The NSSP Saga, September 25, 2009
I must look like a sap. This is the second time in a year that I've been threatened with legal action over my opinions. I've spent 35 years expressing my opinions and I'm not about to start retracting them now just because someone in a company sees it as bad press. I do my best to have informed, sensible opinions. You be the judge.
In September 2006 I was forwarded an email from the National Social Science Press. You can read the email for yourself; it offers faculty up to $8000 for "test-marketing" a textbook. Like the person who sent it to me, I was outraged. I put a link saying "National Social Science Press bribing faculty to use their text" and wrote:
"These schmucks are offering a bribe to the professor for using their text. It had to happen, but students in courses using their books ought to be extremely irate -- you should feel the same way if your physician took a bribe from a pharmaceutical company for giving you a prescription."
One thing worth noting: a bribe does not imply an illegal act. Some bribes, like those to police officers, are illegal. But to my knowledge, it is not illegal to bribe a professor. Indeed, one definition of bribe is "Something, such as money or a favor, offered or given to a person in a position of trust to influence that person's views or conduct." (Definition from The Free Dictionary. Merriam Webster is similar.) This in my opinion nails it. A professor is definitely a person in a position of trust and they are being offered cash, and not an insignificant amount of it, to use a text book. Personally, if I found out a colleague took the money for assigning a text, I would support firing them. It is unethical. While I may not be an expert in judging unethical conduct in a university setting, I was a professor for 28 years, and head of a department for some of it. I dealt with many ethics violations, so I have a reasonable level of experience in the subject.
This is where matters stood for three years.
This week, Jerry Baydo, the originator of the email I criticized and the director (whatever that is) of the NSSP, emailed me with complaints. He says, among other things, "You have put up damaging, erronerous [sic], and financially harmful commentaries about National Social Science Press. I am writing you this email to ask you to remove that material."
My response was to inquire what he thought was erroneous:
"First, let me apologize for any erroneous statements I have made. I will remove erroneous statements immediately and would be pleased to post an apology for them. Can you help me to understand what I have written that is factually incorrect so I may fix it?"
His response was not exactly on point. He says the NSSP seeks to make inexpensive textbooks available (this is a goal I share!). About the bribe email he writes:
"The email from 2006 on your websites is very old and was one of the first attempts to market a microeconomics textbook that was a failure. The textbook has been withdrawn and is not being marketed at all."
He goes on to say:
"We are hiring faculty and departments to evaluate our materials; in this day and age of severe cutbacks in education, the money used by faculty and departments is going to hiring adjunct faculty, department supplies, student clubs and many other sources."
My interpretation of that sentence is that he is still engaged in bribing faculty. I agree, however, that if the money goes to student clubs or to the department or to anyone other than the faculty member assigning the book, the ethics shift dramatically. When a professor assigns a book and pockets cold hard cash, I have an ethical problem with that.
He goes on to say that what I wrote portrays them in a negative light and doesn't show the good works they are doing. In sum, he wants a free pass from past and continuing transgressions because his company is engaged in such good works, bringing inexpensive textbooks to students. Moreover, the answer to the question I asked apparently is "nothing." That is, I said nothing erroneous. So I responded:
"It sounds to me that you are still engaged in bribing faculty to adopt your textbooks. In my opinion, sharing profits with faculty adopters is unethical. Shame on you, a fellow faculty member.
"I would be happy to post your response below along with your earlier letter. To do this I need your permission."
I guess that wasn't what he expected, and he didn't give me permission. What came back is an angry, threatening letter. Here are the highlights.
"We hire faculty members to do reviews; we do not pay faculty members to use our materials, but if a faculty member did a review of your text and the publishing company paid him for that review and the faculty member decided to use your text, there is nothing illegal or unethical about this situation."
I don't disagree with this statement. Paying for reviews is a reasonable activity. It is tying the payments to the use of the text that is unethical in my opinion. Perhaps they have now stopped, but it seems clear to me that they were in that business in 2006. I posted the actual email so that anyone interested can judge for themselves.
"Plus we do not have a textbook at all competing with your textbook, obviously that was one of your motives."
This is an idiotic statement; why would I care if they don't have a competing book? And in fact that was never a motive; I think there are too few good texts and would much rather have used someone else's good text than to write one which I then gave away free under a creative commons license.
Dr. Baydo then continues to assert that I don't understand what they are doing, don't appreciate the low cost texts they are providing. I haven't looked at their texts and have no knowledge or opinion as to their quality. (It doesn't seem possible to look at their texts; no 'take a look' type facility exists on the NSSP website. This is very peculiar for a company allegedly promoting their textbooks. However, a recent email provided a link to some information about the offerings; see below.) But how offering inexpensive texts justifies bribing faculty to use the texts is beyond me. He then tells me I don't have permission to post their email.
Now this is an interesting question. When you receive a physical letter, you own the physical letter but the writer owns the copyright. This logic clearly breaks on the web; my system automatically makes backups (copies) of emails I receive, potentially violating copyright. In any case, I assert fair use to the original letter; in order to make the point that NSSP is unethical, I must provide the evidence, and the email is the evidence. Dr. Baydo has not disputed that he actually wrote the email, by the way, and sent it out.
"I thought as a fellow faculty member we could resolve this. But you would rather hurt our faculty enterprise by your comments on your website. National Social Science Press requests that you withdraw any emails that were illegal placed on your website and also withdraw any comments about National Social Science Press that are erroneous, harmful, and economically damaging with 72 hours."
