Information Wants to Be Free - But Not Always

I have a confession. And you may have some dead links on your site.

August 27, 2015

I have a confession to make. For many years, I’ve done odd jobs for Bedford Books, which specializes in writing handbooks as well as other textbooks. One of the projects I worked on had a nifty free website, Research and Documentation Online. Chances are, a lot of you have links to this site on your library or course page. If you click on it now, though, you’ll find out that it’s not there anymore. 

Don’t hate me.

Don’t hate Bedford Books, either. It’s a business, and this was a business decision. They publish a range of writing handbooks with different price points and purposes in mind. The print or e-version of this one is fairly cheap because it’s not extensive. The Bedford Handbook, A Writer's Reference, and The Everyday Writer are much more in-depth, covering all aspects of writing. I have an old edition of the Handbook that I keep handy for when I get confused about commas or capitalization. Because, yeah, I still do.

We used to require all students to buy one of these books for their first year seminar with the idea that it would serve them for at least four years, maybe longer. But faculty have begun to balk because they aren’t cheap and students don’t always have the patience to use handbooks to learn how to organize their essays or look up the fine points of grammar.

Here’s why they aren’t cheap. These books don’t just get written, they get worked on by a number of writers working over different parts of the book, and they are reviewed multiple times in chunks by a variety of experts who are paid (not a lot – but paid, and there are a lot of them giving their opinions). These books also have colorful design features to illustrate complicated ideas, and that takes more specialists and reviews and raises the cost of printing. While the advice about commas may change little, how to explain writing issues to a changing student population may take adjustment over the years, and the rules for citation practices change every few years. There are permissions to pay if quotes are used to illustrate a point. There's a sales force, too, and the cost of being at conferences to woo faculty adoptions. (Bedford is famous for their hospitality at CCCC.) There are probably more expenses that I don’t know about. I’ve simply reviewed bits and updated sections on work-for-hire contracts. I have enjoyed working with Bedford editors, who aren’t making big bucks and work very hard, and I think they publish good books.

But they cost money, and students often use them only to look up citation rules, and only when the paper is due tomorrow. So Bedford was in a Catch-22. People loved the free version, but it was undermining their core business.

I first worked on Research and Documentation in the early 1990s when it was a small spiral-bound booklet meant for writing across the curriculum programs. It covered some basic research tools for multiple disciplines (that was my contribution) as well as a few writing rules and detailed citation instructions for different styles (that was Diana Hacker’s work; she sadly died in 2004, but other contributors have updated her books since). Then the internet happened and people wanted an inexpensive booklet that would guide students away from it into the library – or to trusted websites. Remember how we used to do that? Now I suspect the research portion of the book is largely replaced by local library websites that generally have their own subject guides, but the citation instructions – those are the draw.

Over the decades, the checks I got from Bedford (never huge) came from different companies as it was bought, sold, bought, merged, and rebranded. Currently it belongs to Macmillan Higher Education, which is owned by Von Holtzbrink, one of the largest publishing companies in the world. Von Holtzbrink also owns, among multiple education and trade publishing houses, the Nature publishing group which recently acquired the Springer group. At least, that's the last I heard. It's hard to keep up. Though the Bedford I know is a small group of hard-working people who work out of a few rooms in an old building in downtown Boston, it’s part of something much larger now. It's even hard to find their identity on the mega-corporate website. Consolidation will do that to you. 

So, sorry about the broken links, but I understand why Bedford felt they had to pull the plug. If you’re looking for an excellent free replacement, I recommend Purdue’s Online Writing Lab – the OWL – which has lots of writing help as well as citation guides for the major styles. There's also a link to make a financial donation to help support the site and the tutors who work on it, which might be a nice gesture if you believe in open educational resources. Just be sure to include the instructions to route it to the OWL or to their tutor fund. 

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