Evaluating Conflicts of Interest
Am I guilty of having a conflict of interest in using my own Accounting Ethics textbook for that course? I’ve thought about this a lot in the past and agonized over the answer. Before I share my beliefs, let’s get certain things clear.
The choice of a textbook for a course is solely the prerogative of the professor, although with multiple sections of the same course it may be a committee vote. This is part of academic freedom. But, with academic freedom comes an ethical responsibility to choose a textbook best suited to student learning.
Today, many textbooks are provided in e-book form, as is mine. This makes the decision of what “book” to use more challenging. For example, in e-book form the author provides many questions – i.e., multiple choice, true-false, etc. that students have to answer as part of course requirements. They are graded and the report sent to the professor to track whether students have completed online assignments. These questions enable students to teach themselves certain basics so professors can focus on higher level material including case studies and external readings to supplement the course.
I read a great piece in Psychology Today on using your own textbook by Mitchell Handelsman, a professor at the University of Colorado in Denver. He uses his own book. He points out that professors who have taught a course for a long time and gained experience beyond that of normal teaching bring to the table skills that can be passed along through the textbook that chronicles such matters.
The key ethical issue is not to exploit students for personal gain. I can tell you the royalties are not that good and unless your book is used by thousands of students, the return on investment is minimal. That’s not to say this justifies using one’s book. The reason to do so is it is the best alternative available to facilitate student learning.
One thing that makes my decision different than many other professors is an Accounting Ethics course does not exist in most colleges and universities which means there aren’t many books on the topic in the market. Compare this to a book such as Introduction to Accounting that is required in all business schools, and the decision is less complicated.
Handelsman provides good advice of when professor might behave unethically in adopting their own book.
- If the book (or course packet) the professor assigns has nothing to do with the course.
- If the book is relevant, but the professor assigns students to buy the book and then never uses the book in the course.
- If the book is clearly inferior to other available materials. Perhaps the professor self-publishes a book that no other self-respecting instructor would ever adopt.
- If the professor makes grades contingent upon buying new copies of the book—rather than buying or borrowing used copies.
- If the professor forces other (less powerful) members of the department to use a book they would not have chosen.
- If the professor puts together a course packet and sells it to students for an exorbitant price—well beyond copying and other costs.
I feel good about my decision not only because I do not engage in any of these practices but because student reaction to my text is generally positive. How do I know? I pass out a survey at the end of the course that is answered anonymously and roughly 90 percent feel the book was helpful in learning the course material, 80 percent said they would recommend using the book again, and virtually all students had no problem with a professor using their own textbook as long as the professor objectively views use of the book as the best way to facilitate student learning. In other words, they trust their teachers to look out for their interests.
Just contemplating these issues is an ethical practice and one that all professors thinking about assigning their own text should do.