How I Work Open: Justin Marlowe

photo of Justin Marlowe

Justin Marlowe
Professor, Evans School of Public Policy and Governance
Civic Engagement for the 21st Century Endowed Professorship

Spotlight on: Open Textbook Publishing

What kind of open work do you do?
Sharon Kioko and I wrote the first open textbook in the field of public administration, which has been well-received so far. The textbook is based on lecture notes we have written and have been developing for a couple of years.  We’ve sent a final version of the text to Ingram for hard copy distribution, because some students still want hard copies of a traditional textbook. We anticipate the material to stay current for about a year and a half.

In my own research, I work in the financial services sector.  We focus on municipal securities and bonds that state or local governments use to finance big ticket items like new roads, bridges, etc.  We work to create a marketplace that is more efficient for governments as they borrow money.  The goal is for governments to borrow money at a lower cost, allowing taxpayers to get more things for lower tax costs.  To develop benchmarks, we use big data – data collected on buying and selling bonds. We take the data and run it through a predictive analytic exercise. All the code is open; it’s out there for anyone to take. It’s important to do it this way in this context because investors want to know exactly how you come to your conclusions. They want to be able to recreate what you did. It makes it more trustworthy. But we’re also finding regulators, state treasurers, etc. want that degree of transparency.

How would you describe your work to your family or people who aren’t your colleagues?
I study how governments pay for services and infrastructure, or programs and infrastructure. I look at things like their choices about what they’re going to tax, how they’re going to tax it, or how, when, and where they’re going to borrow money.

How would you describe your work to your colleagues?
We study the tradeoffs that surround fiscal policy and management choices – the key point being tradeoffs. If you choose to borrow to build your bridge now, you have to pay it off over time, so you have less resources available in ten or fifteen years. What’s the right balance between mid-term needs and future generations? And then for the borrowing itself – do you have narrow, selective relationships with certain financial organizations? Or do you put it out as a big auction?

How do you work openly?
The textbook was done through the Rebus community project. I think of them as a tool. They’re more than that but to an author they’re a set of tools, a platform that can take you from an idea to an open textbook.

They provide Pressbook, which is their production process. Their goal was to use a WordPress-like interface in order to draw people in. They also have a great distribution network of university libraries and now other stakeholders; they’ve done a lot of work reaching out and creating a network, so now you have a ready-made audience.

Prior to the book I wrote with my colleague, Sharon Kioko, everything was open and the focus was on the network of contributors. But ours was the first to try it out incorporating a form of peer review – to do it like a traditional textbook with anonymous reviewers. So we gave them a list of potential reviewers and actually got five or six responses. They weren’t offering any incentives, but the reviewers were excited about it and wanted to get involved.

Rebus has built out a publishing apparatus that’s user-based and open and transparent. We wouldn’t have been able to take the project anywhere as near as far as we did without them.

What has the process been like writing the open textbook?
Last summer was largely spent writing and adapting lecture notes into a textbook with Sharon. Pressbooks is helpful for keeping you out of trouble.  You can’t have two people editing the same thing at the same time.  We had a draft of the first half of the text ready last Fall and rolled it out Fall quarter to our Masters of Public Administration students.  We built the ship at sea as the quarter went.  In the spring it went out for peer review and we’ve spent the summer getting it ready as the first complete version.  It isn’t a long text at 225 pages and it is designed to be covered in a quarter. One nice thing about is being open is that we can pluck out a chapter to use and not have to worry about copyright.  Our textbook is licensed under Creative Commons.

What are the methods and tools you are using to make your work open?
For the textbook writing process, Sharon and I used a lot of the same tools others are using for collaboration – things like Evernote. The challenge was to make the work available in real time across authors or a review team.

In my research we use R and standard statistics packages for analysis. It’s just being willing to share things others usually are not. The initial access mechanism was they took the R code and available as a download on the website.  With time it’s evolved into a more sophisticated thing, different indices, etc. Any time you go to their website, you go to a technical appendix where it has the actual code and mechanics about how the research was done.

What skills have you had to learn in order to work openly?
I haven’t had to learn specific skills insomuch as a higher degree of patience and flexibility than your typical writing process.  When Sharon and I are working on the same chapter at the same time, there’s a lot of coordination and communication about the book.  Normally, you’d put a note in your version and send it off.  Now that work is happening in real time, which can feel tedious but it’s absolutely necessary.

There’s also implicit expectations among students that if they are using your textbook, they’re part of the community of users and feel like they have a right and an obligation to come to you with edits and suggestions and you feel an obligation to respond–even if it’s just to say that’s a good example and we’ll deal with it at some point.  The idea that they can engage with the text in a different way resonates with the students, which is great but if I’m not planning to add edits it’s hard.

Why do you work openly?
I never had any desire to publish a traditional textbook. There are two or three decent ones in our field and it and it isn’t large enough that you need multiple “go-to” texts.  The goal was never to compete with those texts.

I’m on the board of the University Bookstore and they have been talking about open education resources (OERs).  From a business standpoint, they present an interesting question–what role can the University Bookstore play if we migrate to OERs over time?  We have thoughtful leadership who thinks there’s got to an opportunity that we can find, whether it is bundling or sharing hard copies.  

