Cram101

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Publishing scams that target writers are well known. Publishing scams that target readers are not. But one clever publishing company, “Academic Internet Publishers Inc.”, appears to have found a way of misleading book buyers by exploiting the process that online bookstores use to aggregate data from their suppliers.

Imagine that you are a computer science student taking a computational complexity course. The assigned textbook is Computational Complexity by Christos H. Papadimitriou. So you go to amazon.com and search for “computational complexity papadimitriou”. Here’s what you see:

Amazon search results for “computational complexity papadimitriou” on 2007-10-11 returned “Computational Complexity (Cram101 Textbook Outlines—Textbook NOT Included”, in addition to the genuine article.

Hmmm, $60 is a lot of money, and even $40 seems like a lot for a used textbook. But hey, look at the first search result, it looks like there’s a study guide version for only $9. It’s got the nice familiar black-and-yellow cover design of Cliff’s Notes. As long as it mentions all the definitions and results, you might be able to get away with this instead of getting the expensive hardback. So let’s take a look and see what people have to say about it:

Customer reviews for the genuine “Computational Complexity” are highly complimentary. Todd Ebert: “Papadimitriou is one of the great minds in computer science, which is reflected in this gem of a book.” Jason T: “A well-written book that teaches you how to think about complexity theory instead of just a flat summary of results.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Let’s add it to our shopping cart.

But wait a second, did you note those caveats: “This review is from: Computational Complexity (Hardcover)”. Are there any reviews of the Cram101 version of the book? There’s one over in the right-hand column. It is not quite so positive:

“Complete Scam, February 18, 2007” By John Noga. “Papadimitriou’s book is a classic, but many of my students find it difficult. This book is clearly not written by Papadimitriou. When I saw this book (Cram101) I didn’t know what to expect, but hoped for some sort of easy presentation of similar material. This book has nothing to do with Papadimitriou’s Computational Complexity. Half the pages are intentionally blank. The other half have definitions of terms (most repeated over and over) that have nothing or virtually nothing to do with the topic. For example ‘mean’ is defined (poorly) 17 times and ‘sets’ is defined (poorly) 12 times.”

So what on earth is going on here? My guess is that someone at Cram101 has worked out a way to exploit the way that Amazon uses the catalogue data supplied to it by publishers. They specify in the data file that they send to Amazon that their “study guide” is the paperback version of the real book (giving it the same title and author name as the real book reinforces this). This causes Amazon’s web software to bring up the Cram101 book in search results for the real book, means that reviews for the real book appear on pages for the Cram101 book, causes Amazon to refer to the latter as the “paperback version”, and even causes the “Search Inside” feature to show a preview of the real book.

Some unhappy reviews of other Cram101 books:

CRAM101 SUCKS do not buy from this site/company. the outlines appear that the auther is in a complete hurry and the company puts no effort into the book whatsoever. WASTE OF MONEY. PERIOD

Misleading description Please be advised you are NOT purchasing a paperback version of the textbook. You are merely receiving a book with definitions of key terms on one side of the page and lines for your own notes on the other. The way it is presented online is misleading.

I didn’t expect this series of books to be laid out the way they are. I am disappointed that the “notes” are simply a glorified glossary arranged by chapter rather than alphabetical. Key points from the book are not bulleted or organized based on content presentation, rather key terms are defined and that is all.

Terrible This is NOT an outline. It is a glossary of terms used in each chapter with extra space to write your own notes. The definitions are useless and the author has not given information about how/why any of the terms are included in the chapter. Pitiful. Do not buy this if you are looking for an outline. THIS IS NOT AN OUTLINE..despite the title. Waste of money.

This can’t work for ever: after a while the reviews from people complaining about the crappy quality of the goods will start to dominate, but by then I presume that Cram101 will have sold many copies to students. And there’s always more textbooks that they can try the same technique on. A search for “cram101” returns about 50 results, starting with these:

A handful of other Cram101 “outlines” of popular undergraduate textbooks: “Principles of Economics” by Mankiw; “Psychological Testing and Assessment” by Aiken and Groth-Marnat; “Strategic Marketing Management” by Anderson; “Systems Development: A Project Managament Approach” by McLeod and Jordan.

What can we learn about “Academic Internet Publishers” and their “Cram101” line of products? The cram101.com website is not very informative, and why would we trust it, given what we know? This press release from 2004 is interesting:

Cram101 is an online service that uses artificial intelligence to read textbooks, summarize them and post highlights and key points of the material online. The service is available for a subscription rate of $9.95 a month.

Cram was started by Scott Parfitt, a former Harvard professor who has been working with artificial intelligence since the 1990s. The company was started in California, but Parfitt says in the next year or so the company will be moving significant operations, if not all operations to Memphis, where a large group of the company’s investors are located.

Parfitt says the service can digest a textbook and process summaries in about an hour. Cram was beta tested at UCLA and the University of California at Northridge. Parfitt says those trials included testing it against traditional teaching and studying methods.

The claims seem highly implausible to me. Automatic summarization is a powerful tool for certain purposes, used for example by news aggregation services like Google News to make short summaries of syndicated news articles. But summarizing computer science textbooks in a way that’s useful to students is beyond the current state of the art.

So it wouldn’t surprise me if the company has found it hard to find suckers willing to pay for its online subscription model. So the new business technique of misrepresenting its summarized textbooks in the catalogs of online bookstores is a logical, if highly immoral way to proceed. (And not just immoral: Cram101 may be committing the tort of passing off.)

I have a feeling that this is the first sign of a future trend.