Faculty Forum: A Textbook Case of Questionable Ethics

By Susan D'Agostino and Jay Kosegarten

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a part of the Affordable Care Act, established a public government website that provides information on the value of gifts and payments doctors receive from the pharmaceutical industry. The act was a win-win for politicians and patients; the former received credit for “outing” doctors whose prescribing behaviors were influenced by Big Pharma, and the latter may now independently assess whether individual doctors put self-interest ahead of patients. It was also a win for the medical profession in that it reaffirmed a culture of professional integrity.

It is only a matter of time before students, politicians, and ethicists demand similar oversight of professors who accept free books, office supplies, food, drinks, travel stipends, conference fees, honoraria, calculators, gift cards, and more from textbook publishers. To be clear, textbook publishers are not evil; they are simply working honestly to advance their for-profit interests. Nonetheless, like patients who depend on their doctors’ prescribing behaviors, students depend on their professors’ textbook-adoption behaviors. Further, just as patients must pay for the expensive drugs that doctors prescribe, students foot the bill for expensive textbooks that professors assign.

Social psychologists have known for decades that reciprocity—responding to a positive action with another positive action—influences human behavior. And for decades, for-profit companies have effectively exploited this concept. The size of the gift does not matter; all gifts, however small, trigger reciprocity. Reciprocity is why we sometimes send donations to charities that send us unrequested return-address labels, and why we sometimes buy the cheese after tasting a sample at the market. Professors have a track record of responding to friendly actions from the $14 billion textbook industry in cooperative ways. If they did not, the industry would likely discontinue the practice of bearing unsolicited gifts that cut into their bottom line. Since reciprocity works subconsciously, professors need not be aware of the influence of gifts. Even when no influence has occurred, fostering one or more relationships with one-sided gift-giving presents an ethically problematic conflict of interest.

In the end, professors must acknowledge that there are no free lunches, especially when Big Textbook is footing the bill.

Unlike doctors, who left it to the government to expose unsavory interactions with industry, professors should call for their universities to establish a code of ethics concerning faculty interactions with publishers. By affirming that our allegiance lies with our students’ best interests and not with personal gain, we may preserve the integrity of our profession. At a minimum, the code of ethics should include the following statements:

1. Contact with professors initiated by textbook representatives should be ignored. Professor-initiated contact with textbook representatives is permissible for the sole purpose of inquiring about textbooks and teaching-related accoutrements such as lecture notes and quizzes.

2. Professors should not accept any gifts from textbook representatives. The only exception to this policy is that a professor may request a free desk copy of a textbook from a publisher. If the desk copy is adopted for a course, the professor may keep the free desk copy. If the desk copy is not adopted for a course, the professor must send it back to the publisher.

3. Professors should not do the bidding of textbook representatives. That is, professors should not coordinate or recruit faculty or students to attend publisher-sponsored events. Professors should not distribute large or small gifts from publishers.

Ultimately, professors who engage with textbook representatives at the expense of their students are no better than doctors who engage with pharmaceutical representatives at the expense of their patients. Professors do not need to wait until politicians—some of whom are already inclined to view professors as lazy or overpaid—call for more transparency concerning interactions with the textbook industry. Something as seemingly innocent as a twenty-nine-cent pen with a publisher’s logo on a professor’s desk should never be allowed to undermine trust in a student-teacher relationship. By upholding the highest standards regarding interactions with textbook representatives, professors will not only experience a “win” for students—a desirable outcome on its own—but may also set an example of how to reaffirm a culture of professional integrity from within.

Susan D’Agostino is associate professor of mathematics and Jay Kosegarten is assistant professor of psychology at Southern New Hampshire University. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to [email protected] for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.