructor for writing it? Do you get to improve it for teaching with it? How much do you make by using it in class? Do your students think it is worth it (and did you ask them)? Ethics is all about you and how you judge your actions, there is a good reason to call that ethic[S] ;^)
    – A.G.
    Dec 28, 2013 at 19:04
  • 12
    Missing alternative: use the royalties each term to award a scholarship to the highest-scoring students. I had an organic chemistry professor who did this with his lab manual (a ~$100 hardcover text book), and it was a very popular gesture. Dec 28, 2013 at 21:13
  • 14
    When I took a category theory seminar with Peter Freyd, he stated that he had a policy that in any class where he received royalties on the required text, he would refund those royalties to the students. That seems to me to be a simple way to remove the conflict of interest, which I do agree is real. Dec 29, 2013 at 4:11
  • 14
    @MJD I think it's a mistake to say that merely refunding the royalties removes all conflict of interest. The publisher is still making money off selling your book; that makes them more likely to keep printing your book (which earns you money), and to deal with you as an author in the future. I don't think the conflict is removed unless it's made available at cost. Jan 2, 2014 at 8:10

16 Answers 16


This comes down to potentially conflicting principles. Academic freedom requires that professors should be able to choose the most appropriate references for their courses, and of course the professor's own book will often be a perfect fit for the course that inspired it. On the other hand, it's important to avoid even the appearance of assigning one's own book in order to make a profit: that would be offensive at any university, and often illegal at public universities (violating conflict of interest laws for government employees). The American Association of University Professors statement on this subject elaborates on both of these issues, but doesn't find a good way of resolving the tension.

University policies are often more specific. In many cases assigning one's own book either requires administrative permission or giving any royalties earned to the university. See, for example, this report for a survey of the policies at eighteen public universities in the U.S. My impression is that private universities are more likely to be flexible about this issue, but that's not based on a lot of data.

In practice, I doubt anyone cares very much unless the textbook is particularly expensive or the class is large, but in those cases I would strongly recommend donating the royalties to the department even if it is not required. After all, you're then no worse off than you would have been if you had assigned someone else's book. If you're not willing to do this, then it suggests that the royalties are attractive after all and may have played some role in the choice of text.

One special case is when you have self-published the book (or own the publishing company). That looks terrible, because there you have full control over pricing and may be earning far more than typical royalties. This is one of the few cases where I believe a strict rule is appropriate: if you are legally authorized to offer free or at-cost copies of your book to your students, then you should do so. Anything less is clearly taking advantage of your students.

  • 11
    Another idea: if you put a few copies of the book on reserve at the library, students can refer to the text without being required to buy it. This mitigates the conflict a bit.
    – user6782
    Dec 28, 2013 at 9:04
  • 44
    If you're not willing to do this [donating your royalties], then it suggests that the royalties are attractive after all and may have played some role in the choice of text. - a wonderful point.
    – earthling
    Dec 28, 2013 at 14:13
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    Corollary: If you publish a textbook that you expect to require your students to use, you must do so through a publisher that allows you to offer free or at-cost coupes to your students. Anything else is clearly taking advantage of your students.
    – JeffE
    Dec 28, 2013 at 16:01
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    "...or giving any royalties earned to the university." I'm sure those universities see no outstanding conflict of interest, now that they are the ones approving the assignment of a course text and profiting from that decision.
    – El Zorko
    Dec 28, 2013 at 21:01
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    Technically/anally he actually loses something if he gives back the royalties, i.e. he loses (1) the chance that one of his students might have bought the book anyway (with full royalties then), (2) some student might re-sell the book, again you would miss the royalties from the guy who bought it. (not implying that "potential lost profits" are actual losses, like evil persons do, but still they are something)
    – o0'.
    Dec 28, 2013 at 22:20

I've run across this problem from the student side several times (and I was a college student in the prehistoric 1970s). Profit motive aside, I generally observed that professors who used someone else's book were more likely to comment on weaknesses in the text and alternative proofs or derivations. It's one of those internal bias things, in that no matter how good a teacher and writer you are, you're going to be unlikely to recognize defects in your own work or style.

