Computing Applications

An Open Access Partnership

  1. Article
ACM Media Group Publisher Scott Delman

During the past 30–40 years, the trend in science publishing has been toward niche publication with literally thousands of highly specialized and targeted journals being launched. Niche communities supported these publications via submissions, peer review, and readership. Some publishers were better than others at ensuring this information was available or "accessible" to those qualified readers and some publishers and editorial boards were more successful at filtering and selecting, via high-quality peer review, the most important information to disseminate to their communities. The publishers and editorial boards who did this well were rewarded with prestige, high-impact factors, and new quality submissions, which in turn fueled their continued success. Over time, authors knew well which were the best publications in which to publish to benefit their careers and reach their targeted audiences, and qualified readers knew well which publications were worthy of their readership.

Enter the Internet…searching the scholarly literature became far easier. Search engines like Google or Google Scholar in particular made it easier to find articles on specific topics, but of course the algorithms Google and other search engines use to identify and display specific results are a bit of a black box that is changing all the time. Results are mixed and while it is far easier now to find targeted information, the quality of the results is less assured. Everyone knows this and there is little dispute. Nevertheless, the ability to find information easily and ubiquitously is alluring and caused some to question why all information was not at everyone’s fingertips equally. The slogan "information wants to be free" became a moral imperative for an impassioned group of highly vocal and influential scientists (and politicians), who framed the debate as "us vs. them" with publishers on one side and authors, librarians, and readers on the other.

This mentality confuses me. Authors and readers benefited tremendously from this "scholarly publishing" enterprise they helped establish, but the vocal few would have you believe publishers are all evil and created this enterprise all by themselves and are the only ones who benefited. Such black-and-white depictions are rarely true. Publishers (commercial and learned societies alike) took a financial risk in launching new publications by investing in the infrastructure required to disseminate high-quality publications, and niche scholarly communities rewarded the successful publishers with increased authorship, subscriptions, and readership. In return, those associated with the most successful of these publications receive prestige, career advancement, and the visibility that comes with publishing one’s work in a respected journal. And despite what is written in the blogosphere, the costs of publishing scholarly information remain significant and the infrastructure required to not only prepare manuscripts for publication but to curate, disseminate, and preserve the literature in a responsible way has become far more complex in recent years. Anyone who carefully studies the infrastructure involved in maintaining a scholarly publishing program like ACM’s in comparison to a WordPress blog or basic website will know what I am talking about.

While some publishers have almost certainly taken advantage of their success (ACM is not one of them), the basic value proposition that exists today between scholarly publishers and their niche communities continues to work well for the vast majority of scientists, scholars, and readers worldwide. If this were not the case, one would likely see hundreds of thousands of authors, reviewers, and editorial boards quitting their respective roles with established journals en masse, but this is not happening. The value proposition is almost certainly still there for most and the notion that within these niche communities there are enormous groups of disenfranchised qualified readers who have no way to gain access to the published literature is by and large simply untrue.

This is not to say that opening access to all established scholarly journals worldwide would not result in increased readership and tangible social benefits. Of course it would, and in my opinion we should all work closely together to move definitively toward an open access model for scholarly publishing. But framing this move as a moral imperative and a revolution that must happen overnight, damn the consequences, is the wrong approach and quite frankly an irresponsible one at that. What is much needed is a rational discussion between long-standing successful partners, who acknowledge the mutually beneficial roles each play in the publication process and work closely together to find a sustainable way forward.

Scott E. Delman, PUBLISHER

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