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A university bookstore, which is operated by a well known bookseller, is selling subscriptions to a "homework help and textbook solutions" website. The subscriptions appear beneath the university logo and the words "University Official Bookstore." If you select a course, the required books appear. Below that, it says "Optional" and the subscription is listed.

This seems to imply the subscription is endorsed by the instructor, very probably without the instructor's knowledge.

Is this marketing by the bookstore ethically acceptable?

This bookseller operates over 700 campus bookstores.

Update: The bookseller has changed the page to read "Bookstore Recommended" which seems more appropriate.

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    Is the "homework help and textbook solutions" website run by the textbook publisher/author? Or is it just some generic independent site that the bookstore lists as optional for every course? – Kimball Apr 18 at 14:17
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    "very probably without the instructor's knowledge": if the instructor is on the premises, wouldn't they have probably seen the ad at the bookstore? – Massimo Ortolano Apr 18 at 15:09
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    @MassimoOrtolano My expectation was that all book stores are websites in the year 2021. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 19 at 4:01
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    Not necessarily, but even more so what makes you think that the instructor didn’t notice? – Massimo Ortolano Apr 19 at 5:18
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    @MassimoOrtolano As an instructor, I haven't been to our campus bookstore in at least year and I have never had a need to do so for instructional purposes. I also never go to our bookstore website. Of course, I might be an anomaly. – Michael Mior Apr 19 at 18:38
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It’s helpful to approach the question starting from the following general guiding principle:

It is not acceptable for a university bookstore to engage in misleading marketing practices of any sort.

If the way the subscription link is presented creates an appearance of endorsement by an instructor, and such endorsement was not given, then the marketing is misleading. If this was done intentionally, then that is unethical.

If the link suggests the service is endorsed by the university but not by the instructor (or is simply offered as an optional purchase without the implication of any endorsement), it seems hard to argue that it is unethical, or at least hard to argue it is more unethical than any other link to a product that anyone puts on their website. It’s mainly creating the appearance of an endorsement by a specific instructor who didn’t give their approval that would be problematic.

I cannot be sure from your description that I would agree with your assessment that the way the information is presented creates such a misleading impression. But I might, or perhaps I’d agree that it’s sufficiently ambiguous as to risk misleading at least some students.

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    What you have in bold at the top doesn't address the actual question - unless you make a lot of assumptions. – Buffy Apr 18 at 18:51
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    @Buffy that’s only the beginning of my answer. Your criticism doesn’t make sense to me, can you clarify what the problem is? – Dan Romik Apr 18 at 18:55
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    The question isn't about misleading marketing. I don't disagree with the answer as a whole, but that isn't where the question, or the emphasis, is. We don't, in particular, know if there is an "endorsement" by the university or the instructor. I suspect not, but don't know. – Buffy Apr 18 at 18:58
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    Ok. I’ll let my answer speak for itself. – Dan Romik Apr 18 at 19:24
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Without more information, it is hard to make any ethical judgement. The instructor might have a say in what appears, for example.

But the more serious issue I see is that, if such things are published and available to some students, even just the ones that are more diligent in taking shortcuts than in learning, then it might actually be essential to make them publicly available to all. This "levels the playing field", so to speak, so that everyone has easy access to the same materials.

The instructor should, somehow, be made aware of such things so that the course can be designed in such a way that they don't interfere.

But, if they exist, and can be found, then they should be open to everyone. It is much more problematic if they exist but are only known to a few and unknown to the instructor.


And, knowing about this, the instructor can respond, perhaps in the syllabus. Anything from "This is a valuable/essential resource" to "You will be wasting your money with a subscription". The professor could also, perhaps, buy a subscription and make credentials open to the entire class. It would be a pretty cheap TA, I think.

And the faculty can, if necessary, respond as a whole, though I doubt that banning such a practice will make education better. It is the existence of these resources that have issues, not the fact that they are known to all.


I would, of course, prefer to be the sole source of hints to my students, so that I can give minimal hints (letting them have "insights") and also assure that a question/answer from/to any student is seen by all (if a question is asked by one, it is probably one others have as well). But I have no way to guarantee that. I did, for several years, run a mailing list for each course that had those desirable properties, making other things moot.

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    -1 It's pretty clear that there's an implied "for all/any" to the OP's question. ("If you select a course...") This is not about one course, it's a standard feature on the bookseller website. And there's no way all the instructors are signing off on this (in fact, possibly none would approve). – Daniel R. Collins Apr 18 at 19:57
  • @DanielR.Collins, you are pretty strong in your assumptions. I'm also pretty sure that the professors, acting jointly, in the scenario you propose could get it stopped. But that doesn't make the "resource" disappear. Just makes the playing field more tilted. – Buffy Apr 18 at 20:03
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This sounds worse than unethical, but depending. Required/Optional are official names for textbooks selected by the instructor. This may not be the current instructor, but it will be someone involved with the course. The bookstore does not get to just throw their own recommendations into the Optional list. Unilaterally adding something as Optional is in the same ballpark as listing Optional as Required, or just adding a book out of nowhere to Required. It's not underhanded -- it's simply lying.

But it's so bad that it's hard to imagine the bookstore doing it on their own initiative. I'd imagine the University has some relationship with that website and has authorized it. Most instructors are probably not amused, but no harm done since they know students never buy anything marked Optional until asking in class; and that all non-Freshmen know it's just an advertisement for the Homework Help site.

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    “Worse than unethical”, really? It’s just a link to optional material for a course on a bookstore website, let’s keep things in perspective here... – Dan Romik Apr 19 at 5:17
  • @DanRomik I don't love "worse" there, but unethical is sleazy but not breaking any rule; whereas this would be both sleazy AND breaking a rule, making it worse. I'm open to a better way of expressing that. – Owen Reynolds Apr 19 at 14:33
  • what rule is being broken? – Dan Romik Apr 19 at 15:47
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It seems that if they are really homework helps (designed based on the instructor or the course homework) and it is without the consent of instructor, or without the aim of the students' knowledge improvement (consciously), it seems unethical.

But in other cases, even sometimes the book writers write the solution or a guidebook for their book exercises. Although, normally they are not used as homework questions, or in case they are, just some of them are used to warm up or giving insight to students (after their try to solve the problems).

Besides, not always all students take all the points of a class. Their knowledge and mind level is different and they take advantage based on their levels. Sometimes it is ok if the students learn the solution of some specific questions after reading one example. Although they are not at the same level as the ones who solve the problems by itself, they are not at the level of the students who don't learn even after that. The first group lay in the top students of the class and the later lay in the middle ones. (But the instructor should be aware while gives the marks, although the advantages of learning is beyond the marks)

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