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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Positioning ACM for an Open Access Future

Ronald F. Boisvert and Jack W. Davidson

Ronald F. Boisvert and Jack W. Davidson are co-chairs of the ACM Publications Board.

Credit: NIST; University of Virginia

The age of open access is upon us. Increasingly, the consensus of authors of research articles and their funding institutions is that the fruits of taxpayer-supported research should be freely available to the public. This is a compelling argument and a noble goal.

But, achieving open access is not easy. Professional maintenance and distribution of large digital archives, guaranteed for the long term, does incur significant cost. The most promising model for recovering such costs under an open-access regime is an author-pays (or, in effect, a funding institution pays) model. Such a scheme introduces issues of its own. If publishers generate revenue by producing more content (paid for by authors) rather than quality content (paid for by subscribers), then the natural tendency in the system will be for the generation of large quantities of low-quality content. Indeed, we have seen the rise of predatory publishers, actively seeking authors to pay for publication in venues devoid of the exacting scrutiny of conscientious peer review. The result is a glut of third-rate publications that add noise rather than insight to the scientific enterprise.

The important question is: Can we establish a sustainable economic model for publication that serves the interest of both authors and the reading public? We submit that non-profit professional societies must play a critical role in this regard. They are the hallmark of quality in publications, and must remain so to serve the interests of the reading public. But, how do we transition from the current subscription model to a new financial model enabling open access in a way that does not bankrupt the organization in the process? This question has occupied the attention of the ACM Publications Board for several years. Because the stakes are high, the Board has chosen to move with caution.

Because we do not have a reliable crystal ball, we have chosen to provide an array of options for ACM authors and Special Interest Groups (SIGs) to enable a natural, slow, and (hopefully) stable evolution of the publication enterprise into the future. Examples of this are ACM's long-standing policies enabling author-produced versions of ACM-published materials to be posted on author Web pages, on the pages of their institutions, and on archives mandated by funding institutions. A shining example of such green open-access policies is ACM's Author-Izer service, which allows authors to place specialized links on their Web pages that tunnel through ACM's paywall to provide free access to the definitive versions of their papers, while capturing download statistics displayed in the ACM Digital Library (DL).

In the next few months ACM will roll out more options for authors and SIGs, which will provide even greater levels of flexibility with regard to open access.

  1. Author-pays Open Access Option. Individual authors (or their institutions) will have the option to pay a fee that covers ACM publication and curation costs at the time of publication, after which the article will be freely available via the ACM DL platform. The fee, which has yet to be set, will differentiate between journal articles and conference papers, as well as between ACM members and non-members.
  2. Open Access During the Period Around SIG Conferences Option. SIGs will have the option to make the proceedings from their conferences freely available via the ACM DL platform for up to two weeks before the event and up to two weeks after. Not only will this option facilitate easy access to the proceedings by conference attendees, it will also enable the community at large to experience the excitement of learning about the latest developments being presented in the period surrounding the event itself.
  3. Open Access for Most Recent Instance of SIG Conferences Option. SIGs will have the option to maintain tables-of-contents for the most recent instance of its conferences on the conference website with ACM Author-Izer links that provide free access to the definitive version of the article maintained in the ACM DL. For conferences that are not in a recurring series, such access will be enabled for up to one year. When selected by the sponsoring SIG, this reverse embargo will provide open access to conference papers during the period in which they are of greatest interest.
  4. Options for Rights Management. When publishing articles with ACM, authors will have three options for the management of publication rights for their work. Authors who desire the convenience of having ACM maintain rights and permissions associated with their works will continue to be able to execute copyright transfer to ACM. ACM's copyright policy will continue to grant authors liberal rights for the re-use of their work and the posting of personal versions. Authors who prefer to retain copyright or want a more explicit publishing contract will have the option of signing one of two license agreements. The first will have terms similar to that of the existing copyright transfer. However, this option will provide increased clarity about the rights of both parties. Finally, those authors who wish to retain all rights to their work can do so by exercising the author-pays open access option described previously. In that case all rights remain with the author and ACM is simply granted a permanent license to distribute.

The set of changes unveiled here are but another step in an ongoing process in which ACM adapts to the new realities of scholarly publishing. Many further refinements are possible. For example, if the author-pays option is successful, the Publications Board may consider the feasibility of making previously published papers in the DL open access, or making entire proceedings open access using funding from registration fees or sponsors. As the Board considers each change it will continue to be responsive to the needs and wishes of the ACM community while fulfilling its responsibility to maintain a healthy and sustainable publications program.

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Ronald F. Boisvert is co-chair of the ACM Publications Board.

Jack W. Davidson is co-chair of the ACM Publications Board.

©2013 ACM  0001-0782/13/02

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2013 ACM, Inc.


John Wilkes

Please can the publications board provide us with some information about the costs associated with "Professional maintenance and distribution of large digital archives, guaranteed for the long term"? I would like the ACM membership to have a chance to discuss how much additional revenue we (ACM) should be trying to extract beyond these costs to subsidize other activities. Most of the contributions to the DL are the results of the labor of authors, reviewers, and editors, the vast majority of which are unpaid volunteers.

