Federal lawsuit calls college textbook/ebook packages a "scam"

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/05/23/only-four-publishers.html


In general, I’m in favor of including fees that are realistically not optional in stated tuition/room costs so students aren’t being surprise nickel-and-dimed and having to suddenly scrounge up a hundred bucks or more to have dorm room internet for the semester. However, “we included this cost as a hidden addition to tuition because otherwise students might get mad at how ridiculous the amount is and refuse to pay it” is just showing the magnificent lack of self-awareness in the for-profit materials sector of education.


For all that there’s some genuine shadiness, a parallel issue is that professors are very poorly incentivized to write textbooks, on top of all the other things we need to do. I suspect the whole problem (and parasitic multibillion/year industry) would go away very quickly if there were a well managed ~<$1M/book grant program supporting the creation of excellent openly licensed textbooks. (money to support teaching relief for multiple collaborating authors, graphic design, digital/online resources, etc)

(Actually, I’ve noticed low cost options starting to appear (like this and this) - particularly if one doesn’t need a physical book.)


But If colleges don’t let their profs make money on the side grifting textbooks, then they’d have to pay them higher base salaries, which is definitely a non-starter.


At the other end of the scale, I have professors who hand out copies of their notes (electronically), deliberately stick with older editions, provide lists of how the scrambled-every-edition chapters line up, use selected problem sets rather than point to ones in the current edition of the text, and (perhaps best of all) provide a list of their recommended texts going back to their advisors’ list and tell you to read widely.

Or, of course, write their own texts and publish them cheaply or even under Creative Commons. (Yes, that means you, Dr. Raymond.)

And in case this strikes some as a curious comment: I’m retired, my children all have advanced degrees, and I’m winding up bachelors programs in both physics and mathematics. Because they’re awesome.


If you’ll forgive me, what’s your field?

(From the handle I suspect physics.)

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Yes, I’m in physics, but I haven’t taught the large engineering/physics intro classes that probably draw most of the focus from textbook publishers.


I do this for the courses over which I have control. However, we need to be wary of false economies. Sometimes the cheaper or open-access text is not well-aligned with a course’s syllabus, or is simply not as good a book. A student might be paying $2500 just in tuition for a single course, saving them $50 on the text but getting product that leads to an inferior course is not doing them any favors.


I started with used books (even if they didn’t exactly match the course), moved to international versions and finally by my junior year in college I ended up just leading study groups in the library so I could share textbooks with classmates. It became trading my services for time with my study mates books if I couldn’t check out a library copy. It also improved my grades a fair bit to have to be the one prepared to lead the study.

But it was a lot of extra effort to save a lot of money. Bless my professors that stuck with a specific old edition or did their courses using external resources.


Or more truthfully: We’re including the cost in tuition because our other efforts to stamp out the secondary market were not as successful as we wanted.


It’s been a long time since I was in college, but I noticed an almost inverse relationship between the educational value of a textbook and its cost. I would wager that it is still true that the cost of a textbook has no bearing on its value to the student.

My favorite textbook was authored by the (award-winning) professor, and was $10. My least favorite textbook was authored by the professor (who was invited, after one semester of teaching, to go back to research), was completely useless for the class, and was $275.


All true. I am admittedly biased in favor of upper-division and graduate level texts, fun as lower-division classes still are. However, it’s also been my experience that there is an unavoidable uncertainty regarding which text will get the content across best to any given student, so since most instructors have been exposed to a wide variety of texts it’s good to offer a selection of alternatives anyway. As long as the student finds some sound source that clicks.

One of my astrophysics professors has an enormous collection of old texts, some signed by the laureate authors. We’ve had some good chats comparing some of my collection with his. Mine is unsurprisingly inferior in most regards but does have a few he hadn’t run across. We agree on the importance of exposing students to breadth in their fields, because the dangedest things turn out to be relevant.


It’s funny that the freshman-level text I’ve seen most often is an Nth-edition descendant of the one I saw as a freshman nearly 50 years ago, and of course Jackson is still the canonical graduate E&M text despite his being dead now for generations. Churchill still serves well for differential equations (several different texts, too – my collection is up to three.)

