Textbooks, Ethics, and Choice

by on 2012-11-08 in Duck- 19 Comments

Pearson executives could not be reached for comment.

In preparing for my spring semester course, a seminar for honors undergraduates on research methodologies, I’ve been paring down readings and reviewing potential books to add to my syllabus. My needs are pretty specific, since I need something that bright undergrads can read and is quantitatively informed but that doesn’t tread on the actual statistics text I’ll be using. What I’d like, in other words, is something comparatively well-written, inexpensive (in the $20 range), short (ideally well under 200 pages), and reassuring (possibly with the words “don’t panic” printed on the cover).

My default choice had been Steve Van Evera’s Guide to Methods, but it’s a little heavy on the qual stuff for this course (especially since I’m using some selections from Brady and Collier’s Rethinking Social Inquiry to elaborate current thinking on case methodology) and pitched a bit more toward Ph.D. students than I’d like. So I was very happy to come across W. Phillips Shively’s The Craft of Political Research, which met every substantive criteria I had. It’s engaging, it reflects a broad range of research traditions (essential for my course, which includes students in IR, comparative, Americanist, public policy, and even normative theory), it’s short, it describes the theoretical and practical challenges of working with data, and it came blurbed from Chris Achen. I should point out that this is a slim paperback, with about 172 pp. including end matter.

There’s just one problem. It costs $59.87.

I had actually been looking up the ISBN so I could assign the book. Had the price been $19.87–still a trifle high for a trade paperback!–I would have done so immediately. But there’s no way.

So, congratulations to Steven Van Evera, who’s about to sell 20 more books.

I want to know, exactly, how other instructors balance your desire to have the best books with the realization that asking students to spend more than about $100 or so per course on books is … a bit much. Indeed, at some institutions, even that amount could strike me as being unethical. On the other hand, alternative decision rules (going with the cheapest or the freest, not the best, texts) strike me as equally unattractive (since the marginal cost of such books and other material is slight compared to the cost of a single credit hour, which is about $1,500 at my home institution these days).

But students will be happy to learn that to save them money on statistical software, the course will utilize not SPSS or Stata but R. It’s free! And almost thirty percent as intuitive.

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  • Tomas

    Presumably tuition at your school is exorbitantly high; now you worry about $40 at the margin? And by economizing at the smallest margin you deliver an educational experience less ideal than you would like to provide if all marginal cost was zero. Which, perversely means their education Is less excellent than it should be given the high fixed cost. Which means you unintentionally diminish the education they pay for by economizing at the margin.

    If you care about the margin, why not consider marginal cost for software and book bundles? R plus schivley is still less than stata plus van Evera.

    Just my two cents.

  • PM

    But for students who are receiving large amounts of financial aid, the marginal cost of a couple of Shively’s is, actually, noticeable–even here.

  • PM

    (Of course, you’ve recognized exactly the point I’m troubled by. But come on! Sixty dollars for a 150-page book printed on plain paper??? NO. This book should be cheaper and agreeing to pay the ransom only encourages the publishers.)

  • GM

    Email Phil. He’s a sweet man– I’m sure he’d be flattered and might come up with ideas to help circumvent this issue.

  • PM

    I <3 readers

  • Tomas

    My point in no way suggests that a student wouldn’t feel $40, regardless of whether they are on financial aid. My point is that students get something in exchange–a better education. You even say this in your post.
    And the higher price merely “encourages the publishers” to do what, exactly? Produce more books? Isn’t that kind of what you want–a less expensive version of Shively? (Wait, isn’t that exactly what you want?)
    (And why would you make your students buy more than a single copy of Shively? (that’s a joke)).

  • PM

    It would encourage publishers to charge exorbitantly more than they should. (I’m sorry, I thought that point was more clearly stated.)

    The difference in quality between Shively and Van Evera is simply not worth the $48 premium that Pearson is charging. (That’s $59 as against $11.) I’m skeptical that this is even profit-maximizing for Pearson, given that I’m unsure that any faculty want to deal with student complaints for paying $60 for a book that looks and feels and generally seems like it should cost under $20.

    So do I give my students the best or the cost-weighted version of the best? I recognize this as an issue, and I’m trying to figure out what’s best to do (or, at least, an ex post facto justification for my decision).

  • ak

    I’m very troubled by the fact that there are universities without libraries providing books… As you might have guessed,
    this particular reader is Scandinavian.

  • LFC

    I think you’ve identified the problem (or a key problem) — it’s Pearson and similar companies. To charge $60 for a 172 pp. paperback esp. without lots of fancy color plates (or whatever) is an *outrage*.

