Who Benefits From the High Costs of Textbooks?


By Olivia Booth, Staff Writer

The start of the new semester has Mason students spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks, but what if professors are unethically benefitting from assigning their own textbooks?

The potential for a conflict of interest arises when professors are motivated more by profit than by what is in the best interest of their students.

“Certainly it seems problematic if a professor would assign a text that he or she profited from and that was not useful to the class,” according to Andrew Novak, a professor here at Mason.

Novak assigns his own text, “The International Criminal Court: An Introduction”, in his CRIM 405 class. However, Novak explains that his motive is not profit-based because some publishers pay authors upfront, not in royalties from later sales. In this way, no matter how many students purchase the book, the professor will not earn any more money than what they were initially paid. This is the case for Springer, Novak’s own textbook publisher. In fact, The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) claims that any profit gained after a textbook is initially published is usually insubstantial.

This leaves the question of why professors choose to use their own material, if not for profit? AAUP maintains, “professors should assign readings that best meet the instructional goals of their courses, and they may well conclude that what they themselves have written on a subject best realizes that purpose.” This is also the case for Novak, who says he uses his own text because he is “dissatisfied with all the other books on the International Criminal Court that were out there since they were written for law students or lawyers rather than undergraduates.”

Mason has received criticism for this before. In 2010, a Washington Post story by Daniel de Vise revealed that some faculty members complained about other Mason professors who required students to purchase brand new copies of their own texts for each class to use an online course access code.

Since that time, many other universities have adopted policies governing when and how a professor can benefit from assigning their own textbooks. Virginia Tech demands that any materials written by a faculty member must be approved by several committees before it is assigned. On the other hand, faculty at North Dakota State University are advised to donate any profits they receive from sales.

As of yet, Mason has not assumed any policies on the subject. Some, like Dr. Kimberly Mehlman, a Mason criminology professor, do not believe that such policies are necessary.

“As far as restrictions or rules on professors assigning their own books, I think it is a case by case basis. As long as the author/professor is a leading authority on the topic, I don’t see any problem with it,” said Mehlman.

Despite her beliefs that more specific policies are unnecessary, Mehlman donates all of her own textbook profits.

“As referenced in the acknowledgements section of the book, 50% of my profit is being donated to a human trafficking survivor scholarship administered by Soroptimist International of Woodbridge,” explained Mehlman. “The other 50% is being donated across various other organizations, including TEAM SummerQuest, a program administered by Manassas City Police for at-risk youth.”

Graphic by Billy Ferguson