I've read several questions relating to the (typically US) practice of requiring students to buy up-to-date, expensive, editions of textbooks. I can see why the publishers are in favour of this, but I don't understand why everyone else plays along. As far as I've seen, the UK seems to get along fine without this.

In my field (mathematics) it seems pretty obvious that new editions are generally not that important - maths just doesn't change that fast (the material taught at undergraduate level has mostly been around for the odd hundred years). So my question is:

Are there subjects for which it is important to have the most up-to-date edition of a texbook, enough to justify the cost to students (/libraries)?

  • I haven't spotted this question elsewhere. I'm not certain about the US tag.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 8:01
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    I agree that while the US are a prime example and likely the biggest textbook market, this question is really not specifically about the US. I'll remove the US tag. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 8:45
  • I suppose it can be more practical. Different editions often differ in numbering of exercises, page numbers, etc., so this can be a huge pain if different editions are in use. Presumably bookstores only sell the latest edition, so if you would settle for an older edition, it might be more difficult to obtain the right one. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 14:13
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    @PieterNaaijkens FWIW the incompatible numbering is one of the strategies publishers use to force people to use the latest edition. If publishers were motivated to deliver value rather than to protect profits they could easily design their textbook editions to be backwards-compatible. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 16:19
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    Might be an unpopular opinion, but IMHO this problem should be solved by the lecturers (or TAs) quoting the exercises they assign in full rather than merely referencing them. Reeditions have their uses, but there should be no edition requirements on a course unless something is needed that the older editions do not provide. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 2:11

5 Answers 5


Take undergrad economics. While standard micro- and macroeconomic theory likely doesn't change quickly enough to warrant a new textbook edition every few years, students might be... irritated... if recent economic events (the US housing crisis, the Great Stagnation, right now the ruble meltdown) were not reflected and discussed.

Suppose the last example of a major crisis in your econ textbook (printed in 2004) were the dotcom bubble bursting in 2001 - today's college students were barely walking back then. This would be ancient history for them.

Yes, of course a motivated instructor could work with an older textbook and provide the updates based on his own notes. This is a lot of effort, though, and apparently few instructors go to this trouble.

  • "This would be ancient history for them" - if that's a problem then they're going to be in real trouble when they're asked to consider the South Sea bubble or tulip mania ;-) But sure, like you say, students don't just want to come out knowing the theory, they also want to know how it applies to the examples they're familiar with from the news. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 14:55
  • But does that actually require a new textbook? I have plenty of classes where the teacher assigned journal and news articles to supplement the textbook readings each week. In some cases they were recent articles, but not always ... but they always were directly related to the chapter(s) assigned from the textbook.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 14:43
  • @Joe: I agree it doesn't require a new edition (the Q was which subjects benefit from new editions). Publishers could certainly just print updates covering these events, tied into the theory that likely didn't change. Software companies issue patches and don't require you to buy and install a whole new installation to deal with one bug. So why don't textbook publishers follow this "patch/update" model? Answer: because they can. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 14:51
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    Note: I have selected this as the accepted answer not because it is most correct but because it gives roughly the most specific answer (of those so far).
    – Jessica B
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 9:44

With regards to "the most up to date," it certainly depends on the frequency of versioning: for example, I cannot imagine a subject in which a new version every year would be justified from a scientific consensus perspective.

There are, however, fields where the consensus is advancing quickly enough that a new version every 5-10 years would certainly make sense. A number of biomedical sciences, for example, would have this property, as there has been a continuing rapid advance in our understanding of the mechanisms of control within individual cells and their relationship to organism-level behaviors.

Of course, a highly motivated instructor might collect notes and surveys themselves such that a textbook was not needed, but that's an independent axis from your question, I believe...


Communications engineering, from what I understand, is rapidly changing (what with the Internet at all). In fact, any textbook related to computer technology is bound to be severely outdated in several years (with some exceptions). There can be issues, for example, when students are led to believe (as is the case in my telecommunications textbook published in 2005 and used in 2014) that Token Rings are common alternatives to Ethernet--something that this article from 2007 quite firmly denies.

While introductory calculus hasn't changed much in the past couple hundred years, fields that are rapidly changing, e.g. anything involving computers, require up-to-date textbooks. I don't imagine anyone will benefit much from a textbook on internet communications published 5+ years ago as opposed to a current one.


Machine Learning and related fields in statistics, etc require fairly frequent revision. New algorithms are being developed and adopted at a fairly rapid pace, in large part because the technology is enabling datasets and algorithms that were previously infeasible to be common.

Even an introductory machine learning text with a copyright 5 years ago was probably drafted even earlier. So a now common technique might have been brand new. One fairly simple example would be elastic net regression, which was first written about in 2005.


I find that many STEM fields like to use specific editions of textbooks not because of the content, but because of the end-of-chapter problems.

These tend to change per edition (if not the actual problem, sometimes the numbering), and many intructors like to assign these as homework. This practice doesn't work as well if not all students have the same problems available under the same problem number.

I'm not saying it is a good reason, but it is a reason it happens.

  • I'm fully aware of this practice, and it is extremely poor behaviour on the part of the publishers designed to rip off students. My question is about why people put up with it.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 6:53
  • Frankly, we don't have a choice. They are not going to change their practices, and dealing with different problems in different orders is just too much of a hassle. This is worse though if the instructor insists on a specific edition of a book that is technically outdated, because those will usually be harder and more expensive to obtain.
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 6:56
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    Sorry, but you really do have a choice. In the UK the problem is pretty much non-existent. If you insist on following one book doggedly, especially if it's an expensive one, you can still solve the problem by not assigning numbered questions as assessments. You can write out the questions you want the students to answer. Or be really daring and make up questions like the rest of us. Better still, ditch the expensive textbook. Give the students lecture notes, like we do. Or use one of the open text books now available.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 7:52

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