How Should Textbook Authorship Count in Evaluating Scholarly Merit, or Should It Count at All?

Factors for tenure and promotion need constant reevaluation.
By Nicky Hayes and Robert J. Sternberg

Academics often regard the writing of textbooks as, at best, a second-rate activity. In the United States, many of the larger universities consider writing a textbook unimportant, for tenure and promotion and in the United Kingdom, the assessment of academic excellence does not acknowledge textbooks. Textbook authorship may even be evaluated negatively—as an activity that authors engage in to make money, taking them away from research and in-classroom teaching time. In both countries, smaller teaching institutions sometimes like to have textbook authors on their staff, if only because of their value in attracting graduate students to come and study there. But even in those institutions, textbook writing is rarely recognized as making a significant contribution to knowledge in formal assessments  for tenure and promotion by academic departments and elsewhere.

As a result, few practicing academics feel able to devote much, if any, of their time to textbook writing. The immediate demands of research, teaching, and (sometimes) service are considered more important by academic administrators. In some institutions, choosing to devote time to writing a textbook is regarded by the administration in a seemingly laissez-faire manner: “If you want to waste your time, go ahead.” The caveat that “you’ll pay for it later in terms of merit evaluation” often is left unsaid. Other institutions make it clear that working time should not be spent in this way, with the result that academics who wish to write a textbook feel obliged either to take a sabbatical, or to leave their full-time jobs altogether and take on adjunct or honorary positions, in order to free up time to concentrate on a textbook project.

This means that our best researchers and teachers often are actively dissuaded from passing on their knowledge to anyone other than academics in their own field and students in their own institutions. Yet experienced researchers and teachers will have accumulated tremendous amounts of knowledge over two, three, or more decades. They will have seen how ideas in their field have developed, how some ideas have become dominant for a while and then fallen out of fashion, and how the steady accumulation of reliable knowledge has resulted in a clearer understanding of a field as a whole. They will be aware of research spanning their whole field, not just their own area of specialization. And they will be able to see how the new developments in their field affect society as a whole. In short, they can tell the forest from the trees. If they are also good at writing and teaching (which not everyone is), who better to communicate that broad perspective to future generations?

Writing a textbook is a special form of teaching. Instead of teaching just a few score or a few hundred students, a textbook author can reach thousands of students. Through textbooks, we reach more people than we ever could teach on a personal level. One of the authors of this article has received communications from complete strangers who used her textbooks as students, demonstrating that a textbook can do more than simply assist people with their studies. It can transform their understanding, inspire them, and even help them directly in their everyday lives and work. If we care about teaching, as the academic rhetoric claims we do, then we should care about textbooks too.

Of course, some might argue that textbooks are on their way out—that electronic resources are taking over. But e-textbooks and electronic teaching resources that perform roles similar to those of textbooks have the same goal of helping large numbers of students to master material and understand its application to their careers (and possibly their lives outside their careers as well). And like printed textbooks, they are underrecognized by the academic establishment.

This lack of acknowledgment has generated a form of academic elitism. We challenge the assessment that textbook writing is a second-rate academic activity. Writing a textbook is a scholarly endeavor, requiring a breadth of knowledge outside the scope of many practicing researchers as well as depth: it is not possible to write clearly about something, or to summarize knowledge in an informative way, without a clear and deep understanding of it.

To write a good textbook requires a deep understanding not only of significant developments in the field but also of the entire epistemology of the discipline. The writer must know what to include and what to leave out. Textbook authors must be able to recognize the blind alleys, the overly pedantic interpretations, the trivia. They must find the significant studies, those that encapsulate the important ideas clearly and meaningfully, and then they must shape the messages those studies carry into coherent accounts. They must translate, transforming information culled from jargon-strewn and often obscure research papers into clear, meaningful prose that can readily be understood by the average student—not an easy task, but one that requires sophisticated communication skills and a thorough understanding of the topic. Textbook authors must be able to amplify and illustrate ideas with real-world examples, to ensure that their readers can grasp their significance. And above all else, the textbook writer must be able to achieve a creative synthesis, bringing diverse ideas together to form a meaningful account that covers the essential ideas current in the discipline, the development of these ideas, and likely future developments. Textbook writing is far more than simply describing a study or set of studies in a journal article.

The scholarly nature of textbook writing was not always so underrecognized. Some of the most influential works in the history of our own field of psychology were published as textbooks. William James’s Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, is a notable example. Classics abound in other fields as well. Paul Samuelson’s Economics text went through nineteen editions and is probably one of the best-known textbooks, or books of any kind, in the world. And then there is Thomas’ Calculus. The sixty-seven-year-old junior author of this article used an earlier edition of that textbook when he learned calculus many decades ago, and the book is currently in its thirteenth edition.

As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, significant textbooks were valued by many universities as evidence of academic excellence, and textbook writing was recognized as the scholarly activity that it is. What all textbooks do to some extent, and what a really good one can do to a massive extent, is to shape the discipline—to establish what counts as fundamental knowledge in the field the textbook covers.

Academic disciplines have developed considerably since the 1890s, so few modern books are likely to achieve the dominance of William James’s book, but the selection of material inevitably involves emphasizing some areas and deemphasizing others. Through successive editions of a textbook, modern approaches become established and outmoded ones disappear. One of us vividly remembers the fifth edition of Hilgard and Atkinson’s Introduction to Psychology of her student days, with its heavy emphasis on “rats, stats, and psychophysics.” A textbook of that nature would find few sales nowadays. Since then psychology has passed through the cognitive revolution and is now in the throes of social and cognitive neuroscience. Other fields go through similar evolutions. The molecular biology of today would be only barely recognizable to biologists of the early twentieth century. Other fields, such as sociology, anthropology, and astronomy, have changed radically as well. Each of the successive phases of a discipline is reflected in the introductory textbooks, as they help shape and are shaped by established knowledge in a given field.

