I am not sure if this is generalizable to all subjects. What I have noticed in some of the sciences, for example biology, ecology, and environmental sciences, is that the authors of the most used textbooks are not very highly cited scientists. Perhaps they have a book which is well cited but not used as a primary textbook, however it is not always the case, as it depends on the level of the book. Of course, books written for undergraduates are not necessarily cited in research papers. Regardless of the writing skills, which are of course important, I would prefer a textbook to be written by the most expert of a field and not just by the best educator or writer, who might lack in depth knowledge. Of course, a combination of both would be ideal.

I would expect that the maximum experts of a topic would also write a book which is heavily used in class or in research, but it does not seem to be the case.

Is it because researchers with a lot of citations (i.e. experts) are mostly dedicated to writing papers rather than books? Or is it because they work at the edge of knowledge and are not interested or capable of writing books for rookies?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 16:46
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    The question is rather condescending, and also built on many false assumptions. The most cited author is not necessarily the biggest expert of the field. Textbooks cover much wider areas than just a field. Many undergrad subject doest even have a substantial research field any more. Assuming that only few has a secret knowledge, a depth of expertise at undergrad level subjects is also false.
    – Greg
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 17:39
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    You might also be interested in the answers to Why don't more academics write textbooks?.
    – Anyon
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 18:27
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    Please take the discussion of examples and counter-examples to chat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 6:45
  • Citation count, is not per se a good measure of quality. I discussed this once with a researcher. He stated that there are three types of publications that are cited a lot: (a) papers with great (new) ideas, (b) overview papers (so without much new ideas), and (c) papers with systems/methodologies/... that can easily be improved (since one can compare its own methodology and show it is an improvement). Commented May 25, 2018 at 9:45

7 Answers 7


From a mathematical (US based) perspective I would say it depends on the level of the textbook. Any proper undergrad textbooks will usually be written by people who are much more interested in being teachers than researchers and thank god for that. Undergrad texts are extremely basic and the amount of depth required or even possible, is essentially nil.

Any person with basic knowledge of the subject should be proficient enough in the mathematics to write the book without errors and with all the depth required. The important part of writing an undergrad textbook is being a good educator and teacher and being able to explain and impart the knowledge to undergraduate students. This is a skill many (if not most) high profile research mathematicians thoroughly lack.

On the other hand at the graduate and even advanced undergraduate level textbooks at least in my field of interest (set theory and foundations) were written by incredibly high profile research scientists that were probably in the top 10 in the world in their respective fields. Just to mention a few, Kunen Set Theory An Introduction to Independence Proofs, Juhász Cardinal invariants of the continuum, Chang & Kiesler Model theory. There is also the handbook of set theoretic topology which while not exactly a textbook and not by a single author, is almost an textbook and the contributors were all extremely good research scientists.

From a different field I know CGEL (Cambridge grammar of the english language) and A student's introduction to the English language, from the field of linguistics are both from Huddlestone and Pullum who as far as I can tell (I'm certainly no linguistics expert) are both extremely well thought of in their research community.

To summarize I think that the early and mid undergraduate textbooks are often written by educators, both since they would probably be quite boring for a research scientist to write (though Rudin is a household name and you certainly can't accuse him of not being a research scientist) and the educational aspect of the work is extremely important (though again Set theory by Kunen is certainly a great textbook both in terms of depth and educational values).

On the other hand late undergrad and graduate textbooks are often written by stars of the research community.

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    This matches my experience in astronomy and physics. The books for the general science classes were written by people you'd never heard of; the graduate textbooks were written by the giants of the field.
    – Nobody
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 16:05
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    I disagree, you may need a cursory level of understanding to grasp the subject matter of an undergrad book, but to write a book that will enthrall the masses takes a great deal of understanding. You need more to write successfully than a mere grasp of the subject matter.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 9:41
  • @NeilMeyer I don't think we're necessarily in disagreement. I just doubt that baby Rudin can be reasonably used for calc I or II.
    – DRF
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 18:07
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    The second edition of A student's introduction to English grammar will be out very soon. Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 0:05
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    @BrettReynolds Thank you for the information.:)
    – DRF
    Commented Nov 21, 2021 at 16:19

You have already mentioned most of the things that are going on.

  • Someone who is good at doing research is not necessarily someone who is good at writing textbooks. These are different skills.
  • There are only 24 hours in a day, and an hour spent on writing textbook is an hour not spent on research. A person becomes a top-researcher by being strategic in the way (s)he manages her or his time. That often means not writing textbooks (see point below).
  • The "value" of a book differs a lot from (sub-(sub-))discipline to (sub-(sub-))discipline. Some value books (but even those not necessarily textbooks), and in some writing a book is basically a waste of time.
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    and a textbook in a specialised field will not sell in the numbers that a novel or piece of fiction will so the returns are not high... coupled with that is the expense of producing a quality text book cf a novel...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 11:13
  • @SolarMike Sure, if you do that to make money, then that is possible, but you will have to write that for an undergraduate class in a large discipline. I have heard cases where such a book doubled the authors income or more. But more specialized textbooks will not come even close to pay off financially. Commented May 23, 2018 at 11:44
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    Textbooks pay off better than you think, especially in the sciences. They are usually "refreshed" with a new edition every few years, which increases new book sales, and a book that costs multiple hundreds of dollars pays a reasonable royalty to the author. The other factor to consider is that writing a textbook takes a lot of time away from research. People doing research on a top level are probably not using their time so well to spend it writing a book containing (only) well-known aspects of their discipline.
    – Jeffiekins
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 15:29

