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Q&A: How to research content for your textbook

Q: “How do you go about researching content for your textbook?”

A: Janet Belsky, author of Experiencing the Lifespan, 2e (2009):

“I go to a library database where I can get every single article on the topic I’m writing about in every journal in my field. If I am updating a book, I will only look for articles that were published from the time of the last edition to the present. This strategy gets me about 100 or 200 new articles for each chapter. I do a cursory look at everything, but I won’t need to read all of those articles. Instead, I look through the abstracts, and if I find an interesting one, I’ll read the discussion section of the paper. I’ll have about 900 new references for the newest edition of Experiencing the Lifespan just 3 years after the last edition. It seems like it would be impossible to sift through all this research, but really it’s not that difficult. The real challenge of the revision process is incorporating all the new information while keeping the book about the same length.”

A: Robert Christopherson, author of Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography, 8e (2012):

“My approach to physical geography (Earth systems science), uses the methods and tools of geographic science: spatial analysis and systems analysis. My research is guided by the rapidly changing condition of many Earth systems in this real-time experiment humanity is conducting. Originally, I went to the many disciplines from which Geosystems draws content and built each chapter from that core material in the literature, rather than look at other physical geography texts. For research, I use peer-reviewed journals, both printed and electronic, and oftentimes contact researchers directly for discussion and possible data for designing figures. Also, I use NASA, JPL, USGS, NRCS, NOAA, and many other public domain science sources. For each revision, I set up a ‘clippings file,’ in folders for each chapter where new leads are gathered. On my computer desktop I maintain a source file of new satellite images and electronic source material. At my professional meetings I attend as many paper sessions as possible, take notes, and talk to information leads. Consider: other textbooks are a look back in time, recent published research is closer to what is current, and research paper presentations at meetings give you a glimpse ahead in your field. Textbook authors should strive to be at that leading edge.

I maintain a master file that is broken down into all the H1 and H2 headings in the main book—clipping files are edited and merged into this file when a revision is done. I do not use Wikipedia, or other ‘public’ outlets, although sometimes the list of footnote links provides some leads on primary source material. I am aware of my competitors and the direction of my market but I do not use any textbooks for reference or content. I use broadsheets 53 cm x 40 cm (21 in. x 16 in.), to record possible revision material, organize material, and keyboard from these sheets for composition of text.”