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The textbook paradox: “Textbooks more than a very few years old cannot even be given away, but new textbooks are mostly made by copying from former ones”

The above remark, from Alan Dunne, applies to mature fields more than to new fields. For example, I guess the textbooks on deep learning are pretty recent, so anything a few years old really would be out of date. Even in subfields that have been around for awhile, it can take a while for textbook writing to settle down. The first textbook on Bayesian data analysis is 25 years old, but people such as Richard McElreath are still figuring out new ways of presenting and extending these ideas. For more mature and higher-volume topics, though, sure, I think Dunne has a point. Textbooks in intro American Politics keep coming out in their 9th or 13th editions or whatever, and don’t get me started on intro stat textbooks.

Dunne was reacting to this post by David Myers from last year, “Psychological Science: Full of Surprises?” Dunne writes:

Myers is I think a reasonable representative of the commonplace or “conventional wisdom” in psychology (he is a textbook writer) giving “findings of psychology” divided into categories of increasing surprisingness.

It could be interesting to look into the evidence for each asserted discovery, and particularly whether there were patterns of amounts of evidence by level of surprisingness. I do not have the spare time and energy to do that and do not suppose you do but if you post the link or Myers’ post itself perhaps someone in search of a project or a new angle on the state of psychological research will take it on.

I would also be interested to read your thoughts on textbooks generally (besides advertising your own, of course), how they can be done better, and how they can avoid presenting jumped-to conclusions as fact (and having readers remember them as facts) and give a fair overview of what is known, and indication that things are mostly not known, about a subject. For example your (or your commenters’) thoughts on the effects of and any opportunities arising from, textbook publishing being a field marked by constant turnover, so that textbooks more than a very few years old cannot even be given away, but in which new textbooks are mostly made by copying from former ones. The impact of textbooks on the general public’s thinking about specific things and about sciences about humans as a whole could also be interesting to explore.

I think a good textbook should have as at least one base for it a systematic sample of the systematic reviews found in databases of research in the field—or of metaanalyses or whatever the closest equivalent tagged in the subject’s databases are; I believe even the most backward disciplines usually have literature reviews or review articles.

In his brief post, Myers lists 34 successes of psychology research. 34 is a lot! His list includes 12 “unsurprising but important findings (significant facts of life for our students to understand),” 11 “surprising findings that may challenge our beliefs and assumptions,” and 11 “surprising findings [that] reveal things unimagined.”

I don’t agree with 100% of Myers’s examples, but I like how he focuses on important real-world topics rather than things like Stroop which might be important for our scientific understanding but is not a big deal in most of our lives. The main thing that seems to be missing from Myers’s lists is developmental psychology. I guess that’s just not a topic that interests him very much.

Regarding Dunne’s question about the textbooks: Yeah, I dunno. Once a misconception gets in, it can be hard to root it out.

23 Comments

  1. Eric B Rasmusen says:

    This prompted me to check out prices of my Games and Information. $7 for the 1st edition, $91.95 for the 4th (which is 15 years old instead of 30). I think it got better generally, but some people say the 1st edition is better even tho it has more mistakes, because it is more shorter, more unified, less cluttered, as tends to happen as editions evolve organically. And it definitely has the best cover art of any of them. See

    https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780631157090&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-all

    https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Games+and+Information%3A+An+Introduction+to+Game+Theory%2C+4th+Edition-p-9781405136662

    This post prompted me to buy Mankiw’s Principles of Economics, which I need to do so I have a “reliable source” when making elementary corrections to Wikipedia economics articles (which are much lower in quality than its math and stats articles; everybody in the world thinks they know how to write economics articles). There, the cheapest 1st edition was $12, compared to $5 for the 2nd. The 9th is $120. https://www.cengage.com/c/principles-of-economics-9e-mankiw/9780357038314PF/

  2. Adede says:

    Reminds me of the peer review paradox: paper should get better with each round of review but are usually submitted to lower and lower prestige journals.

    • Andrew says:

      Adede:

      Yeah, I’ve heard that some people follow the strategy of submitting their papers to a mid-ranked journal first in order to get some free peer review. If the paper gets accepted, fine, move on. If it gets rejected or gets a big R&R, you tell the journal you’d rather not revise for them, then you revise and send the improved version to a higher-ranked journal. I’ve never had the guts to follow this strategy myself, at least not on purpose.

      • Eric Rasmusen says:

        It’s not ethical to turn down and R+R that way. But you can submit and hope it will get rejected so you can send it to a better journal. I guess the strategy there would be to write it in a style that is clear but will make the editor reject it.

        • Andrew says:

          Eric:

          I’m assuming that the first journal you submit to would be ok enough that you’d be fine with it appearing there if accepted or if it’s a mild R&R. But if it’s a serious R&R then I don’t think it’s unethical to send to a new journal. I’ve received some R&R’s which have been so ridiculously detailed that I’ll say to hell with it, I’ll try somewhere else.

          Also, different fields are different. My impression is that biomedical journals will give a pretty crisp rejection, but econ journals will often give onerous R&Rs.

