The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Textbooks, Ethics, and Choice


November 8, 2012

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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