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Textbooks take a lot of time and effort to write, so why would a university support their faculty to do so? The author can make a good profit from a textbook and I am guessing the institution doesn't get any of these profits.

What about the grad students that edit and also work on the textbook? It seems as if they are working to fill the faculty member's pocket while being [partially] supported by the department/university and expected to do research.

All of this seems odd to me since it seems like the author is just using the university's resources to generate personal revenue, so why do universities support/allow their faculty to write textbooks?

If you need context, I am talking about in the US and specifically a freshmen/sophomore CS course's textbook.

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    A similar but not duplicate question: What incentives do academics have to write books? – Austin Henley Apr 16 '13 at 2:17
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    In the case of graduate- or research-level textbooks, I think you overestimate the profits and underestimate the value to the field. – Derrick Stolee Apr 16 '13 at 2:27
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    $735,000 is possible, but it would be an extraordinary amount. If you make 7% of list price (not unlikely if the book sells enough, and probably described as 10% of net in the contract) on a $150 book (pretty expensive), then you make $10.50 per copy. That means you need to sell 70,000 copies, which is a huge number. This can be done if you write an incredibly popular textbook for a high-enrollment course, but it's pretty rare. In math there are only a handful of people who make this much on textbooks, and I expect the situation with intro CS is similar. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 16 '13 at 3:25
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    I'm baffled by this question. If university professors were forbidden to write textbooks, how would textbooks get written? – user1482 Feb 8 '15 at 0:28
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    @BenCrowell You are confusing not supporting (e.g., graduate students) with forbidding. Huge difference. My question doesn't say anything about forbidding. – Austin Henley Feb 8 '15 at 0:42
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Textbooks take a lot of time and effort to write, so why would a university support their faculty to do so?

Why wouldn't they? Writing textbooks is an important form of scholarship, with great influence on the field, and this is something universities should strongly encourage. The only reason I can think of not to support textbook writing is the profit issue, but this is not generally an important factor, since very few textbooks make a lot of money.

The fact that U.S. faculty are allowed to keep the royalties from textbooks they write is a historical contingency, and there's no reason why the system has to work that way. However, I think it's a good system in practice. Overall, the incentives to write good textbooks are too low, since both the financial rewards and the academic rewards are generally small compared with the time commitment. Removing the (small) profit motive would leave the incentives even lower, and I think the net effect would outweigh the tiny increase in university funding.

What about the grad students that edit and also work on the textbook? It seems as if they are working to fill the faculty member's pocket while being [partially] supported by the department/university and expected to do research.

If grad students are being enlisted as unpaid labor, then that's a real problem, but in my experience it's not common. If there's any prospect of nontrivial royalties, then it's unethical to ask students to work without compensation. Furthermore, the arrangement needs to be formal enough to include a copyright transfer (otherwise, the students will own the copyright to their contributions).

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  • Great answer. To clarify what I meant about the grad students, it isn't that they are going unpaid but rather their work could be seen as bringing personal profit to the author rather than performing research for themselves, their advisor, and the university. My first thought was faculty are using grad students for their personal endeavors. – Austin Henley Apr 16 '13 at 4:44
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Australia's university system, a centrally funded multiple university system, quite simply does not support staff doing this. Australia had prior to the late 1980s a broad based academic publishing culture that included diverse ancillary publishing by academics in terms of social opinion, literary and arts engagement, and text book publication. However, under the Dawkins era reforms, Australian higher education research output became subject to a measurement metric (the "Publications count," a quantity count, currently known as the HERDC publications collection) which then informed the distribution of a significant pool of money. The metric was originally described as a "proxy" for real activity, but increasingly the metric is taken to be the indicator of real activity. As the metric, funding, and fund seeking imperatives have become tighter—in part as a labour discipline / productivity effort—since the late 1980s, the level of University management intervention into the publishing mode of academics has increased. Currently, research activity measures within Universities, modelled strongly on the federal funding metric, strongly motivate academic staff to not publish uncounted books such as undergraduate textbooks. The penalty for failing to achieve the metric includes increased teaching loads and (eventual and sometimes constructive) dismissal. The effect of this has been academic disengagement from social and aesthetic opinion forming, and a move away from textbook authoring.

By inverting the above example, the reasons why institutions may tolerate staff producing textbooks would be:

  • an absence of external funding drivers dictating publication modes
  • an absence of internal management pressure dictating publication modes
  • the presence of external funding or internal management pressure, but measured against a metric that accepts textbooks as worthwhile activity

Further work can be found in Vestes / Australian Universities Review on the metrification of academic output and funding changes in Australia. The relevant federal department, and other bodies, have a variety of reports on the actual publication measure.

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To widen the perspective (fully understanding the limitations imposed by the OP), I will try to be more general in my reply. All university systems do not support writing text books. In some systems it is up to the researcher to either try to find funding to at least cover some costs or simply try to squeeze it into whatever time can be found.

There are also different scenarios for what to write. If one intends to write a basic introductory text, it would involve providing lots of examples and figures over a broad area. While the text may be relatively simple to write (subject matter not on a difficult level) the amount of text and illustrations will make it an arduous task. If, on the other hand, one writes an advanced textbook, the volume of text is smaller and, I would assume, more focussed on ones own research field. I would therefore think that it is relatively easier to write such a book than an introductory one. Having only written one book, a intermediate level specialist text on my research topic, I have little to compare it with, but it took 2.5 months (in parallel with full time work) to write, and I had someone paid to do the illustrations.

So the situation will vary quite a lot between systems, which is also reflected by the types of books that come out of them. Advanced books come from almost all systems, while introductory texts probably are more commonly produced in systems where such book production is supported at some level in the system.

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i think the Universities are for improving the skills and knowledge of the mankind not only for financial growth :) its their duty to make the knowledge reachable to everyone and also make the knowledge grow, find more and develop more.. The books are the medium which all of these are possible. And also in the view of financial case, may be a university dont get any profits straightly but they will get it via the fame of the author who is a faculty of that university. He will attract more students. thus it will help the university :D :)

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