A dubious textbook marketing proposal

I got an email the other day:

*****

Dear Professor Srivastava,

My name is [NAME] and I am a consultant working with the [PUBLISHING COMPANY THAT YOU HAVE ALMOST CERTAINLY HEARD OF] team on the new textbook, [TEXTBOOK], by [AUTHOR]. I am emailing to see if you would be interested in class testing a chapter from this new textbook.  In exchange for your class test, [PUBLISHER] will give you a one year membership to the APS as a stipend for your help. This is a $194 value.

If you teach the [COURSE THAT I DON'T ACTUALLY TEACH] course, please read on.

[PUBLISHER] is looking for instructors to class test either of the following chapters:

    Chapter 3: [SOMETHING ABOUT THE BRAIN]
    Chapter 8: [SOMETHING ABOUT THE MIND]

You can integrate the chapter you select into your course as you see fit – we will ask you and your students to fill out a very brief online survey after the class test.

[AUTHOR] is [IMPRESSIVE-SOUNDING LIST OF AWARDS AND CREDENTIALS]

If you would like to be considered for this class test, please click the following link and sign up for the project: [LINK]

This is a terrific way for you to learn about an exciting new textbook for the [COURSE THAT I DON'T ACTUALLY TEACH] course and see if it is a good fit for you and your students.  

I look forward to hearing from you.

[NAME]

Consultant for [PUBLISHER]

*****

This sounds ethically problematic to me, for at least two reasons:

1. It is a conflict of interest. My students are paying tuition money to my employer, and my employer is paying a salary to me, to provide a high-quality education. If I choose course materials based on outside financial compensation rather than what I think is the best for their education, that is a conflict of interest.

2. My students would be forced to participate in a marketing study without their consent. In response to my query, the consultant said the students would not be paid. But compensation or no, I can see no practical way to incorporate these materials into the course and still allow students to fully opt out. Even if students choose not to fill out the survey, it is still shaping the content of their course.

I suppose I could make the test readings optional, spend no classroom time on them, base no assignments or test questions on them, and fully disclose the arrangement to my students. But my experience of college students and non-required reading assignments tells me that exactly nobody would do the reading or fill out the survey, unless they thought it would curry favor with me (so maybe the disclosure is a bad idea). I don’t imagine that is what the consultant has in mind.

It is possible that I have misconstrued an important part of this invitation. So I have offered the emailer to write a response, and if he does I will post it. I’ve also decided to redact the identifying details. I realize that lowers the probability of getting a response, but my purpose is to make it known that this kind of thing goes on  — not to embarrass the specific parties involved.

Is it still a bad idea for psychology majors to rent their intro textbook?

Inside Higher Ed reports that the number of students who rent textbooks is increasing. Interestingly, e-books have not caught on — most students are still using printed textbooks (though iPads might change that).

When I teach intro, I have always suggested to my students that if they are going to major in psychology, it is a good idea to purchase and keep their intro textbook. My argument has been that it will be a good reference for their upper-division classes, which might assume that they already know certain concepts. For example, when I teach an upper-division class in motivation and emotion, I assume that my students understand classical and operant conditioning (and I tell them in the syllabus that they should go back to their intro textbook and review the relevant sections).

A downside of this advice is that textbooks are very expensive. Renting a book, or selling one on the used market after the term ends, is a way for students to reduce costs.

Anyway, what this got me wondering is whether it’s still helpful or necessary for students to keep their intro textbooks. Is there enough good info on the internet now that they could just google whatever topics they need to review? A few years ago I looked around on the web for a well-written, introductory-level account of classical conditioning and wasn’t impressed with what I found. I still don’t think I’d assign the current entry for classical conditioning as a review. But with the APS Wikipedia project, for example, maybe things will get better soon.

I remember finding my intro textbook especially helpful when I studied for the psychology GRE, but not many undergrads will go on to do that. Next time I teach an upper-division class I’ll probably ask my students how much use they’ve gotten out of their intro text afterward.

Here’s eight grand to adopt our textbook

I got the following email this morning. Note the part I’ve underlined:

***

Dear Introductory Psychology Professor:

[Redacted] Press was created as a faculty venture six years ago focusing solely on interactive low cost digital text packages with free printed texts. This concept has been widely accepted by faculty and students alike. The rising price of textbooks is well known to college faculty, students, and even government agencies.  Our digital textbooks offer a low cost alternative to traditional expensive textbooks.
We would like to introduce you to our Introductory Psychology low cost interactive package including:

A $40 digital interactive text with embedded videos and audio and words with internet links — a better way for today’s students
A free printed text called a student text supplement
Access to a password protected website with interactive updates and materials
A test marketing program with stipends up to $8,000 for individual professors and up to $15,000 or more for departments
An online test center for each chapter of the interactive text, plus instructor’s manual
Test bank questions to upload to any online platform such as Blackboard
Technical and consulting support — 24/7
We invite you to take a narrated tour of [Redacted] Press before you review the interactive Introductory Psychology text. It is a brief tour of [Redacted] Press and interactive texts and will enable you to better understand the benefits of our program within minutes. You start the tour by going to: [URL redacted] (you can cut and paste this URL directly into your browser).This tour will demonstrate the interactive elements of our texts and give you an opportunity to review the [Redacted] interactive Introductory Psychology text at your leisure.

After you have taken the tour, if you email me your mailing address and the number of students in your upcoming classes, we will send you the digital text and brochure on the Introductory Psychology package and tailor a test marketing stipend program for you and even for your department.

We are confident you will see the numerous advantages of moving towards digital, interactive texts and will help us faculty move students into the digital age of education.

Thank you in advance for your time and interest,

***

I went to the website and looked at the text briefly, and I wouldn’t ask a student to pay $40 for it. It’s just not that good, and for a few bucks more, a student can get an ebook edition of a name-brand textbook.

But more to the point, is it just me, or does that “test marketing program” sound like a pretext for a kickback? Awfully close to the consulting fees and conference junkets that doctors and pharmaceutical companies are always getting in trouble for.

(Of course, I’m also suspicious of the numbers. At $40 a pop, you’d need to sell 200 ebooks just to cover the $8000 kickback stipend.)