Just to complement the excellent answer from @Maarten Buis:

In my experience, the authors of the best textbooks at the senior undergraduate or graduate level are typically some of the top researchers in their field. In applied math, for instance, Gil Strang is certainly one of the leaders of the field and also the author of several extremely popular texts. Virtually all of my favorite graduate-level texts in numerical analysis and hyperbolic PDEs are written by leading researchers.

The same cannot be said for texts at the introductory undergraduate level. Top-notch mathematicians don't write calculus texts, though perhaps one of them ought to.


Both doing research and writing books take a lot of time and effort and many academics don't have enough lifespan to greatly succeed at both.

A lot of stars need to align for a successful researcher to write a successful textbook.

Economics of writing a textbook is pretty rough. First, you have to teach that subject for several years, sometimes decades, to get a feel of how new students acquire knowledge of that subject, their difficulties, what works, what doesn't, what is too easy, too hard, relevant/irrelevant to their future careers.

Then you create the first version of the book, get it edited, proofread, tested on students, revise it at least once.

Then you have to sell it. There is competition, the market is not very efficient so if you book is better than the competition, faculties around the world will not automatically switch to it. You have to promote it. The cost of publication is high, the price is not so high so you have to sell a lot to break even. Most textbooks are barely profitable.

If you actually manage to write a good book and sell it, you have to keep it up to date, revising it every year of few and still keep promoting.

So becoming a famous scientist + writing a great textbook is a heroic task. Huge respect to those who manage both.


While the other answers have explained why most textbooks at the service course level are written by people whose main focus is education as opposed to research, I want to point out that this isn't always the case. Off the top of my head, I'm aware of calculus books by Serge Lang, Gilbert Strang, Tom Apostol, and Joel Haas (all of whom are or were active research mathematicians). I'm sure I'm forgetting some other names as well. Among younger research mathematicians, I am aware of textbooks for service courses by Dan Margalit and Joseph Rabinoff (see https://textbooks.math.gatech.edu/ila/) and by Kevin Wortman (see http://www.math.utah.edu/~wortman/advprec/), and these are just examples from people in my immediate mathematical social circle. It is true that neither of the previous two books I mentioned were published in a traditional manner, but that is just a function of the authors' personalities.

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    Also, there's Richard Feynman. Commented May 23, 2018 at 18:31
  • @henning: I'm not sure it is accurate to call Feynman's books "textbooks for service courses", at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Commented May 23, 2018 at 18:33
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    Well, I sort of think of Feynman's books as being comparable to Apostol's calculus books (in fact, they were both for 1st and 2nd year Math and Physics at Caltech). And to add to the top of your head, Rogawski has a calculus book.
    – Kimball
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 21:12
  • @Kimball: While it may have been intended to be used that way, they stopped trying to use Feynman to teach undergraduates at Caltech long ago. Apostol, on the other hand, is still a viable textbook for the right audience. Commented May 23, 2018 at 21:27
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    Another good example: Keisler wrote an undergraduate calculus text which was based on nonstandard analysis. Despite the novel approach, it was intended to be a first course in calculus and was used by some universities for that purpose. Commented May 24, 2018 at 12:10

Well, in undergrad, at many of the more expensive schools especially: the professors create a book from their curriculum put it in the bookstore and then make it required. For the researchers that have spent long years and gotten tenure and gotten to the head of their fields, a few among these detail their expertise in books. These books are far better and comprehensive and also they are more readily found in graduate school. The point of graduate school is to teach you to read cutting edge things and learn them yourself, this is generally the reason for this. Also, books written by the greats tend to be very tricky even for people with PhDs, and so it is inappropriate for the majority of people to familiarize themselves with a subject this way initially. It is a breadth or depth question, books rarely have both, and the best books usually cater to the second.


One factor I'mmnot seeing in the other answers, but which seems relevant to me: Text books often don't contain original research. They (hopefully) provide a good summary and (hopefully) cite their source.

For further research this can be an entry, but the underlying research typically has the citable information.

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    Why is this relevant? I'm an active researcher, and though I have no interest in writing a textbook, I produce documents that don't contain original research all the time (for various reasons). Commented May 24, 2018 at 2:13
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    Not true for books from Donald Knuth. He uses and cites what others found and adds everything else what's missing. But his approach is rarely copied...
    – usr1234567
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 12:36
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    @usr1234567 It's fairly common to do this in linguistics. A couple of examples are Haspelmath's Introducing morphology (which invents a bunch of new terminology for stuff he doesn't find clear) and Comrie's Aspect (often cited as a monograph on aspect these days despite being a textbook). Commented May 25, 2018 at 7:23

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