Why Would Researchers Oppose Open Access?

Last week I started sort of a relaxed flame war with other members of the steering committee for an ACM conference on the subject of open access to the proceedings. “Open access” would mean that anyone could download the proceedings. The current situation is slightly different:

  • Often, individual papers are available on authors’ home pages. ACM permits authors to do this, but not to upload papers to sites like arXiv.
  • To get the actual proceedings for the conference you have to subscribe to the ACM Digital Library which costs $99/year, on top of the ACM membership dues.

Going into this argument I assumed that no researcher would oppose open access, because the benefits are clear and there are no downsides (I’m often naive like this). In contrast, I ran into what felt like hardened opposition.

The purpose of this post isn’t to argue for open access — others have done this perfectly well, and anyway as I said it’s a no-brainer from the researchers’ point of view — but rather to try to understand why researchers might be against open access. Here’s my analysis of some of the arguments I ran into. I may be unfairly caricaturing them but hey, it’s my blog.

Argument 1: “Open access is against ACM policy.”

This forms an argument against the ACM (or at least against its publication policy), not against open access.

Argument 2: “Open access costs money (for network links, server machines, etc.) and we don’t know where it will come from.”

This would be a good argument if the arXiv didn’t exist. But it does. In fact it’s been here for nearly 20 years and isn’t likely to go away soon. Furthermore, since 1998 the ACM has collaborated with arXiv to form the Computing Research Repository. I don’t fully understand the history between the CoRR and the ACM Digital Library but I think it’s safe to say that the ACM’s support of the CoRR is half-hearted at best.

Of course I’m not saying that arXiv is free (its annual budget is around $400K) but rather that, since it already exists, the incremental cost of a new arXiv’ed paper is low. Also, the more people who use it, the more likely it is that creative ways will be found to keep it in existence. Storage and network costs are always dropping; perhaps in the future the arXiv can live “in the cloud” at considerably lower cost. Say, this sounds suspiciously like a computer science research problem (yes I know about LOCKSS).

Argument 3: “Revenues from the Digital Library fund other things, including keeping conference registration fees low.”

Aha! Finally we almost have a good argument. But not really. For one thing, I had always heard that conferences usually make money, not lose it. But more importantly, it’s not right for the ACM to decide once and for all that all of its conferences are content-generators for the monetized DL. Rather, research communities should individually decide whether their portion of the revenues are enough to offset the disadvantages of closed-access. In summary: if the argument is about money (isn’t it always?) we need to see the figures and make informed decisions. I looked for this information online and didn’t find it (if it is available, please send me a link).

Argument 4: “Authors can put papers on their web pages, this is effectively open access.”

This is weak. First, not all authors do this, so the record is incomplete. For example, my sense is that many European academics are less well-versed in the fine art of excessive self-promotion than are their American counterparts. Second, proceedings are fragmented all over the web; not really ideal.  Third, as people retire, move to industry, etc., their home pages go away and the papers stop being accessible.


So far, my impression is that when researchers are opposed to open access, it isn’t for good reasons.  Another impression I have is that these attitudes are generational: senior researchers are more likely to oppose open access than are junior ones who “grew up” with the web. It seems very likely that retirements over the next 10 years will cause a phase change.  (Of course, it is also possible that as people become more senior, their attitudes change.)

8 replies on “Why Would Researchers Oppose Open Access?”

  1. “Revenues from the Digital Library fund other things, including keeping conference registration fees low.”

    Aha! Finally we almost have a good argument. But not really. For one thing, I had always heard that conferences usually make money, not lose it.

    I don’t understand your counter-argument. For example, if a conference costs $490 per attendee, and gets $200 per attendee from ACM DL, and charges a registration fee of $300 per attendee, then it “makes money” because it nets (200 + 300) – 490 = $10 per attendee. But this does not disprove that the revenue from DL keeps the registration fee low. Just to break even with DL revenue absent, the registration fee would be $490.

    Of course, I made these numbers up.

  2. Hi Dave- To see if the conference makes money, you’d have to subtract the subsidy from the (apparent) profit. But anyway, I wasn’t arguing that a subsidized conference registration is bad, but rather that people should be making an informed decision about the tradeoff between subsidy and open access.

  3. Open access is a very big deal, of course, and goes far beyond open access to published papers. I could go on and on about this, but this is your blog, not mine.

    With respect to ACM policy, to be heard at all, I assume that useful discussion can’t start at a level lower than the SIG officers. They are the people who would carry the issue to the ACM.

    Finally, without knowing more, I’d tend to give the benefit of the doubt to “senior” folks in terms of motive. I’d doubt that senior folks are really against open access. Perhaps they just see the financial consequences more readily that the “junior” folks.

  4. Eric– You make a sensible comment as usual. However it’s OK to talk about this w/o going to the upper levels of ACM. For example, a community of researchers could always do something like “defect” over to USENIX which has provided open access to pubs for a little while now. This doesn’t seem incredibly radical.

    You must start your blog.


    Criticisms of ACM’s OA Policy Are Misguided

    APA Kerfuffle Redux: No, ACM is NOT Anti-OA

    More on the Author Addendum Kerfuffle (and Counterproductive Over-Reaching)


    Make all your research articles (green, gratis |”OA by self-archiving them, then get your institution to mandate (green, gratis) OA self-archiving for all its researchers and research output, then get your funder(s) to mandate it, then help get other institutions and funders to mandate it. Till all that’s done, don’t worry about (gold) OA publishing or (libre) OA re-use.

    And OA has little to do with free software or open source, or with free access to non-give-away author content such as books, music or video. Links with open data, too, are premature. But much of the rest will come with the territory, once (green, gratis) is universally mandated and provided.

  7. Stevan, I don’t accept that my desire to submit postprints to arXiv constitutes over-reaching. Permitting this is a trivial tweak to the ACM publication policy and it would not (at least in the short- or middle-term) affect the viability of the ACM DL in any way.

    The Institutional Repository concept makes no sense to me, except as a way to keep costs high by avoiding economies of scale.

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