Life in academia

Ditch the textbook: A call to academic publishing companies

I've received an invitation to review a proposal for a new marketing research textbook. I'm not a big fan of textbooks.

Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a renowned European publisher of academic literature. I was invited to review a proposal for a new textbook on marketing research. This e-mail includes the following sentence: “Their proposed core textbook will provide a deep and academically rigorous overview of all of the relevant tools in marketing research, and will best suit an advanced undergraduate or postgraduate student.”

In other words: It’s going to be a textbook that shall fit the needs of everyone. It will be big, and in order to fit the needs of everyone, it will include irrelevant materials for everyone as well. Because it’s big, it’s going to be pricey, and because it’s big, it’s going to be updated only so and so often.

I hate teaching with textbooks. In fact, I don’t really want to teach with textbooks anymore. I offer one to my students to cover the readings, I make sure I don’t contradict them, and I more or less follow the structure of the one in my syllabus. It still doesn’t work.

Reading too much. Reading the wrong things. Reading wrong.

The first time I was teaching marketing research, I followed the syllabus of a good friend. He had received great teaching feedback at this university, and he used a book that I saw in the course descriptions of many other universities. It seemed to be the standard choice. It had more than 1,000 pages. While I had liked it at first glance, whenever I had a closer look at, it made me shake my head. Descriptions were fuzzy and lengthy. True content could be summarized in one sentence. Cases to give examples for concepts were not useful. Either they were verbatim repetitions of these concepts, or they made me think about dozens of alternative explanations. The book was absolutely not critical, and while it did cover online marketing research, it felt dated on every single page.

I found myself correcting the biased viewpoint and weird terminology of the authors in class. I instructed students to ignore the cases. And to read selectively the important elements of the text. But how can you teach like that? I can’t teach my students how to read. My time is better invested in teaching them how to do marketing research. If the book was that much distraction, the book obviously was a problem.

Last year, I switched from the classic big textbook to an essentials version. That was the outcome of two full working days that I spent on finding a better textbook. Students stopped complaining about the impossible amount of reading. Gone were many of the useless cases. However, now the book came down to 400 pages of inefficient glossary. Students ended up wondering why not everything that I was covering in class was reflected in the book. I provided them with extra materials. These were learning-relevant, but not formally exam-relevant. I stopped half-way. I apologize.

Back to the case at hand: Another marketing research textbook

So I got this invitation to review. I had a look at the proposal. They included a list of 41 (!) textbooks already on the market to defend their positioning. One of them got me a bit curious for it had a more action-oriented title (“Exploring marketing research”). I looked it up on Amazon. Five people gave it review. One of them goes like this:

A frequent user of college textbooks may wonder whether this book has been edited by the same person who has seemingly edited every other lousy textbook on the planet.

To begin with, every definition of marketing terminology is muddled with needlessly obfuscated wording that serve to complicate simple terms rather than explain them with ease. Granted, the definition is usually buried in a single, simple sentence, but that doesn’t prevent the authors from providing explanations that drone on forever (or are mind-numbingly obvious). To this book’s credit, the sentences that contain the meat of these definitions are usually duplicated and isolated on the sidebars. Conceivably, you can get a better understanding of marketing from reading these sidebars and nothing else.

Nevertheless, this hasn’t prevented the authors from burying pertinent sentences within their muck – and the book’s sales pitch in the preface sums up the irony of their perceived simplicity:

“Writing Style: An accessible, interesting writing style continues as a hallmark of this book. With a careful balance between theory and practice and a sprinkling of interesting examples and anecdotes, the writing style clarifies and simplifies the market research process.”

Or, translated into plain English by yours truly:

“We wrote this book in an easy-to-read fashion with concise, real-world examples.”

Furthermore, this textbook has been thoroughly done over by the “Department of Adding Redundant Summary Sentences to Textbooks,” otherwise known as re-summarizing every section with a ludicrously obvious conclusive statement beginning with the word “clearly” (e.g.: “Clearly, legs are important to human beings, because without legs, we couldn’t walk.”) I’m completely baffled by this trend, for it shows up in every textbook – as if the word “clearly” were some sort of textbook cancer. How many textbooks are editors going to pollute with this childish, irritating drivel?

Between the overcomplicated wording, excessive sentences, chartjunk, and meaningless stock images, it’s quite likely that this 5-pound behemoth could have been cut down to half of its existing size if it were purged of redundant content – but then the publishers couldn’t justify their outrageous prices, could they?

With all due respect to the intention and intelligence of the authors of any textbook on marketing research that has ever been written, this review perfectly captures all that is wrong with textbooks. To put that in one sentence: they are textbooks.

I’m finally ditching the book. Almost.

The past two years, I have accumulated some very awesome resources on marketing research. I’ve used them as additional materials that I offered to students as optional background reading. For any topic that the textbook covers, I’d easily find better and more intuitive tutorials.

Take a lecture on measurement and scaling. A typical book will tell students about nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio scales. It will make a distinction between non-comparative and comparative scales. As a non-comparative scale, it will introduce Likert scales. It spends one page on Likert scales. There is also a small discussion.

The Likert scale has several advantages. It is easy to construct and administer. Respondents readily understand how to use the scale, making it suitable for mail, telephone, electronic, or personal interviews. The major disadvantage of the Likert scale is that it takes longer to complete than other itemized rating scales because respondents have to read each statement (or the interviewer has to read each statement to them).

