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Is It a Conflict to Assign Your Own Book?
October 10, 2012 - 3:53pm

OK, we’re one week in and already have enough to talk about for many moons. You are clearly watching, and wondering. I’m thrilled. Keep it coming, by whatever means you choose (and all used this week): the comment section (under your full name, please), the anonymous post box (coming soon), direct e-mail from those who knew how to reach me.

The questions raised already are true ethical problems rather than simple (or even not-so-simple) dilemmas. They involve institutions as well as individuals, and intersect, in some cases, with law and public policy. For example, one question was about conflict of interest in textbook assignment and whether it is proper for institutions to claim a share of textbook royalties; one about accounting practices for research funds; and one about lab safety.  In wondering about where or whether lab safety fits into the domain of ethics, it touched on the important question of identification: What constitutes an ethical issue?

I’ll provide some background on this foundational question in a future post. But for now, it seemed a good idea to plunge in: confronting a problem is in itself a moral act.

We’ll start by considering one of the issues raised in the comments to the first post: the question of faculty-authored textbooks. Here, shortened somewhat, is the comment about faculty authors at the poster's institution:

“They are excluded from selecting any textbooks, forced to leave the committee that discusses the curriculum of the subject they are an expert in, asked to give all their profits to the school, and more. Other professional activities - such as writing textbook supplements or reviewing textbooks, or doing anything for a publisher to supplement our income - are similarly discouraged, all in the name of ‘conflicts of interest’. . . . Isn't there some way to avoid conflicts of interest, to be ethical, while still participating in the dissemination of the subject we love (and getting paid for it)?”

As raised by the questioner, this is a compound problem—multiple issues­ presented as one. To reason  effectively about any one or all, it is important to separate them if they are not strictly intertwined. Here, one is the question of conflict of interest in selecting/assigning textbooks.  One is an intellectual property issue, which in turn is related to a contracts issue—what, specifically, may or may not be required in an employment relation, even the definition of what constitutes employment and its boundaries, and who is an employee. The latter are, to a considerable extent, governed by law, but may never have been, in the specifics relevant here, adjudicated on the merits. Institutions may declare governance policy, but if it intersects with the law, such policy may be challenged.

So, unpacking and chunking the pieces of a problem is a good way to start examining ethical problems so we don’t get confused or sidetracked by things that may not be a relevant to a particular issue. Let’s take the conflict of interest question for now, and leave the intellectual property and employment issues (which also brings in a more complex type of conflict) for future discussion as they span a range of activities beyond textbooks, and will require a very focused breaking-down on their own.

First, you should probably be glad your institution cares about conflicts of interest. Too few don’t—it is common to hear conflicts of interest in higher education described as  benign or even good to have, while other institutions are not paying attention at all (hence this blog)—but conflicts of interest are a prominent contributor to corruption, which leads to a loss of trust. So an institution that is genuinely concerned—who acts on concerns as opposed to merely pay lip service—is thinking about reputation and integrity. It’s important to understand what a conflict of interest is, of course—at the same time that we don’t want conflicts of interest to be discounted, we also don’t want them used as a justification for denying a legitimate behavior, particularly in service of some other interest.

There are actually numerous forms of conflict of interest, all involving a tension (the conflict) between different interests or objectives; conflict of interest is invariably about the relationship between these interests, which may present a complex and evolving dynamic. In its simplest incarnation, and the one that we can apply here, conflict of interest often centers on role conflict for an individual:  the opposition of one’s official (internal, institutional) role and one’s unofficial (personal, external) duties or goals.  In this case, the question is whether the official role (the role of professor internal to the institution) is in opposition with her personal motivation or opportunity to make some extra money from her knowledge.

Notice I did not say that wanting her students to have her own book was in and of itself a conflict; indeed, we would want and expect a professor, in her official role, to choose the best for her students, and many write books out of frustration with what is available. There is the appearance of a conflict—and appearances, since ethics failures often can only be verified after the fact, are crucial to attend to. One concern here is primarily what is called “altered judgment”:  her book may not be the “best” available/in the students’ interests to use. But the true conflict arises when we examine the unofficial part: the gain to be had from assigning the book.

If the professor stands to gain from the adoption of the book in her institution, even if the book is judged on a set of criteria to be the best, a conflict of interests exists because she would be benefitting out-of-role. Even without the potential gain, it is appropriate, on the appearance standard alone, for her to be excluded from the selection process if selection is done by a group, as there may be other benefits (including proper in-role ones, such as contribution to promotion for having a book selected for use in a course). What if several professors have books under consideration?  All should recuse themselves, and the selection committee should have a strict and transparent set of criteria for evaluation and choice, and a method for reporting it. Procedures can be developed to ensure expert selection and fairness/elimination of potential for favoritism.

Does having a financial interest in the book mean it cannot be adopted? No. But it does mean that, for one’s own institution, when a professor assigns (or a committee selects) a book in which there is a financial interest, royalties should be foregone to avoid both the appearance, and the actual, conflict of interest.  This can be achieved by, ideally, offering the book at a reduced price (easy to calculate, as royalties are a percentage); by having the publisher deduct royalties for that portion of sales at payment time; or, if self-published as print-on-demand, by offering the book at cost. The ability to collect royalties from sales to all other institutions remains; those do not represent a conflict. For a reminder of the problems associated with overseeing a program while simultaneously being in charge of the materials used, look up the Reading First scandal, which resulted in a Congressional investigation (email me for the full report with financial gains if interested; it is no longer on the web).

There is one more point alluded to by the questioner, outside of the important intellectual property and professional control issues raised that we will take up another time, and that is related to professional ethics and the norms of a profession. Without commenting yet on whether it is proper or even legal for a college to say what other activities a faculty member can participate in on his or her own time (a question related, but not equivalent, to the question of conflict of commitment), one thing we all should think about is what kinds of activities, under our professional names as representatives of our disciplines or fields and the academy, we do and do not want to do for money:  which are firmly in-role, such as writing reviews or offering testimonials (which may get into disclosure issues, another huge topic), and which are largely out-of-role, such as tutoring or developing test banks for someone else’s textbook in order to supplement income? Remember that there is no law explicitly forbidding conflict of interest, and no law saying we must be ethical. We have to choose. And in those choices lies our reputation for trust and integrity.

 

 

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