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Why Writing Commons?

January, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

My aim in writing this post is to clarify my goal for developing Writing Commons.  For a more formal account, please see Open Textbook Publishing, Academe (September/October 2013). 

I hope that you’ll consider contributing to our community. 

Sincerely,

Joe Moxley, Ph.D.
Publisher and Executive Editor
Writing Commons 

 

Who Am I? 

I'm a Professor of English and Director of First-Year Composition at the University of South Florida. Since joining the faculty in 1984, I've published books, book chapters, and essays on writing pedagogy, scholarly publishing, electronic theses and dissertations, qualitative research methods, assessment, and learning communities (more).  Besides Writing Commons, my primary research effort now involves developing My Reviewers, a web-based, document markup, peer review, and assessment tool.

When did I begin working on Writing Commons?

I founded Writing Commons in 2008 when I published the work as College Writing, the website you're viewing used to be collegewriting.org. The original core of this work was the 320 articles originally published as College Writing Online with Pearson in 2003.  Then in 2010, I migrated College Writing to Writing Commons, the website you currently use. Since then, Writing Commons has employed a peer-review process to vet submissions of original webtexts.

From my perspective, I've been working on this project since 2001—that's when I began work on College Writing Online.  An alternative to print textbooks, College Writing Online aspired to be an interactive learning space for composition students. In 2003 the project was awarded the Distinguished Book Award from Computers and Composition, an International Journal.

In 2008, after Pearson returned copyright to me for College Writing Online, I faced a value question: Did I want to re-sell the project and let another publisher own copyright (and build a paywall around it) or did I want to self publish the project?

I could identify several benefits to working again with a publisher. The biggest advantage was probably the affirmation embodied in a traditional publication agreement. That sort of external vetting is crucial to credibility in the academic community. Being published by a university press or a good academic publisher means the work has been peer reviewed and carefully vetted by disciplinary experts. Over all, I believe publishers can add great value to a project thanks to peer review, experience, and their knowledge of disciplinary trends. Plus, having a sales force behind a book can be invaluable.

On the other hand, I could see some disadvantages: I was particularly troubled by the concern that my book wouldn't be a priority for the publisher, that it would be one of many being published. The possibility of the project languishing for yet another decade was too troubling to ignore. Given this, I chose a DIY (Do It Yourself) model of publishing.

What are the benefits of DIY (Do It Yourself) publishing? 

Okay, so here’s my core argument: Writing isn't what it used to be. Authors have new tools, new ways of publishing and interacting with their audiences. Thanks to the affordances of contemporary Internet technologies, writers no longer need publishers if they are willing to undertake the necessary activities publishers typically performed, such as copyediting and marketing your work.

That said, I understand faculty need to be strategic in how they publish and subsequently how they copyright their work, and I understand tenure and promotion decisions typically exclude or discount textbooks and other pedagogical resources (despite Boyer's call for the Scholarship of Teaching). When weighing tenure and promotion, the academic reward system still privileges traditional academic journals and university presses.  Eventually, and perhaps in some disciplines this is already true, faculty will be rewarded for publishing in online, open-access journals and these journals may be controlled by Elsevier or academic organizations that require faculty to give up copyright in exchange for publication.

Nonetheless, faculty can enjoy positive benefits from publishing their pedagogical materials on their own websites or via other open education sites. Writing Commons exemplifies this process. Rather than releasing copyright to an academic, trade, or commercial publisher for 5 to 15% of royalties, faculty can maintain ownership of their work when they contribute to open-education projects like Writing Commons. Thanks to the Internet and free or inexpensive publishing tools, faculty no longer need to find publishers to print and publicize their work; they can now publish their work online and reach significant numbers of readers worldwide.

For very little money, about $100 to $500 year, faculty can break free of the constraints of Blackboard or Web CT. Many hosting providers supply a suite of free, open-source authoring tools, such as Joomla, Word Press, and Drupal. In my experience, these tools are surprisingly powerful if not always easy to use. Instead of building a new course in an overly complicated, institution-owned, rigid content management systems every semester—and then needing to do it again and again, semester after semester—faculty can host their ideas and their classes on their server at their own domains. This is particularly helpful when faculty teach the same courses each semester or year. Developing an online textbook for a course you regularly teach can enable faclty to build a sturdy course/learning space that grows over time.

But today's online publishing platforms do much more for authors than empower and simplify the publishing process: they enable writers to build communities around their projects, to coauthor and extend topics, to turbocharge the creative process, to invite others into the revision and editing process. At the same time, these new writing tools, these new writing spaces, redefine what it means to be a writer.

As a faculty member, if you can develop a financially competitive textbook and sell it through a commercial publisher, then that’s an outstanding option. Faculty members deserve good pay for their work, and I support adopting expensive textbooks, so long as they are used well and non-free ones are unavailable. At 15% on a $100 textbook, the rewards for textbook authors can be astonishing—especially for textbooks that pertain to large, required courses. Perhaps you know or have heard about a textbook author who was extraordinarily successful. And there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly if you want to retire and sail around the Caribbean, climb K2 or Everest, or take extended bike tours around Italy, visiting castles and fine restaurants. Clearly, good work if you can get it.

