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.
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.