Or you can look up Raymond’s text(s) for two terms of sophomore or advanced freshman general physics – he calls it radical and best I can tell it’s certainly not just more of the same.


This whole business shows how misplaced the ‘elite’ colleges are. For most large intro classes, and even many of the classes up through the first few years, and even for many advanced courses, the publishers are offering professors a packaged turnkey solution. They get the text, the lectures slides, demoes, software, tests, practice quizzes, intelligent tutors, videos, etc. There is no way an asst. prof stuck with teaching a 250-person lecture can easily generate this all themselves and still hope to do the research to get tenure. So the publishers offer a turn-key solution that gets billed to the students (and is not part of tuition, which the faculty and departments don’t get directly anyway). I’ve seen a number of colleagues and friends invest all their time in teaching and have to leave their position, even though they were great teachers.

But they are using the same materials everywhere, from your local community college all the way to the “Stanfords and USCs” that rich people are bribing and cheating in order to get their kids into. They are often getting literally the same materials, and teaching the same classes. At the “elite” places that are research institutions, they may even be more likely to use these, as faculty don’t get incentivized by the university for writing textbooks, and most faculty who get to the point where they can spend time writing a textbook no longer teach the money-making classes where the royalties pay off. I see a lot of intro-level textbook authors nowadays are at places like the cal-states or smaller liberal arts colleges where this is more valued.

I have never actually used a commercial textbook. I made my students write their own textbook one year, which I think is more rewarding but they hated it. I also am lucky enough to not teach any pure-lecture classes, which are ineffective anyway, but if I were in that position, I don’t know what I’d do. The CC-licensed textbooks often do not compare.


I worked in the campus bookstore in college in the 90s, before ebooks and all. Of course, books were expensive then, and the store did book buybacks at the end of each semester. I worked one of those buyback events.

Some student at some point must have made a remark (like everyone did) about the rip off ten cents on the dollar they were getting for selling their books back to the bookstore. I must have heartily agreed with him or her, because after the event closed, and we were packing up, the textbook manager pulled me aside, pissed like I’ve never seen. He said I better not ever say anything about the buyback being such a ripoff. Ever again!

Holy cow, what a reaction he had! Looking back, I must have really hit a nerve. Maybe right in his kickback pocketbook.


Textbook publishing is a racket. They can go fuck themselves. Doing everything possible to wring money out of students.

Education, healthcare, both showing how the tradgedy of the commons is nearly always perpetrated by large businesses. Not selfish individuals.


Yes, that’s definitely the subtext. I’m just surprised that they tried to conceal it with the “sticker shock” excuse. That’s… not a phrase you generally want associated with your product.

That’s something that the publisher cares about, not the college… Maybe they did a little bit when college bookstores carried textbooks, but that market went primarily to amazon quite a while ago.

Realistically, I would assume that the motivation was that if books are counted in tuition, then students can bundle that cost into their student loans.


I’m a college professor and I won’t use these online codes. Whenever possible I use OER books (Open Educational Resources - creative commons licensed books)
The online codes are a scam. They are drmed, no way to resell them, and often expire so even if someone wanted to refer back to the material a few years later they couldn’t. Unfortunately, the publishers push them with studies that I’m sure they funded themselves that say how great they are for students and less savvy profs fall for it.
Another scam they have been doing lately is “cheaper” loose leaf versions of books which are just 3 ring punched books with no cover or binding at all. Of course this makes it harder to keep the book in good shape or even avoid loosing pages so they are almost impossible to sell back.
And it doesn’t help when most college bookstores are actually run by Barnes and Nobel rather than by the college itself.


Paying tenured profs is not the problem, they do relatively well. It’s the vast majority of people teaching students, who get paid shit wages that have the problem. I can guarantee, if a prof has a contract to write a textbook, they are likely tenured profs, and not lowly adjuncts that do the actual work in most universities.