Gary Johnson

@John Wilkes: I absolutely agree. The sole role of a distributor of digital documents (ACM DL in this case) is to provide a backed-up database of these (volunteer-produced) articles, a website from which to access them, and a paywall to restrict this access. This is an extremely common IT job that most employed programmers today can reproduce. As an ACM member, I would very much like to see the breakdown in expenses related to this endeavor since they are presumably coming at least partially from my membership dues.

Ronald Boisvert

ACM has been discussing costs associated with "professional maintenance and distribution of large digital archives, guaranteed for the long term" with the SIG leadership (which represents a large fraction of the membership that is generating DL content). As part of this conversation, there are discussions about the role of DL revenue in subsidizing other ACM activities. We urge you to speak with the SIG leaders in your area to ensure that the views of your community are well represented. We welcome such input as the membership discusses this very important issue.


I left ACM last year, after nineteen years as a member, because they are not fulfilling their primary educational mission and are not abiding by their own code of ethics. The failure to provide open access to publications and the appalling incompetence of their conference operations (and specifically the underlying information technology) are two main examples.


According to Brighten Godfrey's reading* of the ACM's 2011 annual report, the cost per new paper in the Digital Library is $379. By a similar calculation, the cost of a paper on the arXiv is less than $7. I expect there are various factors that explain part of this cost differential; perhaps it is not totally unreasonable that the Digital Library, which includes a vast archive of older content, might cost 3 or 4 times as much as the arXiv. But it costs 54 times as much! This is the elephant in the room; we cannot have truly useful discussions about the future of ACM publishing without acknowledging that the ACM has utterly failed to keep DL costs reasonable (or even within an order of magnitude of reasonable), and second, taking concrete action to bring the DL's costs under control.

After all, if DL revenue is really so vital for funding the ACM's "good works", then every dollar saved in costs is one more dollar for "good works".


Panagiotis Ipeirotis

Please do share the costs with the wider audience. This is much more efficient than contacting individual SIG leaders, which would result in replicating the effort many times over.

Why would ACM adopt a policy of secrecy surrounding the cost structure of publishing?

If the real costs are indeed high, for a good reason, then authors and readers should know about this.

If the costs are high because of structural inefficiencies (similar to the ones the health insurance industry is suffering from), then ACM should act to lower these costs by adopting more efficient and effective solutions. The community can easily help with such tasks.

Disrupting and modernizing industries is not an unfamiliar task for ACM members.

Jon Crowcroft

Some government funding agencies will not cover the "author pays" model - we shall be obliged to use Usenix or ArXiv or others who eschew that model - I don't believe the ACM should be on the side of the commercial (for profit) "academic" publishers some more notes here

Paul Wesling

I like this direction for ACM conference publications. Having been in journal publications before, I understand that there are more expenses than just having a few programmers to catalog the content. Most Open Source publishers are settling on about US$1,500 to $2,000 per paper, as the fee to cover all staff/server/edge-server costs, platform development, archiving, etc. The idea of keeping a set of conference papers available at no cost for a year is nice. Yes, there are many researchers/practitioners who'd like the whole "tail" of past papers to be free -- but if it's important to someone (or an organization), then it's probably worth a small expense per paper to get them. IEEE charges $13 per paper, for Members. IEEE also has a modest-fee ($35/month) program that lets a Member access a limited number each month -- another option.

Chris Callison-Burch

The Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) is completely open access. We support the costs associated with the ACL Anthology ( through our membership dues ($100 per year). Membership is required to attend our conferences, but it is not required to access the archive. The only loss making enterprise is our main journal, Computational Linguistics, where we have costs for editorial assistants and proofreaders plus hosting at MIT press. Our new journal, Transactions of the ACL, is running fine on an all volunteer basis at near zero direct cost.

Having been involved with ACL for so long, it's shocking to me that ACM has failed to be able to make its publications open access. Putting everything behind a paywall seems anachronistic. It's bad for authors. It's bad for researchers. It's bad for science.

Robert Okajima

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the May 2013 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

Open access is a transitional publishing model limited by its historical context, preserving the constraints of print media (such as tying each published piece to its original time and content) while being transitional in its embrace of wide distribution through the Internet. Though ACM's view of its own approach to open-access publishing has evolved, as reflected in Ronald F. Boisvert's and Jack W. Davidson's "Letter from ACM Publications Board Co-Chairs," "Positioning ACM for an Open Access Future" (Feb. 2013), it may well be able to leapfrog open access toward a true model of open research that permits each article to evolve over time.

Elements of such a model would probably include: offering free online public access in a structured format to all research data used to support an article, so the data can be retested and (cautiously) combined with data from other research; publishing research results in source form under an open license (such as Creative Commons's Attribution-ShareAlike;, letting it evolve through new contributions; and encouraging authors to publish early in order to address reviews from diverse sources that could help refine claims or simply express ideas more clearly.

The second and third elements represent known challenges; the integrity of an article requires its curators prevent or filter out low-quality and irrelevant changes. However, such an open-content model conforms better to how information is really created and exchanged than the current print model or the incremental advance represented by open access.

Andy Oram
Cambridge, MA

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