    I know an author of a textbook published by Pearson and I think authors deserve to make money on their books. The question is: how much is Pearson (an *enormous* company btw) raking in on profits? I don’t know exactly how Pearson works — whether it’s publicly traded or not, how much its in-house employees are paid, what royalty arrangements it has w its authors, etc. But any company w this kind of pricing policy (whether it’s technically profit-maximizing or whether eventually it will come back to bite them) is a bad, evil company. Of course you shouldn’t order the book for your students at this outrageous price. You are doing the sensible, justifiable thing in going w the Van Evera instead.

  • http://twitter.com/vyadav Vikash Yadav

    Why not just put a copy (or ideally three) of the more expensive book on reserve in the library? As a student when I couldn’t afford to buy books, I just went and read the copy on reserve and took notes. I didn’t mind; I figured it made me read more efficiently anyway and I was grateful that my professors thought to do this. Kids who have money can buy it from the bookstore or Amazon or wherever; kids who can’t afford to purchase or even “rent” (as some bookstores call it) the book can still get access at the library…

  • http://twitter.com/vyadav Vikash Yadav

    Oh, and by the way, the Shivley book is only $24.65 on Kindle…

  • PM


    Good suggestions but:

    (a) Ph.D. stipends don’t allow me to buy many books for myself, much less for other students :)
    (b) the timing of the class would make this a problematic option (it might have to be more than three copies, and difficult for everyone to interrogate a class together)–although this could be overcome
    (c) I noticed that. But, of course, even here, I don’t assume that all my students have Kindles…
    (d) And at the end of the day, $25 for a Kindle version is still twice as much as Van Evera.

  • Matt Evans

    You don’t have to buy the hardware to read Kindle books, just have a PC (at least Vista) or a Mac (at least OS 10.6). I know, I forgot to ILL a book for a seminar and couldn’t track down someone to borrow theirs in time, so I paid for an overpriced Kindle version (one of the few books that was overpriced on Kindle at $34) and downloaded the reader for free. Perhaps you could ask your tech people to ensure that Kindle Readers are installed in the library or departmental computer labs for those who might not own a computer.

  • PM

    “You don’t have to buy the hardware … just have a PC … or a Mac.”


    This seems like an enormous workaround that still leaves my better-off students paying $60 for a book that is not worth it. My objection is to the idea that ANY of my students will pay more than $20 for this book.

  • Matt Evans

    Yes, I don’t mean to imply that it negates a whole range of issues related to gouging students within the broader array of the political economy that structures high learning (college student lives, what happens in the classroom, the capacities and lives of part-timers and tenured folks, etc.). The whole situation is worse than your depiction here.

  • PM

    I’m actually grateful to you and others for helping me clarify where I’d intuited the locus of moral responsibility was. And it is this: Scholarly publishing should not be profit-maximizing.

  • Joey

    My reactions to this would be that:

    a) the best thing students can spend their money on is books,
    b) textbooks are overpriced, but your purchasing power is not going to change that,
    c) you don’t need to assign them a textbook when you can assign them chapters and articles. If you are already getting them to buy a stats book, why not just find good examples that you can assign that are not from a textbook?

  • Matt Evans

    While parsimonious, that claim fits, but does not fully explain the problem. We need a broader set of claims, a more confused and confounded locus of moral agency. Externalizing it to the textbook manufacturers and then internalizing it to ourselves (our naive thoughts, our inabilities to act on our own concern for our students, our limited ability to push back) denies the larger structure of the neoliberalism and other hierarchies manipulating the institutional incentives, punishments, and spaces of academia. I am not claiming some horizontal authority in previous periods of time for academia — there have always been many hierarchies in place; the structuring is different and worse in some ways. I am saying that there are a diverse set of processes at play that worsen the academy, one of which is the power of textbook manufacturers, another is the overwork of different levels of people in the academy that make that enable some of these gouging practices. If you’re teaching five classes as a part-timer you would be more likely to pickup a text that provides a test bank, powerpoint slides, a web site, and videos that you can throw up to the class — destroying some of the creativity and nuance involved in many of these political topics. If you’re working a night job loading boxes into planes — that was enabled by public-private partnerships between the university, state, and corporation — on the third shift that you also fit between your other job and daytime classes, textbooks with big pictures, boxes, disjointed text would look more attractive to you. This is just a few of the many dynamics at play that makeup this political economy. There are more, some are transversal, others specific to schools themselves. If we are going to start talking about textbook gouging, we need to talk about a range of other issue linkages.

  • LFC

    “need to start talking about a range of other issue linkages”

    That’s probably right. I would also say, w/r/t what PM said above, that while textbook publishing is no doubt a highly lucrative business (certainly for the publishers), scholarly publishing more generally (i.e., the sort of thing that most university presses do most of the time) is not, I’m quite sure. So one should distinguish between textbook publishing and ‘scholarly publishing’. Perhaps neither should be profit-maximizing. (But there’s a difference between ‘gouging’ and making a profit.)