I already offered to withdraw any erroneous comments but he has yet to identify a single erroneous comment. His response goes on and on, demanding I remove the comments and "illegal email." He then says:
"I assume you would respond to this email; it is not a threat, it is a reality. We are not involved in bribery or coercion. I am the director of a national educational association and have had major input in what we faculty are doing from hundreds of fellow faculty across the nation."
I find this curious; he also doesn't seem to understand the meaning of threat ("declaration of intent to cause harm"). Not surprising given his stance on bribery.
I don't take threats well. So my response was:
"I stand by my statements contained in our correspondence -- feel free to post them. I intend to exercise my fair use rights with respects to yours.
"You might want to look up the definition of 'bribe.'"
He responds with:
"It is not a threat, it is a promise. The next step is ours. We will see what the superior court judge feels about fair use rights after both sides spend a very large amount of money for attorney fees for what could be a very lengthy trial. And we will have a variety of definitions of "smuck" with its ethnic implications ready. It appears that you feel that you are right and want to stick with your damaging website and comments, even though this is a grey area. Obviously email cannot solve communication problems."
I actually called NSSP "schmucks," not "smucks." Dictionary.com says "an obnoxious or contemptible person." I didn't know whether Dr. Baydo was obnoxious in 2006, but I find unethical people contemptible. Contemptible means "the feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, or worthless." The beauty of contemptible is that it is clearly opinion. Opinion is protected speech in defamation cases. (Dictionary.com found nothing for "smuck.")
I sent Dr. Baydo the link to my website, where this is posted. My email bounced, to which I was alerted today, so I resent the email this morning. He wrote:
"It is difficult to understand an email that says that none of my emails to you can be reprinted or copied or put on a website. English is a very difficult language to completely comprehend. Sorry you feel that you have to defend your opinions with an open forum. Such tactics will not be used by National Social Science Press. As a faculty member I asked you to withdraw your public comments and you refused to do so, that is your choice. Not only did you leave us with no choice, you decided to continue your illegal activities and that is also your choice. Incidentally, none of this communication can be reprinted on any website. I hope this is clear enough for you."
"Have you never heard of fair use? Have a look at wikipedia or the EFF. If you believed in what you say you would say it in public."
And he responds:
"You cannot reprint material that is clearly prohibited from being reprinted. These were private emails, not for public consumption. This issue is now out of my hands."
In my view, a recipient of an unsolicited email can post it with proper attribution. I do not accept that someone can send an email and mark it 'for your eyes only' without a prior agreement. Were I to agree to keep an email secret, my agreement creates a contract, and a violation carries whatever penalties it carries. Emails are like secrets; if you want to control what happens to them, either make an agreement or don't send them. My right to disseminate is certainly reinforced by the sending of emails which promote unethical behavior or threaten, which Dr. Baydo's emails do. In addition to the unsolicited nature of the emails, these emails are newsworthy. When a company solicits unethical behavior or threatens an individual, the emails turn into news.
If you have been threatened by the NSSP, feel free to contact me. I'm easy to find online. Even if you have agreed not to reveal the particulars of a settlement, I would be curious to know of the existence of such settlements. I wouldn't ask this but in one of Dr. Baydo's earlier emails, he says:
"They have been a few professors who have thought we were doing something we would not doing and have misinterpreted the for hire concept found in states and colleges and universities across the nation."
This statement is quite incoherent (I hope Dr. Baydo doesn't grade essays!) but seems to suggest that I am not the first person who complained about the tactics of the NSSP. Since he opened with a threat to me, I naturally wonder if he has threatened others.
January 25, 2010: One of my readers sends in this letter:
Dear Public Speaking Professor:
National Social Science Press was created as a faculty venture six years ago focusing solely on interactive low cost digital text packages with free printed texts. This concept has been widely accepted by faculty and students alike. The rising price of textbooks is well known to college faculty, students, and even government agencies. Our digital textbooks offer a low cost alternative to traditional expensive textbooks.
We would like to introduce you to our Public Speaking low cost interactive text that has the following elements:
- A low cost (average $40) digital interactive text with embedded videos, audio and words with internet links — a better way for today’s students
- A free printed student text supplement
- Access to a password protected website with interactive updates and materials
- A test marketing program with stipends up to $8,000 for individual professors and up to $15,000 or more for departments
- An online test center for each chapter of the interactive text, plus instructor’s manual
- Test bank questions to upload to any online platform such as Blackboard
- Technical and consulting support — 24/7
We invite you to take a narrated tour of National Social Science Press before you review the interactive public speaking text. This is a first a brief tour of NSS Press and interactive texts and will enable you to better understand the benefits of our program within minutes. You start the tour by cutting and pasting the following URL in your browser: http://www.nsspress.com/demo_files/demos/NSSP_public_speaking_demo/NSSP_public_speaking_demo.html Then you can review this text at your leisure and see the embedded videos, links, and audio that appeal to student learning styles today in this low cost package.
After you have taken the tour, if you email me your mailing address and the number of students in your upcoming classes, we will send you the digital text and brochure on the public speaking package and tailor a test marketing stipend program for you and even for your department.
We are confident you will see the numerous advantages of moving towards digital, interactive texts and will help us faculty move students into the digital age of education.
Thank you in advance for your time and interest,
Dr. Jerry Baydo
National Social Science Press
2020 Hills Lake Drive
El Cajon CA 92020
This is a commercial message
Notably, the price for individual professors -- up to $8,000 -- hasn't changed, but there is a new departmental option. A demo of the book is visible, which wasn't true before. (As far as I can tell, a random visitor to the site can't see a demo of the economics book.)