I’m curious about open textbooks on multiple levels and that’s how I met Chelle Batchelor and Thom Deardorff in Libraries Access Services who introduced the open textbook pilot project.  I thought it would be cool to do for a variety of reasons.  Transparency, openness, and accessibility are core values in our field.  We’re training the next generation of nonprofit CEOs, city and state managers.  

What barriers have you faced in trying to work openly?
On the textbook the big one is incentives. We recently presented on this topic to the Board of Regents for the University. The hard part for a professor is that in terms of promotion and tenure requirements an open textbook represents a little bit of a lot of things, but not enough of one thing to point to as a contribution. It’s a little bit of research, but in most fields we don’t think of textbooks as traditional research. It’s different than a research-based University Press book. There’s a teaching component, and a service component. Sharon and I are called on all the time now as informal favors, asking what was that experience like, and can you help me do it? But it’s not a big enough service obligation that you can put it on your CV. Open textbooks sit at the intersection of a bunch of things we do traditionally, but not enough of one thing to point to as part of promotion and tenure.  Given the time commitment, it’s tricky. The relationship between the time that goes into it and the credit you get for promotion and tenure isn’t great. This is why you see more senior faculty writing open textbooks – they’re not concerned with promotion.

What opportunities does working openly offer that traditional scholarship does not?
I think we’re very fortunate at the Evans School, and for anyone working in public policy and administration, we’re uniquely positioned to pursue these projects.  Transparency and openness has always been a value in the public sector but now it’s just a given–there’s no excuse for not having all the data any time, any way.  Everyone in our field is reorienting themselves.  The nice thing about open scholarship in our field is that a big part of what we’re evaluated on is our impact in the real world.  Do you consult with non-profits?  Are people in Seattle reading your work?  We’ve always been encouraged to tell a holistic story about impact.

Another nice thing about open scholarship is that our impact in the real world is demonstrated.  We can see when the textbook is used by X program and how many students have used the textbook.  Every time I talk with a reporter now, I follow up via email and share a link to the relevant chapter of the open textbook where they can go for more information.  The reporters think, “This must be illegal” until I explain it is an open textbook.  I think we’ll do a lot more sharing of relevant sections moving forward.  One of our students who used the book last year was an intern this summer at the budget office in Olympia.  They wrote and asked if they could share the book with the budget office.  I got a thank you note from a person in the budget office in Olympia and was asked if they could circulate the relevant section of the book widely.  

Do you incorporate open methods into your teaching?
At a tactical level, we write the book for the course so we organized everything we do in the course around not just the content but the iterative back and forth nature of the book.  It’s changed, as an example, how we think about delivering a topic.  Under the old model, you’d have a “how to do cost analysis” spreadsheet and story problems where you say X person is at a nonprofit looking to do a project for homeless shelters and you have to come up with the nuts and bolts (ex. fixed costs, break even rate, etc.).  With our book, we introduce concepts that can immediately go into the spreadsheet and can be made available in the book.  The spreadsheet is the middle rather than the end game.  With traditional texts you’re stuck until the new edition comes out.  With open you can use a more recent example which is more fresh and engaging for a subject that can be very daunting.

A bigger trend that is more exciting is that we have a lot of millennials coming into our field and they have a different notion about what expertise means.  Financial management can be arcane–within that context expertise means you know the rules but now anyone can get the information.  Governments are more transparent and the real expertise is positioning the information in context and bringing it to life.  You’re no longer tethered to another’s long drawn out explanations.  Expertise is the how and why you think about it and let me help you adapt your thinking so you be the most effective when the time comes.

What’s your vision for an open future?
My job title is Professor of Public Finance and Civic Engagement; I actually have an individual mandate to go out and do this work. But it can be a tough sell if you don’t have the resources or don’t have tenure and want to have a strong file when promotion comes up. I think we can make some headway on that, by having a conversation about changing incentives and making tools available to lower the barriers to entry. I think that will evolve to the point that doing open scholarship and writing open textbooks will become a viable option for everyone. Some of it will be just telling the story about how much work goes into it. Even though it’s different, it’s still scholarship and intellectual work the same way traditional things are.

What do you think is the future of open scholarship in your field?
I can only speak to my field, but the term we’re using around the Evans School is ‘big transparency’. It took governments a while to catch up on getting a handle on the concept and practice of ‘big data’ compared to where business and others were. We’re there now. Governments are getting comfortable with predictive analytics – things like crime maps linking to deploying police resources. For a decade that was seen as ultra-cutting-edge – like science fiction. But now it’s everywhere; you can buy off the shelf software for analysis. Tableau and Socrata, let governments take big data and make it available in user-friendly formats. There’s a huge industry around big data for governments. The tools are there.

This new orientation towards transparency is also attracting a different sort of person to public service, which is not a bad thing. It’s happening, and it’s up to us as teachers to respond and give students the tools to thrive in the environment and to tap into their underlying motivation, which was always because they want governments and nonprofits to be more responsive to their constituents.

If you had it to do over, would you publish an open textbook again?
I would do it again. I think even if it had only been for our course – that made it worthwhile. It’s such an important part of what we do but it’s got to be done right. I wasn’t prepared for all the stuff that’s come with it, that others want to use it, that’s all great. I don’t know if I would do it with anyone other than Sharon.

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