So my recommendation would be to make your book available but make sure to have at least one other text incorporated into the class.

  • 1
    Oh, I do see the flaws in my scribblings. And I fix them ASAP. Not too much to criticize now ;-)
    – vonbrand
    Sep 4, 2015 at 19:47
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    It could be a bias things, or it could be that the things one makes fit one's taste. If the professor preferred an alternative proof or derivation, he would have included it in his book.
    – Pere
    Dec 7, 2016 at 18:33

As an example of what's done in other countries, in many German universities, professors publish their lecture notes in printed form for the students to purchase. While the students pay for these notes, the profits do not go to the professor, but to the research group of the instructor. This money can then be used for various purposes, including paying for undergraduate tutors who assist students in learning the material.

I believe this is a reasonable compromise: nobody personally profits, yet the purchasing of the notes does actually leads to community benefits (in the sense that the money is used to help support students at the university).

  • 2
    The (German) lecture notes I've met were not comparable to a textbook they were more like printouts of the slides. OTOH, they were not sold, but one copy was deposited so students could borrow them and make a copy if they wanted. Jan 21, 2014 at 20:59
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    ... But all German universities I know have very good textbook collections. Plus it is usual here to recommend several alternative textbooks. Jan 21, 2014 at 23:27
  • 2
    As a student in Germany I have seen pretty much all variations: no script at all, printed slides, "book-like scripts", and even the "preprint" version of books the professors published, which they gave to the course for free.
    – asquared
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:25

One arrangement with the publisher of my two "text"-books was that the price be reduced by the amount of the otherwise-royalty for any books sold through the university bookstore, so that, in effect, I was not collecting royalties from students at this university (whether or not I was the instructor).

Another aspect is making printouts from PDFs available at-cost to students at this university, which is what my contract with the publisher specifically allowed in one case.

  • 1
    Also, for graduate-level courses whose content varies slightly from year to year, I usually make coresponding PDFs that are available from my university web pages. This allows revision, corrections, additions, etc., indefinitely (rather than freezing everything at one artificial point). Dec 28, 2013 at 14:08
  • 3
    ... and I wrote a 70-page version of "calculus I" for a one-quarter "refresher" course, available as PDF or at-cost of printing, but the "unimpressiveness" by comparison to 500-page glossy texts costing 120 bux somehow makes them "not competitive". Srsly, some people "need" expensive, glossy books. Maybe like Freud's comment about psychoanalysis... Dec 28, 2013 at 17:00
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    @DanNeely, by many of my "colleagues", who, in my opinion, have come to believe publishers' hype about huge glossy expensive books. Dec 29, 2013 at 20:24
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    A huge +1 to Paul Garrett, who has put many hundreds of pages of lecture notes online and freely available to all. I have often used them myself, either for my own edification or in making my own notes. He is right to say that they are less "glossy" than the norm for undergraduate texts. He seems to have modestly omitted the fact that they range in quality from as good as to vastly superior to the standard "glossy" texts. Jan 21, 2014 at 17:50
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    @PeteL.Clark, thanks for your kind remarks... I am fortunate to be in a situation to devote energy to that without worrying too much about scoring "status points". It baffles me that we still allow for-profit publishers to control mathematics textbooks to such a great degree, both making new books expensive, and expensively reprinting classics whose authors are long gone. We no longer have the technological limitations that once-upon-a-time made "in-house" notes a bit anti-social and unhelpful to the larger enterprise. I do recall the dim mimeo notes in drawers at IAS in the 1970s. :) Jan 21, 2014 at 18:55

Short answer: I think it is neither ethical nor good (in terms of education, independent of ethics) to force students to use your textbook.

(Assuming that we are talking about a "normal" lecture, as opposed to a workshop about your book.)

Long answer: I see 3 different (but connected) difficulties here. None of them needs to be a problem, but together, they can trap the students.

