US Gov Requests Feedback on Open Access – ACM Gets it Wrong (Again)

By Naty Hoffman

In 2008, legislation was passed requiring all NIH-funded researchers to submit their papers to an openly available repository within a year of publication.  Even this modest step towards full open access was immediately attacked by rent-seeking scientific publishers.

More recently the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy started to collect public feedback on expanding open access.  The first phase of this process ends on December 20th.

From ACM’s official comment, it is clearly joining the rent-seekers.  This is perhaps not surprising, considering the recent ACM take-down of Ke-Sen Huang’s paper link pages (Bernard Rous, who signed the comment, is also the person who issued the take-down).  In the paper link case ACM did eventually see reason.  At the time, I naively believed this marked a fundamental change in ACM’s approach; I have been proven wrong.

ACM’s comment can be found towards the bottom of this link; I will quote the salient parts here for comment.

ACM: “We think it is imperative that deposits be made in institutional repositories vs. a centralized repository…”

A centralized repository is more valuable than a scattering of papers on author’s institutional web pages.  ACM evidently agrees, given that it has gone to the trouble of setting up just such a repository (the Digital Library).  ACM’s only problem with a central, open access repository is that it would compete with its own (closed) one.  Since an open repository contributes far more value to the community than one locked behind a paywall, ACM appears to value its revenue streams over the good of the community it supposedly exists to serve.

ACM: “…essentially everything ACM publishes is freely available somewhere on the Web… In our community, as in others, voluntary posting is working.”

This is demonstrably false.  Almost every graphics conference has papers which are not openly available.  Many computing fields are even worse off.

Most infuriatingly, ACM presents a false balance between its own needs and the needs of the computing community:

ACM: “…there is a fundamental balance or compromise in how ACM and the community have approached this issue – a balance that serves both… We think it is imperative that any federally mandated open access policy maintain a similar balance… There is an approach to open access that allows the community immediate access to research results but also allows scholarly publishers like ACM to sustain their publishing programs. It is all about balance.”

What nonsense is this?  The ACM has no legitimate needs or interests other than those of its members!  How would U.S. voters react to a Senator claiming that a given piece of legislation (say, one reducing restrictions on campaign financing) “strikes a fundamental balance between the needs of the Senate and those of the United States of America”?  ACM has lost its way, profoundly and tragically.

As much as Mr. Rous would like to think otherwise, ACM’s publishing program is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  ACM arguing that an open repository of papers would be harmful because it “undermines the unique value” of ACM’s closed repository is like the Salvation Army arguing that a food stamp program is harmful because it “undermines the unique value” of their soup kitchens.

If you are an ACM member, these statements were made in your name.  Regardless of membership, if you care at all about access to research publications please make your opinion known.  Read the OSTP blog post carefully, and post a polite, well-reasoned argument in the comments.  Note that first you need to register and log in – the DigitalKoans blog has the details:

Note: To post comments on the OSTP Blog, you must register and login. There are registration and login links on the sidebar of the blog home page at the bottom right (these links are not on individual blog postings).

Hurry!  The deadline for Phase I comments (which include the ACM comment) is December 20th, though you can make your opinion known in the other phases as well.

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  1. Eric’s avatar

    I just put this comment on (who has a good blog post, see above), so I’ll add it here.

    I’ll be adding my own comments to the OSTP blog soon, and urge others to do the same. I think the main point, to me, is that federally-funded research should be free to access to the taxpayers that funded it, not $10/article or $100/year via the ACM. A year delay is annoying, but it’s much better than the 95-year copyright that ACM currently has. I don’t consider this proposal a true competitor to the ACM’s Digital Library, as the DL will contain all papers, vs. only federally-funded ones in the OSTP’s proposal. If you asked a researcher if he would want his research to be easily available to the public, I suspect 98% would say “of course” (and the other 2% would be worried about the DL’s profitability).

    ACM’s copyright policy is a separate issue, one that deserves attention from all interested people. If the ACM publishes your article, for example, their contract says that only the ACM has the right to permit others to reprint any images in that article – you cannot. This is a pretty key right for a computer graphics researcher, one that film and game production studios certainly never sign away to the ACM but most individuals do not fight, let alone know about.

  2. Stevan_Harnad’s avatar

    Naty, ACM is on the side of the angels regarding Open Access (OA) and your well-intentioned comment is inadvertently missing the point:

    (1) ACM is among the 51% of publishers who are completely green on immediate self-archiving:

    (2) For authors — as well as for institutions and funders who are attempting to mandate OA, it makes an enormous difference *where* deposit is mandated, because divergent institutional and central deposit mandates mean multiple deposit for authors, and put funder mandates in competition with institutional mandates, whereas convergent inititutional deposit mandates by both funders and institutions reinforce and facilitate one another:

    (3) For users, it does not matter in the least where an OA paper is deposited (as long as the repository is OAI-compliant), because all deposits can be, and are being, centrally harvested, by multiple central OAI harvesters (like citeseer, base, oaister, scirus, google scholar, and the even better central harvesters whose creation will be inspired by Green OA deposit mandates *if we will only help them happen by not over-reaching needlessly instead of grasping what it already fully within reach* (by supporting Green OA institutional deposit mandates, and those publishers, like ACM, that facilitate rather than obstruct them):

    Yes, the interests of learned-society publishers like ACM — and indeed those of any refereed journal publisher — are not more important than the interests of research, researchers, their institutions, their funders, and the tax-paying public that funds the funders, but research interests are not well-served if we demonize even the publishers, like ACM, that are already on the side of the angels, nor if we needlessly over-reach instead of grasping what’s already within reach:

    Send OSTP and President Obama the simple, convergent message that is guaranteed to bring us universal OA in short order: Mandate immediate deposit into the fundee’s institutional repository the final refereed draft of all funded research, immediately upon acceptance for publication. That’s all.

