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Communications of the ACM

Editor's letter

Open, Closed, or Clopen Access?

Communications of the ACM Editor-in-Chief Moshe Vardi

I am asked: "Why don't you adopt the open-access model?" Good question! Why don't we?

Wikipedia defines open access publishing as "the publication of material in such a way that it is available to all potential users without financial or other barriers."

The Open Access movement began brewing in the 1990s, becoming fully formed with the October 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. Since then, the idea has become a hot topic in the scientific community. The Directory of Open-Access Journals contains over 4,000 publications. Indeed, the idea of unfettered access to scientific knowledge naturally resonates with many researchers, including me. So why doesn't ACM become an open-access publisher?

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?

The problem with the "information wants to be free" principle is that "free," per se, is not a sound business model. The current implosion of the U.S. newspaper industry certainly testifies to that claim. Having been personally involved with an open-access publication for about five years now, I have come to realize that publishing has real costs. Any publishing business model must account for these costs. Even "free" must be monetized! Google uses advertising to monetize open access, but that does not seem a viable option for scholarly publishing. Many open-access publications have adopted the "author-pays" model, requiring authors to pay thousands of dollars for each published article. The argument in favor of "author pays" is that it maximizes access to published articles, but at the same time this is simply a shifting of costs from readers to authors. Is our community ready for the author-pays model? Would this not create a new inequity between "have" and "have not" authors?

My perspective is that what really propelled the open-access movement was the continuing escalation of the price of scientific publications during the 1990s and 2000s, a period during which technology drove down the cost of scientific publishing. This price escalation has been driven by for-profit publishers. In the distant past, our field had several small- and medium-sized for-profit publishers. There was a sense of informal partnership between the scientific community and these publishers. That was then. Today, there are two large and dominant for-profit publishers in computing. These publishers are thoroughly corporatized. They are businesses with one clear mission—to maximize the return on investments to their owners and shareholders. At the same time, the scientific community, whose goal is to maximize dissemination, continues to behave as if a partnership exists with for-profit publishers, providing them with content and editorial services essentially gratis. This is a highly anomalous arrangement, in my personal opinion. Why should for-profit corporations receive products and labor essentially for free?

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.

Moshe Y. Vardi

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Peter Murray

Mr. Vardi said, "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."

I am a librarian, I view this distribution of funds as a problem. A library's primary mission is to gather, organize, and disseminate scholarly information from a variety of fields. To the extent that library subscription dollars exceed the actual cost of producing journal content to "support the rest of ACM activities" goes beyond the mission of the library.

As a member of ACM, I appreciate the the other activities of our society, but as a librarian I strongly believe that the publishing initiatives of scholarly and professional societies should solely support themselves and not be sources of income for other parts of the society.

Moshe Vardi

I appreciate the sentiment of "I am willing to pay actual costs but nothing more", but that is not the way complex organizations work. For example, successful university presses often make a profit on science and engineering books and use this profit to subsidize publishing in the Humanities. Universities often make a profit on continuing education and use it to subsidize less profitable operations, such as libraries. University libraries simply would not exist without institutional subsidies.

Chad Colgur

Open Access is a blanket policy. What if we took a more targeted approach by placing emphasis on community engagement rather solely on content?

Suppose we, as ACM members, became really engaged by an article and that CACM was set-up to take notice of this activity. At some point we, as ACM members, could fund the opening of that article.

I'm not suggesting that this be done in "micro-payment" fashion. The futility of that mechanism has been convincingly explained by Clay Shirky. I have some ideas about alternatives but am sure that we, as a group of technical professionals, can find a solution that addresses real publishing costs while furthering the first goal of scholarly publication: dissemination of knowledge.

Peter Murray

A university library can never be confused with a profit center. With the exception of overdue fines and replacement book fees used to instill a sense of importance for the shared resources we steward or cost recovery efforts on things like photocopying and printing, libraries depend on subsidy from the host institution. I've seen many ways to generate this subsidy: flat, off-the-top allotments from the university, "taxes" on departments, etc. The library could not serve its mission without those funds.

I've also been involved in drafting strategic planning documents at a number of academic libraries, and in the process of doing so have reviewed a dozen others. I don't recall once proposing or coming across a strategic goal of "supporting scholarly activities through subsidized journal pricing." That is not a mission that academic libraries serve.

To be fair, and stating that I have not been directly involved in negotiations to acquire society content, I've come to understand that ACM is one of the "good guys" -- that ACM doesn't have a strong cross-subsidization of other activities from publishing revenues. I bring out this concern about cross-subsidization, however, lest it become an even more prevalent practice.

Moshe Vardi

Take for example your overdue fines. Are you telling me that overdue fines only recover the cost of overdue books?

Cross subsidies are prevalent in all organizations. That is, for example, how libraries are being funded, rather than charge readers directly to recover costs.
I can guarantee you that no publisher, for or not for profit charges you only to recover costs.

What you should consider is the price-value proposition of ACM publications. I am certain that it is one of the best bargains in your library!

Charlie DeVane

"ACM does charge a price for its publications, but this price is very reasonable." *Thank you!* I agree whole heartedly. Any one who thinks otherwise should compare the quality and affordability of the ACM Digital Library with other similar libraries, one of which charges four times the price for less access.

John Johnson

Prof Vardi presents what I think was a reasonably balanced and thoughtful argument for the status quo. However, I believe that ACM has several opportunities to gain benefits from more aggressively pursuing gold OA.

One point is that the distinction between "reader pays" and "author pays" is overly simplistic. As Vardi notes, libraries -- and the institutions that they are associated with -- are typically the source of funding for most journals with traditional subscription models, not the readers themselves. The flip side is that many OA journals without author fees are funded by their host institutions, and that the "author pays" model is largely subsidized by funding agencies. Compared with disciplines like English, CS with its high proportion of grant-funded authors is in a very good position to find journal funding without turning to either individual readers or individual authors.

Another point is that true open access brings with it huge benefits, since even a modest subscription price -- and Vardi is right that ACM publications typically have modest prices -- creates significant barriers. The barriers are most pronounced for the lay public and for potential readers in have-not countries. If ACM cares about reaching the non-specialist public or 3rd world readers, it must take seriously the possibility that this "clopen" model is interfering with that outreach. Personally, I worry about declining enrollments in CS courses and majors in the US, and chalk that up in part to our failure to aggressively reach out to the non-specialist public. Even within the academy there is emerging research that on balance shows a citation advantage for open access, so authors who seek impact would do well to submit their work to OA journals, and journals would do well to cater to those authors. True OA also provides data for text mining and more robust experiments in indexing and information retrieval.

The third point is that ACM has a unique opportunity, since it has a wide range of publications and can easily pursue different strategies for different publications. The SIG publications I receive are not the same as Transactions, and neither are the same as the general-interest CACM magazine. Perhaps the next step ought to be for ACM to provide a survey of its publications and their varied approaches to OA.

The numbers and quality of OA journals are growing rapidly. The Directory of Open Access Journals ( currently lists 150 gold OA journals in Computer Science, plus others in related areas ranging from applied maths to computer games. Not one is published by US-ACM. Maybe an experiment is in order.

JQ Johnson

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