Scitech | Out with the New?

McGill math profs weigh in on shelling out for the latest edition of a textbook

A McGill math professor once announced on the first day of a calculus class, “If you can find a calculus textbook for a quarter at a garage sale, buy it and use it for this course.” The idea behind his advice is that calculus, no matter the age of the textbook, is always the same.

The most recent revision to introductory calculus occurred in the early 18th century when Isaac Newton lost the notation battle to Isaac Gottfried Leibniz – and that was just notation, not content matter. So, why do publishers produce new editions of textbooks every three or four years? The answer that comes to mind is profits: if publishers don’t keep coming out with newer versions of textbooks, students will turn to used books, which cannibalize profitable new edition sales. While this is true, newer editions aren’t just old versions of the same text printed on shinier paper – are they?

To get to the bottom of this matter, I chatted with some math professors here at McGill. The outcome was a sweeping consensus: no need to shell out upwards of $100 for the latest edition.

McGill math professor Sam Drury discussed Stewart’s Single Variable Calculus, the textbook used in calculus one and two courses at McGill: “The new books have a lot of additional material, to access some of it you have to go online, but I tend not to go for that.”

Fluffier new editions often come bundled with supplementary learning resources, CD-ROMs, online passcodes, and various other bonus materials. The real question is whether students consider these new features a substantial improvement in the learning experience.

When books go into later and later editions, the changes can be more subtle. “The fifth and sixth editions [of Stewart’s] are virtually identical. Maybe the sixth has more colourful diagrams,” said Axel Hundemer, also a math professor at McGill.

Publishers revise their books every few years in order to maintain their revenue streams. While it is difficult for us to get publishers to curb such practices and rein in persistently higher prices, it is not impossible. All we need to do to ward off these unnecessary newer additions of textbooks is decrease our demand for them. The mathematics department does nothing to hamper our potential to do so.

Drury explains, “I tell the students in class that if they can find any reasonable calculus textbook, it will do because I do not assign problems from the textbook. I tell them this in the first lecture. So that if they don’t want to spend an arm and a leg, which is what it costs to buy a textbook these days, they don’t have to.”

While professors often recommend a textbook, and the McGill bookstore stocks the latest edition, there is never a requirement that the students purchase it. Hundemer explains, “Our books are never compulsory. We just tell students ‘Okay, this is the text that we recommend. If you don’t buy it, no one will do anything about it.’ It’s just the student’s responsibility to learn the material that is equivalent to whatever I assign. That’s all.”

Such words are comforting to hear from faculty, but the battle against new editions and mounting prices has yet to be spearheaded, as new math texts are produced and available for sale at the bookstore.

Next year Stewart’s Single Variable Calculus is coming out in the seventh edition. This means that if you currently hold the sixth edition, you’ll be able to sell it for half the sticker price tops, as hapless first-years scramble to get the latest version fresh off the press. Seeing as there isn’t much that I can do to patch up the $50 wound if you already own the book, and nothing I can say to subdue exorbitant prices, if you’re going to buy the new version, I apologize for your loss and hope that you can find comfort in the fact that I too still hold the sixth edition.