  • requiring a particular textbook: to me this is less of an ethical problem if it doesn't boil down to forcing the students to buy that particular book.
    Nevertheless, I think it preferable from an education point of view to teach students that they left the kind of school where exactly one solution exists, and now they are in a world with lots of sensible alternatives. Giving recommendations* (plural!), IMHO it is a most important point to make that the library holds even more useful books [also on that topic].

  • more or less forcing students to buy a textbook

    I don't see why buying the textbook is necessary. Even if book and lecture are (naturally) close.

    I might assign readings or homework problems from the book, so that the student needs access to the book in order to do them

    Why would that be:

    • Is is that difficult to prepare a slide of the homework problem which is displayed at the end of the lecture or a pdf that can be downloaded?
    • Reading: I have to say that at university I've never experienced assigned reading from a textbook. So my question to you is: is it really necessary to assign reading chapter 7.4 as opposed to assign preparing the principles of pH electrodes? Also, I've seen reading materials for download.
    • Making small parts of the book available to the students is probably possible even if the contract with the publisher doesn't let you distribute pdfs to the students. At least, e.g. in Germany, it is even possible to hand small parts from any book (not only yours!) to the class for teaching purposes.

    • For the self-study aspect of the textbook, there is the textbook collection of the library. The university libraries I know have sensible numbers of the important textbooks to be borrowed by the students plus a number of copies that stay in the library so they are always accessible. Are the books there really not sufficient? If so, why not? Why are the important books not there? How can books be bought? (How to get your book into the collection is part of the next point:)

  • Possible conflict of interest because it is your own textbook. This is the interesting part. But, if you take care of the first two problems, there is already much less space for an actual conflict of interest (≈ a real problem for the students) here.
    Or, taking another point of view, I perceive taking unfair advantage of the position*** as a symptom of (un)ethical behaviour which is closely bound to the whole character. In that I perceive it less of a single problem that is solved or not by a particular line of action on this point but rather a problem that appears with some people and not with others.
    In yet other words, people who take advantage of their position tend to do that in more ways than just this (e.g. in the combination of my three points - at which point @JeffE probably recommends to run). The formal action of not requiring their own textbook doesn't help much. Students will conclude from the general reputation/perception of taking unfair advantage that the book is required - whether it is stated openly or not.

I guess it is one of the topics where those who do worry whether what they do is ethical are the ones who don't need to worry (because they do act ethically) - it would be far more important that those who don't would start to worry...

Whether to donate copies of your own textbook to the library, make a donation that reimburses the library for your royalties, or convince the library to buy it like any other book, and/or whether and how you want to reimburse students is IMHO unanswerable as a general question. I think valid points can be made for and against** each of the options here.

Good and sensible decisions will depend a lot on the particular circumstances and even more on the personality of the professor.

Side note:

Or, use my royalty earnings to buy pizza for the class.

I object to this option on the following ethical grounds: If my problem is that I'm too poor to buy textbooks, I don't want to spend money on pizza but would rather like to save that money towards the next textbook.

* A professor not recommending his own textbook sounds about as convincing to me as a vegetarian running a sausage factory.

** Here's the advocatus diaboli against each of the points:

  • Donating books to the library? Someone is buying fame!
  • Reimbursing the royalties - same as above, but more greedy (or the one above was more desperate for fame...)
  • Convinced some committee to buy the books? Surely there is a textbook-buying circle emerging: You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
  • reimbursing students who buy the book: that's an obvious attempt to whitewash the reputation
  • and so on

*** As long as you do not take advantage of your situation, the conflict of interest is at most your problem (i.e. you are worried). If you take unfair advantage, the students have a problem.

