Is It Really Unethical for Professors to Sell Students Their Own Books?

Broke students have had enough with what feels like an academic scam — but professors insist they’re hardly profiting

Mikie Long finally caved and bought the $160 textbook. The junior at South Carolina’s Clemson University had been told there was no other way to pass the class — she’d have to purchase Abnormal Psychology, 17th Edition.

The week leading up to their first exam, Long studied the book every night as instructed, learning a holistic approach to understanding how psychological disorders occur. Then, on the week before the exam, Long learned the test wouldn’t actually cover book material — just what they learned in lectures.

Long, who is paying her own tuition and expenses, was stunned and offended. She felt she’d wasted her cash and her time. “Money is tight for me,” she says, “and spending that much money on a book I didn’t need for the class was hard.”

Professors requiring students shell out hundreds for books they might use is an unwanted, longstanding college tradition. Like paying to print at the library or those dumb iClickers for class polls, mandatory textbooks are one of the many ways higher education burdens already financially strapped students.

What’s more, some professors are known to assign expensive texts they themselves authored — potentially making royalties off the drained bank accounts of their own students, under threat of failure.

Kaitlyn, a 22-year-old law student at Loyola University in Chicago, is reading Learning Civil Procedure, which is co-authored by Loyola dean Michael J. Kaufman. Her professor told the class it was “a happy coincidence” that the dean’s book is the best on the topic. Still, the tome cost $240, “which is honestly pretty cheap for law books.”

Professors say they’re simply offering the best available reading material for each specific curriculum. But students aren’t buying it.

“I get that I need textbooks because they give more information that the teacher could give. It just seems shady that they always make us buy the book they’ve written,” says Anna Ferrando, who’s in her second year at the University of Valencia in Spain. Thirty percent of Ferrando’s final grade is discussing her professor’s book with him in an oral interview, according to a syllabus she forwarded.

Of course, professors view things differently. In a 2015 article for Psychology Today, Mitchell M. Handelsman, a professor of psychology at Colorado University and author of multiple texts, argued that if doctors accept money for performing a procedure, professors should feel free to charge if their work helps students learn:

“Is it an unethical conflict of interest? After all, conflicts are inherent in virtually all professional activities. For example, when doctors accept money for performing a procedure, they are not acting purely for ‘the good of the patient.’ Professors get paid to teach, so they have interests other than helping students learn. Is it too much of a temptation for professors to assign their own texts? Does the base motive for money unduly contaminate the noble motives to help students? No. Not under most circumstances.”

He cited the American Association of University Professors, which ruled that the textbook hustle isn’t inherently unethical. Lots of students take classes to dive deeper into a professor’s own studies, the association said, and besides, professor profits are “trivial or nonexistent.”

Four years later, Handelsman’s opinion hasn’t changed. He’s currently writing the second edition of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach, which originally sold for $126.75 in 2009 but now retails for $80.09 on Amazon. Handelsman tells MEL he doesn’t publish to profit. “My income from the first edition of that book amounts to rounding error,” he says. “We had to beg [the publisher] to do [the second edition] … it’s not quite a hot seller.

He concludes, “I still believe that we need to be thoughtful and intentional about what we do. Exorbitant or exploitative profits are problematic, of course, but the gray areas remain.”

In the end, the AAUP sides with professors’ freedom to design their courses as they wish. “It is equally necessary to ensure that procedures followed by colleges and universities to protect students do not impair the freedom of faculty members or their flexibility of choice in deciding what materials to assign their students,” the association says.

The woes of academic publishing won’t soothe students who are graduating with untenable amounts of debt. To avoid exorbitant costs, some students go online and find sketchy resources for free textbooks. “I’ve had to go through some fishy websites to get ‘legal’ PDF files of textbooks,” Sean, a 21-year-old from New Brunswick, New Jersey, tells me. He attended Rutgers University but dropped out in January, partly because he couldn’t afford tuition.

As the outrage builds over skyrocketing student debt, the textbook hustle has started to come apart at the binding. Several universities have moved to limit professors exploiting students for self-gain. Last year, a University of Kentucky journalism professor was put on leave for making students buy his own book-writing 101 text. The professor made $6,000 in royalties. At Cleveland State University, professors must obtain approval for faculty committee to put their texts on a syllabus.

Most students understand the instinct to self-promote. “I am a business major, so I understand that everyone needs to make a profit,” says Jace Johnston, a junior at Ohio University. But as a cash-strapped student, he doesn’t want to be the buyer. “Books should be considered more of an option and could be provided at a cheaper cost.”

When they have no options left but to buy the book, students like Mikie are making the best of a bad situation. Her textbook now sits at home where she hasn’t looked at it since the day her professor told the class she wouldn’t test on the material. So now she wants to get in on the hustle herself. “I might try to sell it later on, but definitely not for what I bought it for.”