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.)