  • 3
    Very good discussion of several further points! You probably know that the answers to some of your rhetorical questions (like "how hard would it be to <do obvious useful thing>?") is that people nevertheless produce syllabi with completely useless indications such as "section 3.5"... which hilariously changes (deliberately) per edition, and so on. Yes, ridiculous, but such laziness is complicit in the traditional publishing companies' parasitism. Jan 21, 2014 at 23:54
  • @paulgarrett: Thanks. Do you want me to tone down the rhetorical questions? Sure I know it is possible: throughout my studies, it was not once required that we get a particular textbook. Excercises were handed out on copied sheets or projeced or written on the blackboard. Textbooks were for self-study completely independent of the lecture. Jan 22, 2014 at 0:02
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    Oh, I think no need to "moderate". The points are good. Peoples' laziness should be "outed". Jan 22, 2014 at 0:37
  • 1
    This is a good answer but it is, I think, rather culturally specific. In the US, for example, many of the instructional practices you recommend are just not realistic options - may not be options at all. At undergraduate level, students just don't behave this way. Moreover, to be fair, the number of classes they are juggling do not typically allow them the kind of time for library research which exists elsewhere, even if the library had material for 200+ students. And you can't really put logic or maths exercises on a slide as a means of distribution. (Posting online would be a better.)
    – cfr
    Aug 5, 2015 at 1:30
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    The "lecture" came from the lecturer reading the text, which the students wrote down. No printing press, copied texts cost a small fortune.
    – vonbrand
    Sep 4, 2015 at 19:50

In many top-tier universities, many professors use their own textbooks. This is not only because they are familiar with what they have written, but also because they are the most-respected researchers in their field. In my experience, no one has objected to this, and in fact, most students are excited to take a course from the author of the most famous book in the field.

Since others have already commented on the university policy, I want to offer my own personal view.

Personally, I see why you can't use your own textbook. For undergraduate curriculum (and even the beginning-years of graduate school), most things that are covered are standard, and any textbook should be able to cover these topics. As an added bonus, YOU wrote the book, and it will very closely follow what you will cover in class.

Of course, it is often helpful to have read that book that serves as the reference in the field, so unless you have a good reason for wanting to substitute your own textbook, I think that sticking to the standard textbook is a good idea. And hopefully, no ulterior motives (especially in the financial sense) are involved in the decision-making process.

In my experience, many professors who choose to use their own textbooks are able to distribute either the preprints of their textbooks, or they photocopy certain sections of their books and distribute them to the students for free. Especially if the textbook is required in doing the homework etc, they have always made the portions that are absolutely necessary for the work freely available.

I had not thought very hard about this back then, but this is possibly their way of coping with this question of ethics.

  • 1
    "In my experience, no one has objected to this" In countries where a Mafia-like organization rules, very few people publicly object to the system.
    – Did
    Jan 22, 2014 at 8:18
  • Where I studied, it was a given that students bought the textbook at the beginning of the term (often with some in-bulk discount), and sold it back to the library when done (and often preferred the cheaper, second-hand ones). I was the exception, I kept all, with one exception bought new.
    – vonbrand
    Sep 4, 2015 at 19:54

The answers so far have one or both of the following problems: (1) they ignore the existence of the internet, and (2) they seem to assume that profiting from the book goes hand in hand with assigning the book.

Today, there is a very simple and obvious solution for any professor in this situation with a shred of ethical fiber. The professor writes the book on a computer. Therefore the book is on a computer in machine-readable form and can be distributed electronically to the professor's own students, for free. There is no excuse for not doing so.

Typically the professor starts by writing lecture notes and distributing to the students. As time goes on, the lecture notes start looking like a book. At this point the professor has various options, some of which are: (a) simply continue to use the book internally; (b) make the book publicly available in digital form only, for free; (c) look for a publisher.

In case c, the publisher is going to sink a certain amount of money into the book. For example, they may need to pay a professional illustrator, and they will certainly do some editorial work. The publisher will also ask for an exclusive contract. In the negotiations leading up to signing a contract, it's the professor's responsibility to negotiate something that allows the book to be distributed to the professor's own students free of charge. Often publishers will allow this, but they will only allow it on the version of the ms that was purely the professor's work. In fact, the publisher may have paid photo services to use stock photos, which are licensed under conditions that require the service to be paid a certain royalty per copy. The end result of this scenario is then typically that the professor continues to distribute a bare-bones version for free (possibly just to the professor's own students, possibly to the world at large).

