Crowdsourcing a better textbook

By Tim Phillips | 26 January 2018

In early 2017, after one of his Introduction to Economics lectures at the University of Manchester, Mihai Codreanu overheard one of his fellow students asking about comparative advantage. Afterwards, he sat down with his colleague to work through the examples in The Economy in more detail.

He did the calculations, drew the graphs, and found that he was plotting different numbers than our example suggested. “I wasn’t very sure about my calculations at first,” he says, “but when I got home I verified everything and my version seemed right. My lecturer agreed with me.”

When we saw Mihai’s calculations, we also agreed with him. Sam Bowles, from our steering committee, sent a note to Mihai to thank him for spotting our error, and we were able to add a correction to the next revision of the unit. Sam repaid the favour by giving a guest lecture at Manchester in May 2017.

Our publishing model allows us to squash bugs almost immediately. But first, someone has to find them.

The moral: we can’t promise a guest lecture for every error we correct, but we like to be told when we get things wrong.

If you spot something that you think is an error, report it here. It doesn’t matter if you are the founder of a university or a first-year undergraduate, because we treat (and have treated) reports from both sources in the same way.

The errata list

You can download a list of the corrections that we made since we published the first print edition of The Economy. If you bought the book, we recommend that you also print the list and tuck it into your copy. (In the most recent editions of the book, we have corrected the errors we spotted before December 2017.)

If you use the online version, or the app, then you won’t find these errors in the “live” text. One of the advantages of a digital-first publishing model is that we can correct and update immediately. Rather like a modern newspaper, the physical book is a snapshot of the best available version at the time it is printed, but the version you can read online is the best available version at this moment.

The howlers that you let us know about in the last few months range from the careless (we accidentally claimed that World War 1 started in 1939) to the irritating (we mislabelled a quintile as a decile) to the misleading (a couple of multiple-choice questions had incorrect answers).

Where do these mistakes come from? CORE’s production process involves reconciling the contributions, comments and revisions of many authors, designers and volunteers, working to deadlines that are sometimes measured in hours, for half a million words of text and hundreds of figures and test questions. The creation process is more akin to software development than traditional publishing. You could consider our mistakes as bugs, and these corrections as bug fixes. Our innovative publishing model now allows us to squash those bugs almost immediately. But first, someone has to find them, which is where we need your help.

Three levels of checks

Just as we have tried to innovate on how the course was created, we are attempting to improve the checking and correction process too:

Copy editing. The first line of defence is our copy-editing process. The Economy is edited internally, checked by its authors, and then proofread by two further copy editors. But this is fairly standard procedure for a book, and we wanted to do more.

Fact checking. For every major revision we assign a volunteer who shows rigour and determination beyond the call of duty to the job of checking every verifiable fact, in every unit (right). For this release, we salute the efforts of Stanislas Lalanne, known internally as “Factcheck Stan”, who chased down almost 3,000 pieces of information during the summer of 2017. Because of Stan we can be confident that Indiana University has a psychology department, that Marx once praised Ricardo’s work, and that we correctly identified the year in which Ford started manufacturing cars in Australia.

Crowdsourcing corrections. But as our errata list shows, these two processes don’t catch everything. That why, if you see something that’s wrong, don’t shrug and move on. Please take a minute to report it. Try to be as specific as possible, with a section, question, exercise or figure reference. We investigate every report.

Reasonable people can disagree

Other criticisms are more subjective. Not everyone agrees with the way we describe concepts or structure the course in The Economy, but we have tried to make changes to the standard course content and structure with care, and always for a reason. When our models depart from from the existing paradigm, this is may be because:

There is new research. We now know far more about how and why people cooperate, for example, than when the current dominant economics syllabus was established in the 1940s. We have used some of this knowledge to modify the way we have treated concepts like credit markets or financial crises.

We start with empirical observations. Some of the models in economics that are currently taught to introductory students simply don’t match the world we see around us. For example, the explanations for involuntary unemployment or wage-setting in a traditional syllabus often do not seem realistic to students (or their teachers).

We don’t believe it is appropriate to teach students that economics works differently at the “micro” and “macro” scale. We have attempted to construct a framework that is consistent for individual actors and whole economies.

Nevertheless, if you think our reasoning is inadequate or inconsistent, please challenge us. We can’t reply in detail to every message personally but, if you have been using The Economy since the first beta in 2015, you will know that some units have evolved considerably through this type of feedback.

Also, if you don’t understand why we have made these innovations (whether or not you agree with them), please let us know. If a lot of people ask about the same topic, we will publish an explainer—as we have already done for our treatment of inflation. Teachers who download our unit-by-unit lecture guides will find more detailed information in them about the choices we made.

Our book is never finished

We don’t envisage large-scale updates to The Economy for a while, not least because if we were continuously making changes it would be impossible for you to teach or study the course. But we will always correct our errors. You already deserve a lot of the credit for improving our work, so thank you. Please continue to keep us on our toes.