Background: I'm a final-year math student applying for faculty jobs at small schools in the US.

I'm currently designing a few courses, and this questions has been bothering me for some time now: Why can't I just assign an older edition of a text to students? It would be an edition I am more familiar with, plus it will be dramatically cheaper for them.

For example, consider David C. Lay's Linear Algebra and Its Applications. I used the 3rd edition as an undergraduate, but they're now on the 5th. I don't care about whatever software/codes/etc may or may not come with the text, so the only reasons I can think of are the following:

  1. It's presumably out of print, so maybe there won't be enough copies for students to easily get one? Unlikely with popular texts such as Lay's, but I could see it with a less common text.
  2. The university book store can't buy an older edition, so I am forced to use a newer one?

In any case, this all seems very unfair to students, especially when there's already so much discussion about the financial accessibility of higher education.

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    $\begingroup$ Great question. In fact, I was just discussing this exact text and issue with two colleagues on opposite coasts within the past two weeks. I think most of us have opinions on it but I'll let others contribute to see what they say first ... $\endgroup$
    – kcrisman
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ This is really begging the question. Of course you can assign an older edition, unless your higher-ups forbid you from doing so. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ Another option is to use a freely available open source online textbook. I used Hefferon's Linear Algbera text one semester, but I found it wasn't suitable for our linear algebra course as it is more theoretical and less computational than what our students (many of whom are not math majors) need. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ If the instructor writes homework problems rather than assigning already written problems from some book, then the issue of which edition of a book a student consults (or even buys) is generally largely irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Fox
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DanFox I think we ought to make more a point of communicating this to new faculty or graduate students ideally. If we all made our own problems and made a habit of maintaining them and improving them then we would have little need of the current edition. Personally, I wish I had been more intentional about this, I've taught more than most folks will in their lifetime, but, I have no universal system and I find myself reinventing the wheel all too often. I guess that's just me learning, but, I should be lazier. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 15:31

4 Answers 4


Some universities (like mine) are accredited by a third party agency. One of their requirements for a university to be accredited is for it to have an "updated set of reference books" where "updated" means "published within the last five years."

I agree that this makes sense for some fields of study like the natural sciences or computer studies, but for mathematics I believe this requirement does not make sense. My favorite trigonometry textbook (Paul Rider's "Plane and Spherical Trigonometry") was first published in the late 1940's (I think), and I like to use the 1965 reprint of it.

(I must add that the book is locally reprinted legally very often so my students can very easily buy a copy of it.)

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    $\begingroup$ Does the "updated set of reference books" have to be specifically assigned as course reading, or is it sufficient for the books to be available for reference upon student request (e.g. in the library stacks)? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertColumbia I'm not sure, but in my case I think both the official text and the references should be recently published. $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 2:27

I'm in the habit of allowing students to use either the current edition of a text or the preceding one. So far I've been able to keep a homework exercise list synchronized so that both groups of students are working on equivalent problems (possibly renumbered between the texts).

The new book is carried in the bookstore, but, as you note, the old edition is not. For that, students need to go online (say: Amazon, et. al.) and order a used copy of the older edition. Used cost is frequently around $5, saving over a hundred. This works fine for my one section, but even so, I can see the used stock getting depleted over a few semesters. If I were to try to run this strategem across several sections or a whole department, I think that we'd run out of copies of the book.

Another issue for some of us is that departments can dictate what books are to be used by committee. If you're designing your own course then that's probably not an issue. On the other hand, Steven Krantz writes in How to Teach Mathematics by the AMS that the one time he was officially disciplined was when he went off-book from his department's dictate. (He also notes that most of us will never design our own courses, so you're already outside the normal curve by a good stretch.)

More recently I've taken a step towards using open-source digital books so we can copy them forward freely as much as we want in the future, and sidestep the issue of depleting used stocks. I feel those works (e.g., OpenStax at Rice University) have just in the last year or so crossed a barrier from unusable to acceptably useful.


You should be aware of the Higher Educational Opportunity Act of 2008. This does place textbook availability and fair-disclosure requirements on institutions of higher education. I don't think this explicitly prohibits you from requiring an out of print textbook, but be aware that there might be administrative issues that you will need to address.

This might seem like bureaucratic nonsense, but it can be traced to a good intention to protect students. Some for-profit institutions of higher education have been known to require very expensive textbook material that is difficult to locate on the open market, and only reveal these textbook requirements to their students just before classes start, in order to force them to buy from their bookstore.


A. "I feel your pain" but issues 1 and 2 are non-trivial. Haven't you answered your own question?

B. For smaller classes, you could consider to buck the trend. But even here, would suggest getting tenure first.

C. One practical suggestion is to use Dover or Springer or some of the better Schaum's editions.


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