Here are a couple of real-world examples:

  • Carroll, Lecture Notes on General Relativity. His bare-bones version is publicly available here: http://ned.ipac.caltech.edu/level5/March01/Carroll3/Carroll_contents.html

  • Steane, Relativity Made Relatively Easy. His bare-bones version is available on a public university server, but is not linked to from his faculty web page. Presumably he tells his students the URL.

The publisher is motivated only by profit. Some publishers may refuse to negotiate this kind of deal; the ethical author then has to look for another publisher. The publisher wants to make sure the book earns out their investment in it, and one way they have of doing that is to make sure there will be some significant number of sales at the author's institution. The author has to say, "OK, but for ethical reasons we still need to give my students the free digital option." Finally, the publisher will want to price the book at the price that exactly optimizes their profits. This price will typically be extremely exploitative, e.g., $150 for a book used for one semester, or $200 for a book used in a multi-semester sequence. The author may or may not have any say in pricing. (JeffE's comment indicates that it can be negotiated in some cases.) The publisher's nefarious calculation of the optimally profitable price is predicated on the assumption that they can force the students to pay that price. Any competing option (used books, a free bare-bones version, ...) reduces the probability that a given student will pay the suggested retail price. Again, the author has to push back, and say, "Yes, I know it may cut into profits a little, but for ethical reasons I need to make the bare-bones available for free, at least to my own students."

  • 4
    Three counterexamples: Open Data Structures, Algebraic Topology, Planning Algorithms. In all three cases, the version provided for free on the web is precisely the version offered in print by the publisher. And authors definitely do have a say in the price of their textbooks; I know textbook authors who negotiated a lower price for their books as part of the publication agreement.
    – JeffE
    Dec 29, 2013 at 0:49
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    @JeffE: I didn't claim that publishers would never allow the same version to be distributed for free. I said "Often publishers will..." Thanks for the info about the fact that sticker price is something publishers will negotiate. I'll edit the question accordingly.
    – user1482
    Dec 29, 2013 at 16:35
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    The "editorial" contribution from the publisher is not at all reliably helpful. Reliably homogenizing, yes, insisting that things resemble other books. Conformity with house style. Not at all reliably added value. Jan 21, 2014 at 23:50

As a student, I feel that it's ethical if you can, honestly and impartially, say that it is the best book to teach the material, and the price you are charging is reasonable.

If you are charging a finished-book price for a draft riddled with typos and errors, then it is definitely not ethical.

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    I agree completely with the first sentence, but I also think the only reasonable price is zero (or as close to zero as practically possible).
    – JeffE
    Dec 29, 2013 at 0:38
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    "it's ethical if you can, honestly and impartially, say that it is the best book to teach the material" The (obvious) problem with this pseudo-middle ground is that nobody can say this "impartially", being the author.
    – Did
    Jan 4, 2014 at 0:12
  • @JeffE I have taken a class where the instructor wrote the book. It was self-published but it was generally better than any of the alternatives. He sold them to us at cost. (18$ per 250 page book) Would you consider that reasonable?
    – Patrick M
    Mar 29, 2014 at 6:51
  • @PatrickM That sounds like a reasonable estimate of the actual printing and binding cost, which is "as close to zero as practically possible", so sure.
    – JeffE
    Mar 29, 2014 at 14:13
  • @JeffE Alright. That makes sense. I had thought you were saying the professor/school should eat the cost since they are not required to charge it by contracts.
    – Patrick M
    Mar 29, 2014 at 17:04

This is an interesting question but it involves much more than just ethics and financial considerations. It is also a matter of tradition versus more modern thinking about free material.

