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Bypassing the Sustainability Test
September 12, 2013 - 10:00pm

I’ve seen a lot of promising projects start out with lots of energy and then falter as entropy set in. I’ve seen projects scramble because soft money has run out and no continuing revenue stream has appeared (even if ongoing support was promised in the grant proposal). I’ve seen even more projects halted before they could get off the ground because they lacked a “sustainability plan” or "business model" that satisfied someone whose permission was needed.

What’s funny – or perhaps “tragic” is a better word - is that these projects are often attempts to improve upon a situation that is widely understood to be unsustainable. But unsustainable things, when they are really big, have a lot of momentum which begins to seem a natural law of the universe, an irresistible force. 

An example: our periodicals wrangler just ran some numbers on increased costs since 2009. We have whittled away at journal subscriptions in past years because of budget pressures. Of the scant remaining number, nearly sixty of them have increased prices since 2009 at rates between 40 percent and nearly 300 percent. Instead of "do more with less," libraries' motto is "get less for more." Sustainable this is not.

But sometimes there's a shining example of how it could be different. I had the good fortune this week to have a conversation with Mike Palmquist, who has had a lot to do with the Colorado State University-based WAC Clearinghouse, which has been publishing open access books and journals and other things for 16 years. He doesn’t say it’s his project, and the only title I could find to label his role is “founding editor.” He does have a quite a few additional titles - Associate Vice Provost for Learning and Teaching, Professor of English, University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado State University, and director of CSU’s Institute for Learning and Teaching – so maybe he feels he has enough. But I doubt that’s it. When we talked about the Clearinghouse, he made it clear that it was a shared effort of a lot of people – currently over 100. All of them are committed to making it work the way disciplinary knowledge traditionally works, through the efforts of a loose collective of individuals who have a common curiosity and commitment to contributing to what we know about the world.

The WAC Clearinghouse is a first choice publisher for many authors in the field it serves, and it’s nimble, inventive, and does high quality work on a shoestring. The sweat equity that runs scholarly publishing (the researching, writing, reviewing, editing, cajoling, and imaginative energy that goes into journals and book series and other scholarly projects, which is always donated by scholars) is paired with some institutional overhead (server space, a desk, a computer with the software all faculty are provided) and funds cobbled together to pay freelance copyeditors. They can produce a book faster (three to six months rather than 12 to 18) and at less expense (around $2,000, or if Mike’s time and overhead costs are included about $9,000 rather than the $25,000-$30,000 first-copy costs typical at a university press). An arrangement with Parlor Press puts the books into print and into more traditional distribution channels, with a markup that pays for those amenities and brings some cash back to the Clearinghouse.

The WAC Clearinghouse may not have a marketing team, paid acquisitions editors, or professional designers, but their books reach a far wider audience and have a greater impact than most scholarly books, with one analysis finding that one of their books gained nine times as many citations as a similar award-winning title published more conventionally.

After our conversation, I was struck by the fact that Mike never mentioned “sustainability” or “business model” in our conversation. He wrote a couple of grants to get things off the ground. He knew a lot of people and they wanted to be part of it. Granted, he had an unusually rich skill set that included publishing, printing, and PR writing as well as academic scholarship and teaching, but he also gave me the impression that all kinds of people contributed skills they have in abundance. It was incremental, but at every step of the way he, his disciplinary network, and his university decided to get something useful done, and then do the next thing that seemed interesting, and then the next. As he put it, “it all grew out of community.”

I have a lot of respect for the community he belongs to. Composition and Rhetoric is full of smart, articulate, dedicated scholars. A lot of disciplines are full of talented people, and so much of their labor is donated to advancing scholarship which is financially inaccessible to most people, including scholars. The WAC Clearinghouse reminds me that out of these generous communities we can grow something new with age-old values, something more accessible, more sustainable than the way we do things now.

But maybe we should take care to stop asking good projects to pass a sustainability test that our current system has failed so miserably.

 

 

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