Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Send me books, articles

I assume that others who read this blog occasionally get unsolicited emails from people claiming to be philosophy students living in Asia or Africa, asking for copies of books they've published. The email usually beings with some complimentary remark about the importance of one's work, then is followed by an account of how poor the Philosophy collection is at the student's University, and concludes with a request to send to the student copies of one's recently published books .

Has anyone responded to these requests? Are they legitimate?

I ask because today I received by ground mail a strange note of this kind from someone in Asia. The note instantiates the usual form described above. But then it includes a photocopied bibliography from one of my recent publications, with roughly half of the entries circled in red. The student asks me to send her everything that's circled. The circled materials include Word and Object, several famous journal articles, one of the recent Oxford Handbooks, and my most recent book. The letter closes with the sentence, "Please send me books, articles."

Of course, I'm going to ignore this request. Has anyone else gotten something this strange recently?


MK said...

I've never received these requests myself, and as a grad student I wouldn't expect to, but I noticed that the original post didn't say anything about the financial situations of the people making these requests. Surely it can't be that hard to order copies of books online, especially those printed by established academic publishers. This sounds like a scam to get free books, nothing more.

vhs said...

Wow... that hurt. You're describing the content and wording of emails I have send several times. I had no idea that there was a trend of potentially bogus letters with that content - and thankfully, none of the authors I have written to have ignored my requests. That is, of course, I have never asked for them to send me hard-copies of their books but electronic versions of their papers or individual chapters.

But the rest sounds exactly like what I have written - in full honesty - to several authors. I do live in a town with a very poorly equipped philosophy department and library (i live in Alaska. There's no advanced phil-dept here. I'm here because my wife got a job here while I'm trying to finish my thesis), and I do have a hard time getting access to the material I need. So I often do take the liberty to write to the authors of papers/books to either get suggestions for further material, or ask if they could send me a pdf of some paper or ... anything that could help.

Everyone I have written to have replied either respectfully or even enthusiastic (happy that others are interested in their work), so obviously my emails must have been different from the ones you mention, but in your description they sure sound similar. Now I'm not sure how to proceed.

vhs said...

@ MK: It is actually sometimes quite hard (or incredibly expensive) to get academic books online. Some academic books are only published in one small edition and only hardcover at prices that I cannot afford (and would be a 3 month salary for a lot of middle-class people in China for example).

From friends who are further up in the academic hierarchy and also have experience with book publishing I know that this is a bizarre policy of some academic publishers: If you don't make sure your contract is right, they might only publish your work in a few hundred hardback copies and sell them at ridiculous prices because they know libraries and universities will buy them - they will do no effort to make them available outside of that. Some authors might be satisfied with that, as the book goes on their CV, but others actually write because they think it might interest others and would like others to be able to read their works. This is an issue that some of the tenured people I know are dealing with (a solution for some is to insist on maintaining the paperback rights or that a cheaper paperback edition will be in the contract).

Anonymous said...

From 99-01 I was a peace corps volunteer in a country where it was hard to get materials in English. Part of my job consisted in teaching English and "country studies" at a university. Because neither I nor the places I worked had money to buy materials I quite often emailed peopled and asked them to send me things- sometime electronic copies of articles (this was before many people put copies on the web) but also photo-copies and the like. Several magazines and semi-scholarly journals sent me back-issues or photo-copied articles. Almost everyone replied at least in part (sometimes just to say they couldn't help) and many sent things. I, and I think my students, were extremely grateful. I'm sure it helped that I was a Peace Corps volunteer and asked to have the items sent to a university address, but I was still very glad that people usually took the request seriously. This doesn't mean, of course, that this might not be a scam or that you should spend lots of money on this. Asking you to (it seems) photo-copy random articles and send them seems odd, too. But I hope people won't always reject such requests out of hand. Helping out in such cases can often make a big difference to people who have significant trouble getting materials.

Spiros said...


Cases of requests for offprints of journal articles are common and I oblige them always. The general case I'm talking about is different: the person requests delivery by ground mail books. In the specific case I came across today, the person requests that I send her copies of books written *by other people*!

vhs said...

Yeah, requests to send physical books by ground mail does seem strange... especially nowadays, and even stranger when it's requests for books by other authors.

The part that reminded me of a lot of my emails is the "I live in a far-away place with a poorly equipped library and university". Alaska is great and all but..

Anonymous said...

Following up on the Peace Corps comment, every U.S. academic who gets a Fulbright lecturing award to teach abroad (about 800/year) gets a book allowance of about $1500 to buy books for the host department abroad. These are not only books you want your international students to have access to, but are also a wonderful way to build the libraries of colleges and universities around the globe.

The shipping costs to the host countries are prohibitive, so Fulbright instructs its awardees to ship the books purchased here to an address at the U.S. State Department by book rate and the State Department then sends them to the U.S. Embassy by diplomatic pouch, for free.

Given that the Fulbright Program has been in business for over half a century and sent tens of thousands of U.S. academics abroad with these book allowances, it's been quite a wonderful gesture by the U.S. to build those libraries around the world.

I have also received many of those e-mails pleading for books and delete all of them. There are better ways to address those needs, like supporting the Fulbright program.

The Brooks Blog said...

I agree with Spiros. The issue is posting hard copies of books, etc. elsewhere. Of course, publishers have different rates for different countries: books bought in one country are not the same price as in the UK or US.

Furthermore, for our North American and British friends, there are various, very cheap interlibrary loan programmes. This usually amounts to no more than £1.50/$2.00 per item.

Jack said...

I think there are two different issues here. When I receive requests for electronic off-prints I comply because its free, because I can, and because I'm pleased people are reading my work. A specific request for a specific piece of work is just someone needing a little help or someone who doesn't have access to e-journals.

But I have also received a few times letters in strained English (no judgment implied) that fit Spiros's description. The author is from a poor country, would like "any" philosophy books I might send them for school, he or she does not have access to even the classics: could I spare some old books or textbooks? These are not folks in Alaska who have limited access to library materials but folks in developing countries who are asking for me to ship them a handful of volumes allegedly to further their education.

Now, I haven't done it. I don't know why. Is it a scam? Possibly, but its probably a low-end scam. Unless there is a huge market for used textbooks in Thailand, I think its probably just someone who is trying to get books they couldn't otherwise pay for. Is asking someone to send you something free a scam-in-itself? Well, that is a philosophical question, now isn't it.

I don't know why I have never responded. As I write this I fear I might have shirked some humanitarian duty. But, alas, I was either too lazy or, like Spiros, there was just something vaguely unsettling about it. I think next time I will write and ask for more details -- more information -- and then be on the lookout for any escalation that suggests Nigerian scams in the making.

Anonymous said...

Or we could do as Russell did when a very young Carnap (who was a stranger to Russell at the time) sent a letter asking after a cheap copy of Principia Mathematica: copy out all the essential material by hand.

Spiros said...

Russell is my hero.

Anthony said...

I can send you virtual books :)

Anonymous said...

If they are coming from China, the requests may be legitimate. Students at even relatively prestigious Chinese universities often do not have access to important philosophical works of the past fifty years or so and cannot afford to buy books on line. They will greatly appreciate any pdfs or preprints you can send or direct them to.