I am currently writing a custom "book" (not to be published anytime soon) for a new course since no existing book will fit. It will be free of charge, as developmental material, until it becomes published (which will happen if I think it is any good in the end). My old advisor used his lecture notes developed over years to produce a commercial book that can be used by many but is tailored to his (in this case) course. To write materials for your own course or on your research field is quite natural. For obvious reasons such books will suit their purpose best.

I think many would dream of having tailored reading materials in their courses; few have the opportunity to spend the time writing it. In many, if not most, university systems no-one will pay you for writing it so it will be done on your free time. Such books benefit the students by covering more or less exactly what the course is about. As teachers, we have probably been involved in (endless) discussions about the pros and cons of books: "this covers this material, that book covers that, but not none is perfect. So which one to chose.". The small amount of royalty from own students is not enough to make anyone rich. From this perspective, and assuming the book (and the course) is any good, I think making the issue a matter of ethics is petty.

The choice is obviously to provide a book material as, for example, free pdf material or try to have it printed (which is expensive) as a regular book or as print on demand. If one want others to use the material, publishing a book puts the material "on the map". A book also carries with it prestige, not only for the author but for the department and the university. It may also signal to the student that the teacher is a "name" in the field. So there are many reasons for choosing a book but not many will first look at it as a source for revenue.

So in the end, I cannot see anything wrong with using a book and receiving royalty as long as the book is good, the course is good, so that the students get the best opportunity to learn the material the course should provide.

  • 3
    What if I steal $50 from you once a year: and I promise it will only be once. I am not going to get rich from doing this. Would it be "petty" to make this issue a matter of ethics? (This is not to imply that I equate using one's own textbook with stealing: not at all. Rather your answer seems to show a basic misunderstanding -- or to be more charitable, a disagreement -- on how ethics works.) Jan 21, 2014 at 17:57
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    Personally, I've not had any course where exactly one good textbook exists. In my experience, there were either several sensible alternatives, or the lecture was so specialized that we read research papers instead of textbooks. Note that for me it is perfectly OK to recommend different textbooks for different topics covered by the course (coming from a country with large textbook sections in the university libraries). Jan 21, 2014 at 23:30

Since this is a hypothetical, I'll note that I had a professor who included in his contract for the book an agreement for 15 copies of the book every other year (he taught a small upper-level undergraduate class) that were given to his enrolled students to avoid this problem.


In the dark ages when I was in school, several professors used lecture notes that they sold to students for the cost of duplication. I'm guessing it would be difficult to get the publisher to supply them to the bookstore at a price without royalties, so I think your idea of pizza for the class is a good way to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest. You could also offer an "error bounty" to students.

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    In fact, it is not difficult for an author to get publishers to sell books to a university with prices reduced by the royalty amount, these days, ... In fact, in 2000 or so, my publisher asked me first about this very issue, as though it were common practice. Dec 28, 2013 at 16:58
  • And the seed for university presses?
    – mctylr
    Aug 8, 2014 at 22:25

It is only unethical to force your students to buy your text if you believe your text to be suboptimal, subpar, and inferior quality to other textbooks that are available. In short, if you look at your text and say "well, we really should use that one", then yes it is unethical to force your students to buy what you believe to be an inferior learning tool, just because you wrote it.

If however, you think your text is the bee's knees, it is the shiznet, and you are the best author and authority to ever cover the subject, then it would be unethical not to use your text. You can't go around giving free copies, that is cheating the publisher. And why in hell else did you write it, if not to be used by precisely your students for your class?

