Open Textbook Publishing

Who is best suited to control textbooks: the faculty or the publishers? There are ways to make sure it is the faculty.
By Joe Moxley

Thanks to inexpensive or free publishing tools and the ubiquitous nature of the web, the faculty can assume the traditional responsibilities of publishers. Faculty members can build massive, global communities around their pedagogical works by licensing them under an open-culture copyright license and by employing peer-review processes to vet publications. When it comes to choosing the most appropriate open-culture license, faculty members have to consider whether they wish to choose a totally open license—one that permits remixing and repurposing of their works—or a more restrictive license that limits derivative works or commercial applications. The development of Writing Commons, an open-education resource, illustrates some of the issues faculty members will face when embracing their power as content creators and publishers. From its beginnings as a text locked behind a publisher’s paywall with limited ability to reach its audience, the resource has grown into a popular, global, peer-reviewed academic resource.

As a major intersection in the teaching and learning process, the textbook is a contested genre. Given changes in students’ reading patterns—the movement away from alphabetic texts toward multimedia web texts and students’ tendency to surf from page to page—the authority of the traditional textbook is under scrutiny. And the costs for educational materials can be so excessive that they prohibit some students from pursuing their academic dreams. Economics professor Mark Perry, writing for the American Enterprise Institute blog on December 24, 2012, calculated that the price of educational supplies (primarily college textbooks) increased 812 percent between 1978 and 2012—well beyond increases in the cost of medical services or new home prices. In turn, the National Association of College Stores estimates that US students pay a national annual average of $655 on educational materials. Other estimates have ranged from $1,000 to $1,200 per year.

Criticism of publishers by students, parents, and legislators has been widespread. For example, on its “Making Textbooks Affordable” web page, the Student Public Interest Research Group argues, “Publishing companies have been raking in huge profits while engaging in bad practices that drive up costs.” Yet publishers are not the sole beneficiaries of high textbook prices; others are also responsible for escalating costs. College bookstores typically add 30 percent for taking textbooks out of the box and putting them on a shelf. In addition, piracy of educational content, the used book market, and textbook rental programs fuel higher prices for educational materials while also undermining the rights of faculty members to be compensated for their intellectual work.

Solely blaming publishers seems simplistic. After all, doesn’t it make sense to put a premium value on efforts to develop and disseminate knowledge? Publishers and textbook authors play a significant role in higher education. Books have value long after the class is completed. Thanks to their bird’s-eye view of academic trends, textbook editors have keen insights into disciplinary trends. Furthermore, when publishers sell textbooks to departments, they often back up that sale with faculty training, sample syllabi and quizzes, and other valuable student and faculty resources. As the director of the composition program at the University of South Florida, I have come to appreciate the professionalism of publishers’ representatives, who have provided our teachers with training on new writing and assessment tools.

Publishers do, however, hoard enormous war chests from sales of educational materials, and we should question whether they have taken control of teaching and learning processes that would be more appropriately owned and overseen by academics. For instance, the $9 billion that Pearson made in 2012, as panelists Martin Kich and Linda Rouillard pointed out in a session at the 2013 AAUP Annual Conference on the State of Higher Education, is funding the company’s ongoing effort to seize control of higher education processes such as the administration, design, and implementation of GED certification, state and national certification of teaching, and the online development and assessment of general education coursework.

Smarting from diminished support from state governments, higher education officials have been keen to outsource just about everything—servers for learning management systems, plagiarism-detection software, institutional repositories, and e-mail systems. More egregious, in my opinion, is how some institutions are employing tutorial services such as Smart Thinking, which enables students to receive online feedback on their writing, to export the intellectual work of the faculty; amazingly, at some institutions faculty members and writing centers are having student work read and evaluated solely by outside vendors. I’ve met faculty members who have trusted Smart Thinking so much that they don’t bother to read their students’ papers. It would almost be ironic, if it weren’t terribly sad, that universities need to pay traditional academic publishers like Elsevier millions of dollars each year to purchase access to publications written by faculty members.

To avoid being repositioned as technicians working on the clock for global publishing companies, faculty members may want to give more thought to their potential as authors and publishers. Faculty and universities alike can benefit from assuming roles as publishers of textbooks and developers of e-learning environments.

Faculty Members as Content Creators

In 2008, when I received copyright back from Pearson for College Writing Online, a textbook I’d published online in 2003, I decided to self-publish the work. Rather than pursuing a for-profit model, I opted to give the book away for free, first at and later at With hopes of developing a community around my project, I established a distinguished editorial board and review board, and I invited my colleagues to submit “web texts”— that is, texts designed for web-based publication—for the project. Since then, rather than helping merely a handful of students, the work has been viewed by over half a million people, and we’ve been able to publish original, peer-reviewed web texts.

Letting go of the authorial dream, abandoning the idea that I could be the sole author of a popular composition textbook, giving away ownership of a textbook on which I’d worked for over a decade, and embracing a communal model of authorship and publication— these steps have never felt especially intuitive or inevitable. In 2001, when I started working on College Writing Online, I was energized by my desire to reimagine the genre of the textbook, to move away from print texts or simple PDF documents toward a more interactive, multimodal format that included videos, writing spaces, and quizzes. Beyond the academic goal of developing an original project, I was hopeful the work would be widely adopted. I was at a unique moment in history, and I believed that the juncture between print and electronic media would provide opportunities for authors to create more interactive learning models.

