Conflict of Interest Policy curbs profits

Mary Glazer believes it would be unfair for a professor to write a textbook, assign that textbook to a class and receive royalties from the books sold to Pitt students.

“My roommate was really angry because she had a professor who assigned a book that she had to pay $200 for, and it was a 50-page book,” said Glazer, a freshman rehabilitation sciences major. “She thought that her professor was selling the book and reaping the profits.”

But to Glazer’s avail, Pitt has policies in place to ensure these conflicts of interest are dealt with accordingly. 

The Conflict of Interest Policy, instituted in 2008, prevents professors from earning royalties on self-authored books sold to Pitt students — even students who don’t have that faculty member for class.

John Gareis, a communications professor and director of undergraduate advising, and Ellen Cohn, associate dean for instructor development, have co-authored and published two editions of “Communication as Culture: An Introduction to the Communication Process.” 

Gareis and Cohn published the first edition of the book in December 2007, shortly before the Conflict of Interest Policy came into effect at Pitt. The second edition was published in April 2013. 

Because Gereis and Cohn did not require students to purchase the textbook until 2008, after the policy was put in place, they never received royalties from the sale of their work to Pitt students for either of their books.

According to Gareis, he and Cohn made arrangements with their publishers to ensure they didn’t receive royalties from the books Pitt students purchased. The publishers would charge Pitt students a discounted price with the royalties deducted. 

Gareis believes that the policy was introduced in order to “safeguard students” from having to cover the cost of royalties from their professors’ book sales.

“Instructors have a captive audience,” Gareis said. “For [book royalties] to benefit me, to be a portion of my livelihood, that’s where the conflict of interest lies.” 

Cohn said that she fully supports the Conflict of Interest Policy. 

She said the policy has not discouraged her from writing books. According to Cohn, it is the contribution that her books have in the classroom, and not the prospect of royalties, that motivates her to publish books. 

“I don’t believe that faculty members should collect royalties from their own students,” Cohn said. “Dr. Gareis and I have always taken a proactive approach with our book [by] insisting on a price reduction for our students.” 

Jerome Rosenberg, chair of the Conflict of Interest Committee at Pitt, said that when University faculty members publish their works, they usually ask their publisher to omit royalties through the University Book Center or through whatever vendor they choose to sell their material.

If the publisher drops the faculty author’s royalties, students can purchase their books for a price lower than the one including the royalties. 

Rosenberg said he usually advises authors who cannot convince a publisher to drop royalty costs and reduce the price for books sold to Pitt students to compute the earned royalties and contribute that amount to a fund benefiting Pitt students.

According to Rosenberg, if the royalties are not withheld from the sales price or donated to a fund beneficial to Pitt students, the conflict of interest would then be handled by the faculty member’s University department. 

If a conflict of interest concerning the sale of material written by faculty arises, the academic department of the author in question handles the consequences, Rosenberg said.  

Rosenberg said faculty members did not resist the changes to the policy concerning royalties. 

“I do not know of any complaints or any backlash,” Rosenberg said.

In 2004, Rosenberg oversaw the merging of the Conflict of Interest Committee with the Oversight Entrepreneurial Committee. Both committees formed in the 1990s and dealt with conflicts of interest regarding research and intellectual property. 

The committee has 25 voting members and three ad hoc members from the Office of General Counsel of Pitt, UPMC and the Office of Technology Management. 

The members of the committee consist of one member from the community unaffiliated with Pitt, a student recommended by the Graduate and Professional Students Association and two members from various administrative and academic offices recommended by the president of the University Senate. Each member typically serves a three-year term.

Johnny Lee, a sophomore chemistry major, said that he was aware of the policy at Pitt. He said he previously had a professor who informed her class that she did not receive any royalties from the sale of a book she required the class to purchase. 

Lee said that he is indifferent toward the policy because he does not believe it affects him personally.

Curtis Bucher, a senior natural sciences major, believes the policy negatively affects Pitt students and faculty.

“I don’t think that [the policy] is a good thing because the author of a book could be a top professor in their field,” Bucher said. “Their book probably has a lot of value for students and they should be rewarded for their work.”