    ACM — unlike 49% of publishers — is not standing in your way.

    (And there is absolutely nothing wrong with ACM continuing to produce the fee-based Digital Library to try to compete with the free central harvesters of OA content, just as there is nothing wrong with ACM continuing to produce the fee-based proprietary ACM print and online edition of the articles to try to compete with the OA drafts. The future will take care of itself, but please let us not keep holding it back by gratuitously insisting on more than necessary today.)

  3. Eric’s avatar

    Naty mentioned this blog entry was excerpted at BoingBoing: – there are many worthwhile comments that follow.

  4. Naty’s avatar


    You have posted the exact same comment on the Boing Boing post (and on your own blog, and perhaps several other places – you do seem to have a knack for repetition). I have addressed your points elsewhere, and do not care to repeat the exercise again here.

  5. Eric’s avatar

    Stevan believes in incremental change; that’s fine. We appear to be rowing in the same direction, more open access, and he feels his approach is more pragmatic. This is worth discussing, and I do think financial arguments such as Vardi’s are worth considering.

    I do want to address one point, Stevan, as it’s been bothering me a bit. You write on BoingBoing:

    — NH: “Why do they harass people who create link indexes to the author-hosted papers (the Ke-Sen Huang incident)”
    — SH: ACM rightly withdrew its take-down request. So what’s the point here?

    The point is that some of the ACM people involved in publications are, and continue to be, on the side of protecting publishers’ rights, not members’ rights. The ACM did finally come down (mostly) on the right side of this issue, in large part because Naty and others quickly got the word out and ACM members wrote Bernie and Holly. As it is, the compromise solution is that Ke-Sen should not directly link to the paper at the author’s web site, only the ACM Digital Library should do that. Some people with the ACM were pushed into doing something they would rather not have done.

    The ACM still claims that deep-linking directly to an author’s paper is a violation of their policy and is somehow illegal (it isn’t). I don’t believe the rank and file ACM members feel the same way; I’ve yet to see anyone outside of ACM publications defend some of the more publisher-biased sections of ACM’s copyright policies. The value-added by the ACM is to provide peer reviewers (which is done by unpaid editors and reviewers, like me), provide copy editing (beyond reviewers’ comments, rarely done by staff; papers are supposed to be camera-ready for conferences, for example), and distribute the publications (the DL *is* expensive; if it disappeared that would be sad, but Ke-Sen Huang shows that a single person can outperform the DL in the aspect of accessibility, for example). Are these services from the ACM enough to justify forcing authors to hand over most of their republication rights?

    As a book author, in the past decade I’ve seen the ACM become much more protectionist and money-oriented. A decade ago there really wasn’t much of a copyright policy, and that was fine by most people – no one in their right mind “steals” copyrighted research papers, and the authors were assumed to have control of their work. Reprinting images was simply a matter of asking the researcher for permission, for example. Under Mark Mandelbaum (now retired) the policy moved strongly to the ACM owning papers and images for redistribution (along with accompanying fees), with authors effectively losing these rights. I plan on posting more about the image ownership issue soon, since image production is a key element for computer graphics researchers.

    I’ll add my own posting to the OSTP blog here, which is mostly a comment on Bernie Rous’ concept of balance between benefit to the public and a publisher’s desires. I think my most important point is the last one, that a public government repository will be incomplete (and also, that not all individuals put their work up on the web); serious researchers will need access to all papers, and so will subscribe.

    Here’s my post, for what it’s worth:

    On “balance”: I do understand the desire for profit by the ACM, to support its other activities. The ACM’s mission statement: “ACM, the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, delivers resources that advance computing as a science and a profession.” The ACM is a non-profit entity ostensibly run for the benefit of its members. It should therefore not need to worry about balance, as researchers who contribute to its publications are not paid and so would incur no loss of income by wider distribution of their results.

    A few quick points:
    1. As has been said many times: the basic principle is that taxpayers paid, so they should have free access to the results.
    2. ACM’s Digital Library is for pay: $10/article or $100/year for an individual. Cost clearly limits distribution of research.
    3. Individuals can put their papers on their websites, it’s true. The ACM disapproves of direct, deep links to these papers (even though this practice is legal). Why is this a problem for the ACM, if their goal is dissemination of members’ research? I believe the answer is that they believe their Digital Library is then less competitive. See
    4. Why should there be this limitation of the papers being on just an author’s/institution’s website? If the paper is not being sold for profit at a site, who cares what the IP address is of this site, as long as it has the author’s permission? The advantage of having government funded work in a central repository is clear.
    5. A few papers are not available outside the ACM’s Digital Library (not due to willingness so much as due to problems for the individuals to host the works) and cannot be hosted elsewhere by the ACM’s current copyright rules.
    6. If an author retires or dies (or simply changes jobs), it’s unclear whether his work can still be hosted by the institution. In this way older papers fall out of public access and become sole property of the ACM.
    7. If you were to poll researchers (government funded or not) as to whether they would want wider and more reliable distribution of their work, I expect you would get a 98+% positive response.
    8. Finally, the ACM should not consider a free central repository of only government-funded research results to be a true competitor to the Digital Library. By its nature, such a repository will be incomplete. Serious researchers will still subscribe to the Digital Library; other users that simply want to access a few articles a year will have a reasonable alternative.

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