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COLUMN: Handing out dollar bills in class and other overcompensation

Monday, February 15, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

If I could force you to pay me for this column, I would. 

In fact, I'd settle for being able to force someone to even read it. 

I reckon that's why I'm so fascinated with professors who are in a position to write books, then require students to buy them.

After all, that's more or less the ultimate goal of hundreds of Missouri School of Journalism students: To trick someone into paying us to write stuff.

In journalism, it's a pretty simple proposition. You report, you write, people read it and you get a paycheck. Professors often write for financial reasons too, but the relationship's not nearly as straightforward as it is in journalism.

For starters, the numbers have pretty clearly demonstrated that the 24 MU professors who wrote or edited books, then required students to buy them this semester are not doing it for the money. I never suspected they were, but I was somewhat surprised to find that many professors, through their efforts to avoid any conflict of interest, actually lose money by assigning their own books.

It's all part of the convoluted economics of academic publishing.

At some level, professors who write are motivated by money. But, in their case, "money" does not equal "royalty checks." The vast majority of the books I investigated were published by university presses, and the professors I talked to would have been astonished if their royalties had ever entered four digits. Many years, they don't even break the two digit mark. Commercial textbooks designed for survey courses nationwide can be a slightly different matter, but there were few of those on my list.

In many cases, professors have been assigning their books for so long that there are piles of used copies lying around Columbia and thus few royalty-earning new sales are ever made. Accounting professor Billie Cunningham, for example, asked her large lecture classes where they got their copies of "Accounting: Information for Business Decisions," which she helped write. Cunningham said 75 percent of them bought used copies at the bookstore, and another 19 percent got used copies from other sources. That leaves just 6 percent who either bought new books or no books at all.

Instead, professors are rewarded for writing with the sort of prestige and status that can lead directly to their profession's holy grails, tenure and endowed chairs. Publishing is explicitly figured into the tenure equation; in many departments it's a major component of the magic formula by which tenure (and the financial security that comes with it) is granted. 

To professors, then, writing a book that's groundbreaking and significant enough to justify assigning it to your own students is something to be proud of.

As professor David Sleper, co-author and assigner of "Breeding Field Crops," said, "I don’t know of anyone who has a text that does it for the money."

"You do it because you care for students and it does give recognition to the university. It has also given me recognition and has helped to recruit high-quality graduate students in our department."

Minutes before the Super Bowl, I e-mailed Sleper and the 28 other MU professors whose names were on the cover of books that they required their class to read. I got 13 replies, several of which, in a testimony to the priorities of MU's academics, arrived during the big game itself. 

Of the 13 who replied, five requested that I remove their names from the list because their book either wasn't technically required or wasn't earning them any royalties. The remaining eight all made it clear that they'd deeply considered the ramifications of assigning their own book and taken steps to deal with it in their own way.

All the professors believed their text was the best fit for the class they taught, and Professor Michael Diamond (who only recommends, not requires, his "Private Selves in Public Organizations") added that, in his opinion, "it’s important that students know what their faculty publish and the perspective and expertise they bring to the classroom."

Professor Alex Waigandt pointed out another side benefit: The professor has already spent years writing the text in question, so they won't have to always be reading "one chapter ahead" in lecture. Instead, they'll be able to go well beyond what the text offers. That's not always possible when you're assigning someone else's groundbreaking work.

Respondents did everything from setting up foundations with textbook proceeds to handing out dollar bills to reimburse students for any royalties earned, but Waigandt took the simplest approach. He simply skipped any financial rewards and had all royalties from "An Introduction to Statistical Reasoning in Quantitative Research" sent directly to his department, whether they were from copies purchased by his own students or not.

Guy Adams teaches a graduate course on "Ethics, Democracy and the Public Service," so it's no surprise that he's turned the tricky ethics of assigning "Unmasking Administrative Evil," an award-winning book he co-authored in the late '90s, into a "teaching example" about conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety.

Adams has always allowed his students to choose which charity he'll donate that class's royalties to, and in 2004 his students took it a step further and turned the whole thing into a fundraising challenge.  

Since then, "The commitment I’ve made to each class is that I will match any funds they raise for the chosen organization," Adams said. 

"So, for example, for the 2004 class which raised $217 for El Centro, I matched that with my own $217. Needless to say, this was a bit more than I realized in royalties from sales of the book. In fact, I’ve lost money, so to speak, every time I’ve assigned my book."

I admire Adams' approach, but personally, I would just make up for forcing my students to buy my book the only truly fair way: The world's slowest, least-profitable pyramid scheme. As long as you buy mine now, I'd tell them, I'll promise to buy any book that you publish in the future. 

That way, everybody's happy. Especially the publishers, paper manufacturers and bookstores, who would collectively be grossing ten times as much as we did from that little scam.

Andrew Van Dam is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. His wife is applying for PhD programs now. If she gets in, he fully expects to rake in massive profits once she starts forcing her students to buy her masters' thesis, a definitive work on Uzbek peasant resistance to early Soviet collectivization efforts in the Ferghana Valley. In other words, high-margin stuff.


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