          • Eric Rasmusen says:

            Actually, that’s right. If an R+R is too onerous, and it’s presented as if you have to do it to get accepted there, then it’s fully ethical to say, “No Thank You, I’ll try somewhere else.” We should probably do that more often in economics— everyone realizes that we’ve got a big problem with referees making too many casual hard suggestions and editors saying, “Do what the referees say and resubmit”. The worst thing is that the referees, I htink, usually would be willing to accept hte paper without the changes, if it came to that, but the editor doesn’t want to specify which changes he thinks are important.

            • Jana says:

              It’s not just reviewers, though. As a reviewer I observe that often authors slavishly follow every comment because they think this will increase the chances of getting published (and getting published seems to be an end in itself). As a reviewer, I sometimes find it hard to find the right words, like when I have an idea how to do things ‘better’, but am open to be shown otherwise — the point is sometimes to make authors consider a point, but in the end it’s their name on top of the paper.

              • LemmusLemmus says:

                I think it’s a bit much to complain that authors follow reviewer suggestions. Given that authors cannot quickly communicate with reviewers back-and-forth, it is understandable that they’re trying to err on the side of caution.

                If you just want the authors to consider a point, you should say so explicitly. Or perhaps leave out that point altogether. A common reviewer mistake seems to be to just write down everything that comes to mind.

                I structured my last review into two sections, main points and other points (or something to that effect) and explicitly said that the latter contained only stuff I would change if it were my paper, but that I would not base my suggestion to accept or reject on.

      • Olav says:

        At this point in your career, I think you could publish your papers in any journal and people would still read them. Some of the biggest names in my own field don’t seem to bother much with the mainstream journals any more, but that hasn’t hurt their impact at all. (Of course, maybe your university–like mine–gives a monetary bonus if you publish in high-ranking journals.)

  3. Matt Skaggs says:

    Had a professor at Vanderbilt who felt the assigned textbook for his class was way too expensive, so he organized a mass copying effort for his students.

    Now you might think he would run afoul of some vested interest, except for one odd twist…he wrote the textbook.

  4. Dale Lehman says:

    I have many (too many) complaints about textbooks. I used to like British texts much more than American texts, as they seemed to make you think and understand rather than just memorize and prepare for the homework/quizzes/exams. The American situation has deteriorated, in my opinion, where publishers feel compelled to issue powerpoint slids, prepared tests, videos, and their own learning management systems (really, how many do we need access to?) for every book. Long ago, I advocated that texts should be shorter and confined to the fundamental material – which is unlikely to change much over time (in economics, at least), and then supplemented with online applications which should be updated often. There used to be a series of such economics texts, but it stopped being published (because nobody was using it – I guess instructors liked all that material that I can’t stand).

    I’ve written 3 texts myself – which I feel are quite different than the usual ones. Of course, they aren’t used much. I sometimes wonder if the current vintage of texts is designed to fit with the 80% of college instructors who are now adjuncts. I believe if we took teaching seriously, that the current crop of texts would mostly be found lacking. But if you want to minimize the instructor’s work (and the students, in some ways), then the 1000 page encyclopedia with supplementary videos, readings, quizzes, self-paced learning materials, and separate learning management system, seems perfect. Even better if you are teaching classes with hundreds of students. I don’t blame the textbook publishers (well, I do, but not as much as others), but higher education bears much of the responsibility. While I’m at it – just think about how easily assessment fits into this picture. Higher education increasingly resembles a system built by machines for machines, and assessed by machines.

  5. Daniel H. says:

    Since I finished my PhD and work in a normal engineering job, I read textbooks mostly for pleasure and interest. Three examples from my current / recent reading list with varying degrees of update-neededness:
    Cornelius Lanczos’ “the variational principles of mechanics”, um, probably in the “newer” edition from 1970? (I’m too lazy to check, but the original text is from 1949) which is an increadible book, clear, concise, infinitely deep (I definitely didn’t understand all of it, but hope to re-read it at least once each decade). No need to change any of this, it’s still perfectly up to date.
    Russ Dewey’s online textbook “Psychology, An Introduction” in the new 2018 edition: For the few topics where I had some separate background knowledge on the current state of controversy (e.g. science of sleep, Melatonin dose recommendations, reproduction crisis, priming), he always appears to be correct and up-to-date. (also it’s a really good read, accessible, deep and fun at the same time)
    Andy Clark’s “surfing uncertainty” on predictive processing which is from 2016 and while I’m glad it exists, I’m really annoyed by the fact that it’s missing everything that happened in the last 5 years. (while a little difficult to read, it really is a great book, but the field is moving so fast it’s hard to keep track)

    Cheers, Daniel

  6. Anonymous says:

    An anecdote from many decades ago so maybe no longer typical. Freshman engineering class is welcomed by the relevant department head (he does not teach) who has 2 important messages. Twenty-five % of you will fail and buy my textbook. The textbook store is filled with the official book which very few buy but old and ancient texts are in high demand but hard to find. This has left me a taste that still persists.

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