I have for years been a huge fan of the WAC Clearinghouse—a remarkably deep collection of open access resources for those who teach writing across the curriculum (WAC) and want to share scholarship on the teaching of writing. That’s in part because there’s a lot in common between writing instruction and information literacy programs, both in terms of what we value and where we are situated in the academy, doing what we can to provide important learning opportunities throughout the curriculum.
But I’m also a fan because it’s such a good example of high-quality open access publishing. Whenever I worry that the shift to open access is an impossible task, I look at this project, which has been running successfully for over 15 years and which publishes several journals and (as of today) has published 53 books. In many ways, it’s a publishing effort that is a meeting place for scholars in the field of composition and a place where anyone interested in the field can connect to excellent research with the click of a mouse.
I decided this week to contact Mike Palmquist, founding editor of the clearinghouse, to ask him how it all works. Through a strange quirk of fate, he happened to be in my neighborhood and graciously offered to spend part of an afternoon answering my questions. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Barbara Fister: How did the WAC Clearinghouse get started? There is so much there!
Mike Palmquist: It’s a good example of incrementalism. The project started in 1991. That spring, I got involved [at Colorado State University] in a writing across the curriculum project with engineering. The chair of the department was pushing hard for better communication skills all around. We went to my associate dean, who ended up giving us support—with a few strings attached. He gave us a teaching assistant for a semester, and he wanted two grant proposals. One was an internal competition for a program for research and scholarly excellence. I had a background in PR writing, and it really wasn’t hard to describe the great things that were going on at the college of liberal arts. The other was a statewide program of excellence grant. We got about half a million dollars in funding to start a writing across the curriculum program that involved technology.
We couldn’t do a standard liberal arts college WAC program. Trickle-down, training the trainers wouldn’t work. Our faculty were so involved in research, they couldn’t put as much effort into training, so we lowered the barrier by providing support. We created this online tool that was all wide area network (WAN) based and that worked out really well. And then our provost decided to institutionalize it after the grant funding was up. At about that time, I decided I needed to have a web page for CSU to have access to some of the resources for teaching, and about five minutes later I thought, “It’s on the web. Anybody can access it.”
Initially there was a lot of enthusiasm. [Our provost named many of the leading scholars in the field of composition who were involved.] We had a good concept and started putting it together. We put up a bunch of resources, and it was going great, but then people started falling away, one after the other. I asked Bill Condon what was going on. He said, “Well, it’s a website. You can’t get credit for that on our annual activity reports.” So I said, “What if we turn it into a journal?” And we did. We put people on the editorial board and called it academic.writing. The WAC Clearinghouse went inside the journal. But then, along the way, a major print journal asked if its archives could be included, then another one, and then an author asked if a book could be digitized and included. We soon put up more books. Around 2001 to 2002, we went back to the clearinghouse idea, and it became a platform for all kinds of publishing.
We published our first original book in 2003, and then Chuck Bazerman [who had been involved from early days] brought a new book to us, and he wanted to publish it in print as well as online, so we did that. We went to Parlor Press [to handle the print operations]. Now we have a lot of books coming in, a lot of proposals, and we have several series going. We’re going to start putting up EPUB versions soon.
BF: So you’re not having any trouble getting authors.
MP: No, it’s getting to the point that we’re the first choice for many authors in the field. We do everything a regular press does. You can go to our website and see the peer-review process. There’s about 11 steps in it, just the same as any print publication. The only real difference between us is in production; it’s done by amateurs. We hire a copy editor on a book-by-book basis, then we design the book, produce it, and distribute it. Parlor Press does the print version, using Lightning Source. We split the revenue on the print sales.
None of our authors takes royalties. I’ve done enough books to know that you get about enough to go out for dinner a couple of times on those books, so it’s not a huge sacrifice. We sell the books at standard prices with a markup. Dave [of Parlor Press] handles marketing and distribution and takes care of the ISBNs. Our librarians have been putting us into OCLC. They wanted to put our stuff in their repository, but I said, “What’s the difference? It’s on the same server.” I wanted to keep the same concept.
Last I checked, we were doing about 2.2 million downloads a year of the PDFs. We’re getting about a million distinct visits. [One book] was downloaded 48,000 times the first year.
BF: It looks as if you’re getting into open textbooks.
MP: Well, we have the Practice and Pedagogy series. I don’t know that I really want to get into the textbook situation. It’s so much work to do a good textbook. It’s way more work than we can possibly afford to put the time into. But I do want to do something else—a wiki for open teaching materials. We would have a repository of objects. You could create a table of contents, you could upload objects, you could arrange them the way you want and generate a PDF. And then other people could copy and modify the parts they like.
BF: So it would be like a Creative Commons Share Alike license.
MP: That’s the idea. It would be easy. The technology is there.
BF: You have a lot going on.
MP: Last I counted, the clearinghouse had 105 people involved in some way.
BF: How do you organize that?
Have you ever read much about activity theory? It was a 1920s theory developed in the Soviet Union by people who wanted to figure out how groups could work together, something of an alternative to individualism. It kind of explains what’s going on. You’ve got this distributed process. Everyone knows what’s going on. You don’t need central leadership. You need a vision, a sense of what’s going on, you need to pull people together, but people can work together and develop their own projects.
BF: So the clearinghouse is kind of an umbrella and a platform.
MP: You just provide the resources and the support. There’s a really robust peer review. That’s the one thing that keeps us from looking like self-publishing. Some traditionalists still need persuading, but the impact is measurable. So a print publication gets sales of 400 or 800, 1,200, maybe, if it’s successful, and it gets put into maybe 20 libraries nationwide, so your total readership may be 3,000 or 4,000. With Chuck [Bazerman]’s book, we’ve had a quarter million downloads. We wrote a First Monday article that compared a book we published to an award-winning title. We were getting nine times as many citations.
So you just look at what you want to do as a scholar. You want to get your work out there. You want to get it out relatively quickly. (It takes us three to six months for the book to be designed and [released].) And you want to make a difference in the field, so more people are seeing it.
BF: Especially in a field where practitioners can benefit.
MP: That’s a big part of what we’re doing. It seems silly to lock all that stuff up.
This is basically the advantage of being at a university or college. You already have the equipment, the server. It doesn’t cost anything to have another website on top of that. Apart from copy editors, the only real cost for us is sweat equity—writers, editorial boards, reviewers…. You could be making money for SAGE or Elsevier or you could be doing this. And it’s working.
We put together the 25 Collective. The goal is to publish 25 books for less than 50 grand. We’ve got enough in the pipeline that we’ll get there without any trouble. Our average cost per book is about $2,000 in cash outlay. It’s about $9,000 if you include my time and overhead costs. A university press spends $25,000–$30,000 per book. We’re way below that.
It all grew out of the community. There wasn’t a master plan.
BF: It’s an amazing effort, and inspiring, and it’s very cool that you’ve been able to pull this off.
MP: The network has served this effort and it has served the network. You have to be open to people saying, “I want to do this” and “we can help with that.” Some people come because they like the ethos.
We put together a succession plan about six years ago. It’s fun to do, but I’ll hand it off one day. You want to do enduring work.