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    I strongly disagree. Nobody can be an impartial judge of the worth of their own textbook. The Dunning-Kruger effect is as rampant in academia as Impostor Syndrome.
    – JeffE
    Dec 29, 2013 at 0:41
  • Well, as far as his teaching is concerned, that's the best the professor is going to do. Is it unethical for me to present to the students what I believe to be the best presentation of material, even if it's mine? No. If this is not actually the case, then am I a good teacher? That's another question entirely.
    – bobobobo
    Dec 29, 2013 at 0:43
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    You can't go around giving free copies, that is cheating the publisher. — That depends on your agreement with the publisher. I know several textbooks, all still in print, for which PDFs are and have always been freely available online, with the full cooperation of their publishers.
    – JeffE
    Dec 29, 2013 at 0:43
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    Is it unethical for me to present to the students what I believe to be the best presentation of material, even if it's mine? No. — Of course not, but that's irrelevant. The question is whether it's ethical to force your students to spend money what you believe to be the best presentation of the material, when you have a personal financial interest in that purchase. I claim that the financial interest itself distorts authors' perception of the quality of their own textbooks.
    – JeffE
    Dec 29, 2013 at 0:45
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    Own the roleAhem.
    – JeffE
    Dec 29, 2013 at 0:53

I want to add a few options that make selling your book and making your students use it entirely fair.

  1. Make sure your books will sell for a good price ($30, not $150).
  2. Give a decent amount of author copies to your local library.
  3. Make sure that the ebook version is available for free via your local library (this may be easy if your library has a subscription of your publisher).

Pick at least two.

Stronger options that may or may not be possible for you with your chosen publisher (arguably, you should find a suitable one):

  1. Retain the right to electronic publication, and offer a free version for download.
  2. Sell students prints of your book (maybe chapter by chapter) at cost.

I don't think this is unethical, but there certainly is a conflict of interest. As with any other conflict of interest, it should be disclosed and managed. My recommendation for such a situation would be to take it to your chair, let them know you would like to come up with a management plan for a conflict of interest, and the the chair drive from that point on.



I think it is unethical to profit by having students buy your textbook because you're their lecturer and they expect you to inform them and provide them with some useful resources for learning. The students also usually get a bad feeling when you keep recommending your book unless it was vote one of the best to use in tackling the given subject. I don't know/understand how you may be able to provide other books to your students at no cost while you provide your book at a cost. It looks fishy. If you feel that you can't give each student a copy of the book then you can recommend the university to buy the books so as to restock the library or you can offer your own copy or a single donated copy strictly for class use. This depends on the number of students you're dealing with and how often they have to use the book.


In a case where you had published the book before meeting the students, you're allowed to sell the book to them at the market price or you may subsidize it for your students.


Its always difficult to teach using your book especially when you reach a point where there are few discrepancy from other books. In the process of defending your ideas from the book, you may end up being seen as superior, dictator, rigid etc.



It is not only completely ethical but should be mandatory. Your ultimate goal is to pass on your knowledge to your students, and what better way to do that than by using the textbook you wrote just for that specific purpose.

There must have been a reason why you wrote it in the first place - something was missing, or was glossed over, or poorly explained so you decided that you can contribute something to create a better product for students to use.

The student benefits twice as much since if there are questions or something isn't clear, bamm, here is the author in front of them to clarify some point. You also get valuable feedback so that your next edition will be of even greater use to the student.


It would only be unethical if the professor asks the students to buy directly from them , or force the student to purchase from a specific website using an affiliate code. As long as the student is given freedom of choice as to where the textbook is purchased new or used, it would be ethical to force students to buy a textbook written by the professor teaching the class.

It would only be unethical for a professor who strongly believes in some derivative of the teachings of Socialism. If the walls in the professor's office are adored with autographed photos of every former member of the politburo or they spend half the class defending the economic theories of Karl Marx (even though the subject they teach is Chemistry), then it would be unethical for them to charge their students for a textbook while preaching the spirit of camaraderie and international brotherhood of the proletariat.

Otherwise its perfectly ethical for a professor to profit from a textbook they created for the benefit of both the professor and the student.

  • 4
    While I agree (in principle) that instructors should provide their own teaching materials, the question is whether it is ethical to force students to buy those materials, instead of giving them to the students for free or at cost.
    – JeffE
    Dec 28, 2013 at 16:06
  • Presumably a similar restriction would apply to an instructor of socialism whose office is decorated with copies of the periodic table, and who spends half the class discussing electron orbitals and endothermic versus endothermic reactions. No?
    – JeffE
    Dec 29, 2013 at 14:05

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