Despite outliers, however, the bottom line is that most textbooks don’t make money for their authors. In most disciplines, the ship has sailed on the big book. Until some major shift in a discipline’s knowledge base, textbook authors lack the leverage they need to position their book as a viable alternative to the 12th or 15th edition of the tried-and-true version. Publishers continue to churn out dozens, often hundreds of books for the same discipline, however, because they hope to capture local markets. These publishers understand that customizing books for specific universities (even if that just means a new cover of the work and adjusting the purported author(s) of the work) helps resales. Customized books cannot be dumped on the national markets and local universities have financial incentives to re-edit the works.

The problem for most academic authors is that they are expected to sign away their copyright in exchange for 5% to 15% royalties. If the book fails, like the majority of textbooks do, then the author has lost control over his or her intellectual property for pennies on the dollar. Regrettably—and I know this from personal experience—some publishers refuse to return copyright even after a book fails, which means the work is lost forever. To me, this is a significant danger: we all have only so many words we can write in a career.  Given all this, I became interested in a DIY publishing model for Writing Commons.

What has been the impact of Writing Commons thus far? 

Writing Commons is a global resource.  See our newsletters for updates on our user traffic.  I also reflect on user patterns at my blog on Academe.

In 2012, we witnessed significant growth in our global readership. Early in 2012, we averaged about 200 users a day; by midyear that number had grown to 500 users a day. During the last three months of 2012, we averaged over 1,500 users a day.  

Our traffic grew exponentially during 2013.  By March 2013, we moved from 1,500 users a day to 3,000 users a day. In August 2013, we averaged 5,199 users a day. By September and October we reached the high point of the year with 7,000 users day; then during the latter months of 2013, we averaged about 5,000 users a day.  By year's end, we'd had more than a million users visit the site.

What are the rewards of peer production?

Beyond the intrinsic satisfaction of providing a useful resource and seeing folks use that resource, via tools such as Google Analytics, DIY publishing enables faculty to build communities around their works. Providing a social space for learners by embedding collaboration tools like wikis, discussion forums, or social bookmarking can be an energizing way to sustain and extend your teaching.

From my experiencing directing the Writing Program at USF, I've found that graduate students, adjuncts, and university faculty take pleasure in developing collaboratively-authored pedagogical materials. Additionally, developing online teaching and learning spaces via collaborative tools energizes colleagues as well as students, giving them an opportunity to extend their learning, to talk with one another, and to produce relevant texts—texts that other Internet-users may read. Engaging colleagues and students in a collaborative effort to build a viable textbook creates energy and focus for courses. Rather than importing the values of a book editor from Boston or New York, faculty can customize their contributions to meet the special needs of their students and colleagues.

On a personal level, I've learned a lot from opening Writing Commons to a community project as opposed to a solely self-published project. Our Editorial Board (an advisory committee) and Review Board (which supervises the peer-review process with oversight from Quentin Vieregge, our Managing Editor) is composed of talented, generous teacher-scholars who have unique and dynamic ideas for growing the project—ideas that extend beyond anything I could imagine. 

Ultimately, from my perspective as an academic author, crowdsourcing Writing Commons has turned out better than I expected. Writing Commons now hosts over 700 essays on various aspects of writing pedagogy. Thanks to the generous contributions of the Editorial Board and Review Boards along with the very hard work of our staff, we are better positioned to accomplish our mission—to stretch the fabric of the textbook, to grow the resource so that it's more interactive and engaging, more in line with students' contemporary literacy practices. While all this may sound prosaic, for me it's been quite transformative. Now, rather than viewing the textbook as my sole contribution, I view the work as a collaborative, global effort to develop the best possible resource to address students' needs as researchers, citizens, and writers.

As a university professor, I’m aware of the traditional publishing practices and some of the benefits they offer. Even so, it’s time for faculty to ask, “Why not? Why not plant a flag?” You can start out small. In the beginning you don’t need to commit to writing a massive text. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Try loading a small lesson at a public blog or wiki site, or better yet, begin by joining our community at Writing Commons!

Together, by embracing peer production, social media, and intellectual freedom, we can extend our teaching, our professional lives, and our academic disciplines. (see Contribute).

Acknowledgements 

Many people have helped with this project over the years.  I thank the original editors and reviewers for College Writing Online. Since moving to a participatory model, a good many university faculty, open-education leaders, and graduate students have shared their expertise to advance the development of Writing Commons.

I thank the our Editorial Board for sharing advice on how to best grow Writing Commons.  Mike Palmquist, Janice Walker, Charlie Lowe, Shelley Hayes, Alston Chapman—these folks have provided invaluable advice and support.  Quentin Vieregge and our Review Editors have worked with great dedication and professionalism, proving very quick yet thorough reviews on webtext submissions.  And I'm especially grateful for Katelin Kaiser who has worked tirelessly on Writing Commons from the beginning.  Between 2007 and 2013, Katelin cheerfully worked and reworked navigational schemes, templates, and intefaces.  Without Katelin this project would still be a naescent idea rather than a popular, global resource. 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Commons Open Text