I've come to realize that there's a specific pretty basic topic at the level of college algebra/precalculus which is given competing, contradictory definitions in different textbooks (link). And this topic also shows up at the high school level. I'd like to follow up on this and determine the proportion of students exposed to each type of definition, and ideally a breakdown by geographic location (say, nationality) if possible.

What's the best way to go about determining which college textbooks are most common/ biggest sellers/ used in more classes/ have more students exposed to them (or any related metric)? Or even better: any way to determine what proportion of students are given one of a few different, competing definitions for a topic?

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    I'm much more worried about textbooks which write i=sqrt(-1)...
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 4 '16 at 7:09
  • @MassimoOrtolano: If we can find a research strategy, perhaps we should investigate that as well. Feb 4 '16 at 7:32
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    A possible partial solution is Amazon sales rank, e.g., Ratti (3e) has a sales rank of 240,766.
    – user1482
    Feb 4 '16 at 23:50
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    @BenCrowell: Possibly a good idea, and better with subject-specific rankings? E.g., Ratti is #95 in Pre-Calculus, Sullivan is #9. Feb 5 '16 at 4:29
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    In some sense, this problem and the one pointed out by Daniel in the link to Mathematics.SE are very much related.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 6 '16 at 11:39

This is not a literature review question; this is a market research question. (That's not a problem, but understanding the nature of the question helps to determine the most appropriate approach to take.)

Are you asking this question out of personal curiosity, or do you want to undertake a formal research study?

  • Personal curiosity: I recommend that you contact sales representatives of multiple publishers and ask them these questions. You should first contact the representative for the books with the contradictory definitions. You can ask each of them which are their main competing books, and why their book is superior. (If you only ask the main competitors, they might be reluctant to give you that information; however, if you ask them to compare themselves, they will likely willingly volunteer that information.) You can ask each sales rep your questions about the market penetration of their textbooks. I doubt looking at Amazon rankings would be meaningful, since I would guess that most university textbooks are still purchased through university bookstores, not through Amazon--I don't know that for a fact, though.
  • Formal research: You need to look into how to do a formal market research investigation. Sorry; I can't help you much here with practical details, but at least I hope this points you in the right direct.
  • To answer your question: I would like to make a formal research study feasible. Ultimately the end-goal is really "what proportion of students are given one of a few different, competing definitions for a topic?". Feb 5 '16 at 14:12
  • You should probably edit your original post with this clarification. That said, my answer remains: you would want to employ formal market research methods to answer this kind of question: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_research. Although your goal is scholarly, I think the non-scholarly market research technique would be the best way to go about answering that question. Unfortunately, I'm not a market researcher, and so I can't tell you the specifics of how to do that.
    – Tripartio
    Feb 5 '16 at 14:30

You could ask relevant schools for the textbooks in use, if any. Probably listed with syllabi, and ask the faculty where not/lecture notes are given. Ask specifically about the subject, it might not be covered, or some other source is used for it, not the book (I've been known to do this, use the textbook as rough guide and fill in with material freely available on the 'net).


Check out the Open Syllabus Project which aggregates syllabi from university websites. Might be a good starting point to determine which are the most popular college textbooks for your research.

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