These generic discussions are not very insightful. They are necessarily so obvious that students are frustrated over the shallow content of their studies. The discussion also completely omits core problems of Likert scales: that the number of options is arbitrary, but influential, and that we tend to uncritically use these scales as interval data (i.e. treat the numbers as if they were continuous), while they are no more than ordinal data.

Or move to survey design. The book develops a framework which consists of then steps that one has to follow in the process of questionnaire design. First step: “Specify the information needed”. D’oh. Third step. “Determine the content of individual questions”. Here is the detailed text on that.

Is the Question Necessary? Every question in a questionnaire should contribute to the information needed or serve some specific purpose. If there is no satisfactory use for the data resulting from a question, that question should be eliminated. As illustrated in the first Research in Practice, the questions in the Census 2010 were either required by law to provide constitutionally mandated information or they were collected to help ensure the accuracy and completeness of the census (questions 2 and 10).

The third sentence is a redundant repetition of the second. The second sentence is a redundant extension of the headline. The third sentence is a word-by-word copy of a sentence that appeared two pages earlier.

In certain situations, however, questions may be asked that are not directly related to the information that is needed but nevertheless serve some purpose. It is useful to ask some neutral questions at the beginning of the questionnaire to establish involvement and rapport, particularly when the topic of the questionnaire is sensitive or controversial. Sometimes filler questions are asked to disguise the purpose or sponsorship of the project. Rather than limiting the questions to the brand of interest, questions about competing brands may also be included to disguise the sponsorship. For example, a survey on personal computers sponsored by Hewlett Packard (HP) may also include filler questions related to Dell and Apple.”

Here instead is some interesting content, but it’s like eating an empty Calzone. When would we ask filler question? Some additional material would be really awesome. Instead, a full page is devoted to a screenshot of the US Census questionnaire to make it look more shiny.

Survey design is a fascinating topic. I can’t possibly teach every little bit on it in class. The US Census itself offers a 125-page overview of guidelines just on running simple descriptive surveys. It’s academically motivated. Read this bit (it’s from page 20):

Another example is the order of age and date of birth questions. It is advantageous in electronic instruments to collect date of birth first and then calculate age from birthdate. If a respondent does not know the full date of birth, the instrument would then ask age. Calculating age yields more accurate data than reported age (Spencer and Perkins, 1998), takes advantage of automation to reduce respondent burden, and provides a check for typing errors or misreports. However, Spencer and Perkins (1998) also found that on a paper form, asking age first, then date of birth, produced more complete data.

125 pages is too much for an introductory class. But it’s great material that I’m happily sharing with my students. For a shorter summary, I go with the Pew Research Center and a short list of 25 guidelines for better phrasing of survey questions. Add in two, three more materials to cover the rest of the chapter. Students will effectively read less, and they will learn directly from relevant and credible sources. What they loose are generic process descriptions that they will not encounter in practice, where they have to follow specific processes as defined by each company.

Hence, I’m going from a book to a reader. Just that I will still have to operate with the book. In the Italian system, students can take the exam as non-attending students. That’s a way for students being on exchange or in an internship to still take part in exams. However, it’s also a way for students who are doing bad with the assignments to improve their grade, conditional on their capability to write a decent exam. Or for students who are not that much interested in a course to get done with it without trying the assignments in the first place. Anyways, we are kind of expected to offer a textbook to these students. They’ll get it. I’ll keep the better content for my attending students.

The textbook is dead. Long live the textbook.

This section is a call for publishing companies.

Three years in my teaching process, I’m finally able to make that switch. Very likely, I’m not going to teach the same course again next year. There’s always some rotation. Hence, I’ll restart with another course and I’ll find myself in the same situation as three years ago. A textbook is a time-efficient way for me, but it should be clear by now that the outcome is terrible. Instead, I’d love to see curated content collections.

What’s more: My friend from the beginning might have a different focus than me. I’m working with secondary data. He’s a behavioral researcher. He might naturally emphasize experimental design more than me. (I proud myself of this Instagram exercise, however, which received a small bit of positive acclaim in the universe of marketing educators.) If he were to draft his ideal textbook, it would look different from mine. That’s great. More people can write textbooks. But authors of textbooks are also experts in some fields and not in others.

My ideal textbook is adaptable and modular. I went with an essentials book because I wanted to reduce reading, but some aspects I would have loved to keep a bit more explicit. At the beginning of the academic year, I want to select my chapter on experimental design from a list of chapters that my publisher has on offer. Some of my selections will be more detailed, others less, some more applied, others less. I can skip the chapter on how to write a marketing report if I don’t need it. I can ask for a chapter on big data if I need it. I can include cases if I need them. I can select the cases. I pay for each chapter, and authors get paid for each chapter. I can collect points for suggesting new materials.

In a digital world, combining my selection into one pdf is a matter of seconds. And with publishing-on-demand being a thing, I can offer students the possibility to buy it in print if they want to.

For me, that’s the only reason to really go back to textbooks as a teacher. Because they have one advantage: it’s everything in one package. And, after all, some are actually good. Like “Strategic Marketing Management” by Alexander Chernev. Might talk about this one in a while.


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