Ask any college student and they’ll be quick to let you know textbooks are much more of an expense than you might realize. In response to the costs, some take unethical routes to bridge the gap.
But how unethical are these strategies? Are they as unethical as the textbook industry itself?
While rising tuition always catches the eye of students unhappy with how much they’re spending for an education that is lessening in value, textbooks are that final low blow to your bank account early in a new semester.
There are many reasons the textbook industry brings so many headaches.
First, what is lauded by WVU as the foremost option to purchase your textbooks—stores like Barnes and Noble on campus—are simply not the most efficient way to do it. Books are found much cheaper online or in other areas.
And that’s not the only issue with this strategy.
For bookstores like Barnes and Noble, a small amount of books assigned for each class are ordered. These textbooks are not all the books that are needed across the class according to roster size however, as it banks on some students finding the book in other ways, never getting the book, or waiting for new copies to arrive.
What this means is the supply of these textbooks is often too meager, and results in a wait to resupply. This wait can take a long time, even resolving after the book has already been required multiple times in the class.
Many students remedy this by using competitors. One of the most popular is Amazon.
Amazon offers a cheap rental service for books that you mail back after the semester, and mailing it back is even free. Amazon also offers two day shipping for free with its Amazon Prime service, with tracking covered.
With very competitive pricing, it’s easy to see why many students turn to it.
So sure, there are issues with the delivery of these textbooks that students find their way around, and maybe even with supply, but what about issues with the textbook industry itself?
New editions for textbooks can include important revisions to content in order to stay the most up to date and most correct. But many new editions feel more like a copy and paste with some visual changes rather than any reasonable improvement of content.
Why would we be upset with this regular new content? Because we are forced to buy it.
When a new edition comes out for a textbook, classes will likely ask you to purchase it. Most of the time, a previous edition will substitute as long as you are not working directly with problems from the book.However, this is not always the case.
For courses in fields like foreign language that often involve pivotal online coursework, you will need the exact edition of the textbook the class uses in order to have the right access code.
What results is students having to re-purchase near exact same content for hundreds of dollars each to receive a little string of letters that lets them proceed in the courses they’ve already paid for.
Picture this: you purchase a $300 book for Spanish, set to get you through Spanish 101-102. As you start your 102 class, you read in the syllabus that a new edition of the book is released. The $300 you spent for a textbook and string of letters that is your lifeline for online course work is now null and void, and you will have to purchase a new $300 book with near exact same information to even proceed. But hey, this time it’s brown! And of course you could just get the new code without the textbook for something like $250.
This is not ethical. This is not acceptable.
We pay exorbitant rates for our education and then have to purchase the nuts and bolts—the exactly prescribed nuts and bolts—to propel ourselves forward within it. This practice drains major dollars from an already extorted group of people looking to better themselves.
To combat this absurd practice, some students turn to what is considered equally unethical. Some students photocopy textbooks and access online versions of texts uploaded illegally, among other strategies. Others even try and forgo certain books within a class, surviving without them rather than facing the costs.
But how unethical are these countermeasures?
While copyright remains the law of the land (and for very good reason), as declared in court in India, "copyright is not a divine right."
This comment was actually a part of a ruling made by the Delhi high court in response to a university within India, Delhi University, photocopying textbooks from major publishers for educational use in 2016.
The Delhi high court ruled in favor of this photocopying and distribution.
While some degree of photocopying is legal today in the U.S. depending on purpose (involving some threshold of use—for instance only using one page), it’s a slippery slope that is certainly not advisable. But as technology evolves perhaps beyond the textbook industry’s grasp, and as education costs grow endlessly higher, textbook ethics as a whole will be confronted whether we want it to or not.
How long can we really ask students to spend $300 for a book they may never actually be asked to open instead of googling "(book title) pdf" for an industry that already robs them of so much? All while increasing the costs for them to achieve this education at all?
Now consider that West Virginia is home to some of the worst poverty and rates of education in the country, and see if your answer remains the same.