When College Writing Online was hidden behind a publisher paywall and not widely adopted, I became dissatisfied with the traditional publication model. By signing away my copyright to Pearson in exchange for an advance, I’d lost control of my work. When Pearson returned copyright to me in 2008, however, I had a second chance. I could resell the project to a higher education publisher and hope for better luck. Or I could publish the work online under a subscription model, perhaps providing the first few paragraphs of every article for free and then charging a fee to read complete articles. Alternatively, I could publish the book with an entrepreneurial online startup such as Flatworld Knowledge or Rice University’s Connexions. A fourth alternative was to sell the project for $20,000 to the Saylor Foundation in exchange for publishing the work under a Creative Commons license that permits users to copy, distribute, and remix the work for commercial applications. Finally, I could self-publish the book online under a Creative Commons license that allows noncommercial use but not remixing. Ultimately, I chose this latter publishing model because it gave me the greatest control over my project and the potential for the greatest impact.

Licensing for Diverse Rhetorical Contexts

Creative Commons provides licenses for diverse rhetorical contexts. Most open-education enthusiasts recommend the BY-SA license, which permits users to develop derivative as well as commercial works (BY refers to the attribution requirement and SA, share alike, requires derivative works to be distrubuted under the same license). The Open Knowledge Foundation and believe that Creative Commons should retire its NC-ND (noncommercial, nonderivative) clauses. The Free Culture Foundation argues that the NC-ND clause is “completely antithetical to free culture (it retains a commercial monopoly on the work).” Timothy Vollmer, writing for the Creative Commons blog on December 17, 2012, asserts that licenses that include BY-NC, BY-ND, BY-NC-SA, BYNC- ND clauses, which limit remixing and repurposing, should be renamed “commercial rights reserved.”

Despite the criticisms of NC or ND clauses, I settled on a BY-NC-ND 3.0 license for Writing Commons because I thought it made most sense to start out conservatively. As the content creator of the core of Writing Commons—that is, the 320 essays that constituted College Writing Online—I was uncomfortable with the idea that others would benefit commercially from my work or that they could create derivatives without my input. Despite being committed to free culture, after hammering away on the project for over a decade, I wanted to be in control of its ongoing development. (In contrast, if I were just starting a new textbook and I wanted to “crowdsource” it, I would more seriously consider the BY-SA license.)

By adopting a peer-review model and inviting academics worldwide to coauthor web texts with me, I hoped to extend the scope of the project so that it could serve as a viable alternative to expensive textbooks for all college-level courses that require writing, including advanced composition, professional and technical writing courses, creative nonfiction, creative writing, and poetry. Between 2009 and 2010, I invited distinguished international professors and writers— scholars like Howard Rheingold, James P. Gee, and Martin Weller—to serve on the Writing Commons editorial board or review editor board.

Our efforts to develop Writing Commons have had preliminary success. In response to calls for papers made through our monthly newsletters and other online forums—on professional and technical writing, information literacy, academic arguments, and creative writing—we’ve received 107 submissions. Thus far, we have published sixty-six web texts by authors from a variety of universities and rejected twenty-two; another twenty-one are under review.

While our early efforts at peer production have been rewarding, the growing popularity of Writing Commons has been even more remarkable. We have already passed benchmarks that I assumed would take decades to reach. During 2012, Writing Commons was viewed by 146,023 unique visitors (167,651 total visitors) who accessed 290,205 pages. During the first six months of 2013, traffic picked up considerably, exceeding 400,000 visitors. On May 28, we reached a new milestone when 10,356 visitors accessed 62,045 pages. Recently, our resource was selected as the course textbook for three massive open online courses funded by the Gates Foundation: Duke University’s Achieving Expertise, Ohio State University’s Rhetorical Composing, and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s First-Year Composition 2.0.

Realizing Our Power

Researchers have found that some dogs will give up attempts to escape a painful stimulus, an electronic shock, when attempts to escape are futile. The dogs that adopted learned helplessness as a behavioral pattern become passive. Even when escape is clearly possible, they accept the ongoing shocks. When it comes to academic publishing, academics and their sponsoring institutions have adopted a form of learned helplessness. In the past, the faculty needed publishers to peer review, publish, and disseminate academic works. We used to be boxed in by a limited number of venues. And the fear of not getting tenure or promotion can be just as unpleasant as an electric shock. Nowadays, however, we have additional options that greatly diminish our dependence on publishers.

The Directory of Open Access Journals, http://, lists nearly ten thousand journals across disciplines. Many university presses provide free access to online versions of books. For pedagogical works, choices have tended to be more scattered. Viable options include Writing Commons (http://, Connexions (, Wikibooks (, and MIT’s OpenCourseware ( .htm).

Rather than working as employees on by-the-piece rates for global companies like Pearson, faculty members can assume the role of publishers. Using free content-management systems like Joomla, Drupal, or WordPress in conjunction with inexpensive web hosting packages, we can build communities around our educational materials. We need to realize our power as authors and publishers. Working collaboratively, we can create dynamic teaching and learning environments.


Joe Moxley is executive editor and publisher of Writing Commons. A professor of English and director of composition at the University of South Florida, Moxley has published widely on scholarly publishing and
open education. His website is