The Association for Computing Machinery on Open Access

Via Lance Fortnow's Twitter post, it's interesting to see Communications of the ACM editor Moshe Y. Vardi on Open Access:

First, a point of precision. Open-access experts distinguish between "Gold OA," described earlier, and "Green OA," which allows for open access self-archiving of material (deposit by authors) that may have been published as non-open access. ACM Copyright Policy allows for self-archiving, so ACM is a Green-OA publisher. Still, why doesn't ACM become a Gold-OA publisher?


As for ACM's stand on the open-access issue, I'd describe it as "clopen," somewhere between open and closed. (In topology, a clopen set is one that is both open and closed.) ACM does charge a price for its publications, but this price is very reasonable. (If you do not believe me, ask your librarian.) ACM's modest publication revenues first go to cover ACM's publication costs that go beyond print costs to include the cost of online distribution and preservation, and then to support the rest of ACM activities. To me, this is a very important point. The "profits" do not go to some corporate owners; they are used to support the activities of the association, and the association is us, the readers, authors, reviewers, and editors of ACM publications. Furthermore, ACM operates as a democratic association. If you believe that ACM should change its publishing business model, then you should lobby for this position.

The bottom line is there are two distinct issues here. The first is the issue of for-profit vs. association publishing. The current relationship between the scientific community and the for-profit publishers makes no sense to me. The second issue is the business model of association publishing, for example, "reader pays" vs. "authors pays." This is a legitimate topic of discussion, as long as we understand that it cannot be separated from the overall business model of the association. Just remember, "free" is not a sound business model.

First, a couple of points.

  • Yes, the ACM's subscription charges for their digital library are very reasonable.
  • The ACM are on the side of the angels. They're the good guys, trying to do the best thing for their members and for the computing community as a whole. And they are obviously trying to make the best of tumultuous times in publishing.
  • Although it probably varies by sub-discipline, probably at least 80-90% of the articles published in ACM journals, transactions and conference proceedings are available via green OA.
  • Disclosure: I used to be on the ACM's Library Advisory Group. I have been on other LAG's for both societies and commercial publishers.

And a couple of questions for the assembled masses out there:

  • Is it still legitimate for a scholarly or professional society to use publications revenue to fund other member programs?
  • Is there a toll access business model for these societies that makes sense?
  • Is there an open access (ie. gold OA) business model for these societies that makes sense?
  • Do we really still need scholarly and professional societies to be publishers? How about in 5 or 10 years?
  • Do we really still need scholarly and professional societies at all? How about in 5 or 10 years?

No surprisingly, I have some ideas about the answers to these questions, but I thought it would be fun if you guys took the first shot.

And feel free to ask and answer your own questions.

11 responses so far

  • Off-the-cuff answers from my perspective:

    Maybe--for print versions that provide added value over freely-available e-versions containing all refereed articles.

    Maybe, see above.

    Yes--involving the above (maybe).

    Societies as publishers: In some fields, absolutely, even in 5 to 10 years. In other fields...I don't know enough to comment.

    Societies at all in 5 to 10 years: Absolutely. I honestly don't see these going away in my lifetime.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Thanks, Walt.

    I think it's going to be a really interesting 5 to 10 year period for societies in many disciplines. They are going to have to justify their existence more and more in terms of their member services rather than publishing, especially journal publishing.

    On the other hand, I'd much rather give my institution's money to a society publisher rather than a commercial publisher. Any day. But as scholarly publishing in the sciences gets disrupted, I'd hate to see societies take a disproportionate hit.

  • Peter Murray says:

    Thanks for raising this in the blogosphere, John. I'm also participating in a running discussion with the editor-in-chief of ACM in the comment section of the article's online presence.

  • Janne says:

    Many problems with closed access stem from getting access to older research. You're tracing the references of papers you read to get a full picture, and suddenly get stopped cold by an inaccessible paper. You're basically trying to follow a conversation where some of the participants are muted. You hear only part of the dialogue.

    To me it would be perfectly reasonable to charge for the newest material, say six months to a year old, and then set it free. The newest papers are breaking news, and not yet part of a conversation. Once they get a bit older and start getting referenced in turn, their individual value as new and fresh material diminishes while their role as a part of the fabric of citations become important.

  • * has it ever been legitimate to overcharge for publications to pay for society activities (*cough* ACS) - if it was ok then, it's ok now. I personally don't like it for lots of reasons
    * I think toll access is ok - definitely for the magazines, but also because they gather everything together and make it findable and they are really reasonable about it
    * I think that for special things - certain journals, special issues, there could be special cases - societies should take the publishing cost out of hide to make information more widely available in service to their customers. Taking more money from the members or their institution? I don't see that in CS - works for some other areas
    * I absolutely believe in scholarly and professional societies and I believe in them publishing-- Not, as IEEE puts it, for a revenue stream, but as a service to their members. A place their members can share information to further their research area. Also for continuing ed, mentoring, leadership, and to support formal and informal scholarly communication.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Janne, that's what a lot of publishers do already, especially I think in the life sciences. For smaller societies like ACM who had to digitize 30+ years of backfiles, or even worse larger societies like IEEE that had probably 40+ years of dozens (hundreds?) of journals and conferences, the cost for digitizing all those backfiles is significant. So, they definitely have to recover those costs and I think it's appropriate for libraries to kick in for that. Longer term, after those costs are recovered, would I be ok with paying slightly more for current issues to subsidize OA for all past issues? Yes.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Christina, you're right, instead of "still" I should have used something like "has it ever been." Some are obvious much worse than others *cough ACS*, but what I'd really like to see is more transparency. I wonder if that kind of info is in their annual reports?

  • John Dupuis says:

    Thanks, Peter. I can see that the gloves are coming off.

  • Janne says:

    John, I know a number of life-science publications do this; I depend on it every day.

    However, I strongly suspect that putting old issues online for open access is not merely a cost for the publisher. I think that is required for their long-term survival.

    If I need to refer to some of the very latest research, I have no choice of course but to refer to that one paper that details it (and nine times out of ten I could get it cost-free, open access or not, through the authors or through other channels).

    But most references are for older research, and there you really almost always have a fairly wide choice on what papers to refer to. If I want to make the argument, say, that the intermediate superior colliculus has inhibitory interneurons, I could pick and choose between a dozen papers or more over the past ten years that would be perfectly appropriate as references. And since I'm as lazy as anybody, and have deadlines and other demands for my time I will pick a paper I can just download directly over a paper I need to get through a library system, which in turn I'd pick over a paper that I need three people's approval and two weeks to pay for through the department credit card.

    Which means that over time it's the open access stuff that gets the references, and the open access publications that become the preferred publications to publish in. Current publishers are still fine now, but those who drop the ball and do nothing to release their old catalog within the next five to ten years or so may well find themselves largely without decent papers to publish.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Janne, I agree that OA is by far the best access model for scholars. Publishers, however, need to figure out how to make it work. They also need to figure out what value they truly add to the process and focus in on that. Publishing has costs, as does digitizing massive sets of backfiles. Societies aren't Elsevier (ok, some are *cough ACS cough*), either in terms of attitude or resources at their disposal.

  • Only problem and the problem?

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