Devaluing textbooks in evaluations of academic merit sends a dreadful message. It says that we don’t really care about teaching large numbers of students. Part of good teaching is being able to provide clear and appropriate resources for learning. Having a good textbook is a significant resource, and an important part of the student’s learning experience. It structures the student’s knowledge, makes the student aware of broader perspectives, and helps the student to acquire additional knowledge. If we really value teaching—and all of the academic rhetoric says that we do—why don’t we value the writing of a textbook?

One might argue that, if textbooks are being counted in Google Scholar, the problem is that Google Scholar counts them at all. That mind-set is short-sighted. The great psychologist William James is known in large part through his textbook, which has been cited, according to Google Scholar, 32,063 times, many more times than the overwhelming majority of psychologists are cited for everything they write during the course of their careers. Samuelson’s economics textbook was so successful that it prompted a scholarly article examining its success.

James is not a unique case. Ernest Hilgard’s most-cited work is Theories of Learning, another textbook, which has been cited 2,957 times in one edition and 1,284 in another. Just one edition of Richard Atkinson and his colleagues’ famous introductory-psychology textbook has been cited 3,120 times. One could erase these citations from a citation index, but then one would be erasing a major part of these psychologists’ contributions—in the name of what? Some suspect notion of academic “purity”?

In reviewing textbook citations, we discovered that not all widely used textbooks are heavily cited. Rather, there are a number of popular textbooks that gather relatively few citations. Additionally, sales of textbooks, like sales of scholarly books, are poor predictors of influence. A publisher once mentioned to one of us that the sales statistics for Noam Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax were low enough to make any publisher hang his or her head in shame. (If you have a copy, you are in rarefied company.) Yet the book has been cited 27,121 times in all its editions, according to Google Scholar, an extremely rare accomplishment. The point, of course, is that one no more has to evaluate textbooks’ contributions by sales than one has to evaluate scholarly books’ contributions by sales. In the end, what matters is impact, and citations are one reasonable and widely used way of measuring impact, for textbooks as for any other publications.

Finally, one could argue that textbooks may have impact, in the sense of citation indices, but do not advance scholarship in any meaningful way, as they are merely reviews of literature. But then, so are literature reviews written in prestigious journals. Of course, there is a difference between the reviews published in journals and the reviews published in textbooks. The former reviews are intended primarily for professionals (even if they are read by many students), whereas the latter are intended for students. But have we really reached such a sublime level of snobbery?

It’s not that valuing textbooks would be an impossible challenge. One frequently heard argument is that textbooks, unlike journal articles, are not peer-reviewed, so there is no check on their academic quality. This argument could only have been made by someone who has never written a textbook. At every stage, from the proposal onward, referees are called in to review the developing textbook. Typically, far more referees evaluate a textbook than evaluate a scholarly paper or book. The referees review initial proposals, first drafts, and final versions, criticizing content, proposing improvements, and making recommendations. A textbook that failed these consultations would be dropped by the publisher. No publisher wants to release a textbook of inferior quality because it won’t be an effective teaching tool and it won’t sell.

We are not saying that hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions should be made solely on the basis of textbook writing any more than that they should be made solely on the basis of any other single criterion. Authorship of textbooks should be, we believe, in the mix of criteria considered.

If we are true to our beliefs about the value of teaching and the communication of academic knowledge, it would be perfectly practical to develop ways of evaluating textbooks that are congruent with scholarly values. We could, for example, assess them by the extent to which they are excellent in pedagogical technique: how they present information, illustrate it, make it relevant and accessible. Or we could evaluate them on the quality of their academic synthesis: how they select information, appraise it, and identify the meaningful implications for the discipline. Both of those approaches would require establishing benchmarks and criteria as we have done for other forms of academic activity. A third possibility is that we could assess textbooks by citation rates. However we assess them, we should recognize their contribution to teaching, to scholarship, and to the future of our field. Doing so would allow the academic world to value important contributions to scholarship and to teaching.

Nicky Hayes is an experienced writer, consultant, and educator in psychology, and has previously lectured in psychology at Bradford, Leeds, and Huddersfield universities.

Robert J. Sternberg is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University.  He is past-president of the American Psychological Association and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brian Sciences and past-treasurer of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. His e-mail address is robert.sternberg@cornell.edu.

Comments

One reason that universities prefer "original research" to textbook publication is that research is often supported by external grant funding, especially in the sciences. This funding includes indirect costs to be paid to the institution that supports the researcher. Perhaps, textbook writing should follow that model, where some percentage of what the writer earns from the textbook is due to the institution. Textbook writing might be viewed more positively in such a system.

As a language teacher I have sometimes had to recommend my fellow teachers for tenure and promotion. In my experience the production of textbooks and other teaching materials should definitely be taken into consideration for this purpose. Faculty who deal with Western European languages are inclined to feel that all there is to be found out about the language — and perhaps even all there is to be known about the culture underlying it — lies ready to hand. Isn’t all of French grammar in Le Bon Usage, and all the vocabulary one would ever need in Larousse or Littré? Even if it is, Russian and other LCTLs (less commonly taught languages) are in no such auspicious position. Writing any textbook or multimedia teaching aid requires searching out and mustering raw data to make new generalizations that can be presented to learners. In other words, it is a research task. XY [a recently recommended colleague] has indeed brought new information about the Russian language to the light of day.

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