The ACM ‘paywall,’ computing education research, and open access

August 8, 2013 at 1:59 am 21 comments

I reference research papers regularly in this blog, often in the ACM Digital Library. I’ve been receiving more complaints lately when I reference papers “behind a paywall.” After I linked to the article that Leo Porter, Beth Simon, Charlie McDowell, and I wrote about successful practices in CS1, someone tweeted that we were “whores” by allowing our paper to be sold by ACM. As Greg Wilson said to me, the support for open access in our community is “vehement.” Now, there is a petition demanding that the ACM open up the Digital Library, free of charge.

I’m a computing education researcher in the ACM SIGCSE community. “Open access” is much more complicated in my community. The arguments for opening access are more subtle in under-funded and even non-funded education community.  The British Academy has just released a set of papers (July 2013) on the challenges of fitting social science and humanities research into open access models.  They argue that we need a ‘mixed economy’ because there are different expectations and funding models for research in different disciplines.  Open access is different for computing education research than other areas of computer science because it is a social science.

Why Education is more complicated for Open Access

The case for open access is made in the first sentence of the petition:

Computer science research is largely funded by the public, for the public good.

There are two cases to consider: the research that is funded by the public, and the research that is not. Let’s start with the research that is not funded publicly, because that’s a big part of what makes education unusual.

Many (maybe most) of the papers published at the SIGCSE Symposium and the ICER Conference are not supported by public funds. Go through the SIGCSE papers and note which reference public funding and which don’t — it’s a pretty high percentage that don’t. ICER was created explicitly because there were groups of faculty, without public funding, who were collaborating and doing experiments in their classes and then pooling the data. They needed someplace to publish. Those faculty were paid to teach, and they had heavy teaching loads. They did the research on their own time, because they valued doing it. I don’t see how the public can lay claim to their work.

Some of the work at SIGCSE is publicly funded, but maybe at lower levels compared to funding from Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, or Department of Energy. My research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). How much we are funded is limited by NSF rules and by institute rules. For example, graduate student research assistants can only be paid for up to 20 hours of work (and only 15 before passing qualifying examinations, in my school). Few PhD students complete his or her research work in only 20 hours a week. Let’s say it’s 60 hours per week. Are we really arguing that all of that student’s work is “funded by the public” when that is true for only 1/3 of the hours? Should the public be able to lay claim to all of the student’s work because of those 20 hours per week? If anyone does work outside of what they’re paid for, isn’t that their work?

The issues are actually much the same for faculty, though we get paid much better. Faculty at my school are funded for 9 months by the state of Georgia, and I do federal NSF-funded work for an additional two months per year.  For the last two years of “Georgia Computes!” I could only charge two weeks (specifically, 80 hours) of my time to that project per year. ECEP is a five year project on which I can only charge 160 hours per year. I spend 150 hours per year just on the management meetings for ECEP. I’ve already spent more than 40 hours on the road, doing the work of ECEP in Maryland, South Carolina, and at the CSTA Conference. All of that is before the work of evaluating data and writing papers. I am pretty sure that the state of Georgia does not see itself funding my work with these other states. Simply put: The federal government does not fund everything I do. If they don’t fund everything I do, I don’t believe that they can lay claim to it.

When I shared this story with my colleague, Beki Grinter, she pointed out that the case is similarly murky for corporate-funded work. Microsoft paid for the robotics CS1 work here at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr. Can the public lay claim to that work, too? That work is in the ACM Digital Library. By what right is that work made freely available?

All authors want their work to be distributed widely, to have impact. I usually provide copies of my papers when asked, and I use the ACM DL Authorizer service to provide free access to my papers. It’s up to other authors to decide if they are willing to do the same. Yes, opening up the DL would allow the papers to be distributed even more widely. But is that sustainable? What about the funds that are lost? I am willing to forego that breadth of access in favor of the good of closed access. That’s the deal that all the ACM authors made when they assign ACM copyright. The open access movement aims to change the agreement, after the fact.

Education research and the developed world

The petition I mentioned earlier focuses on the public funding for the public good. Another argument for open access that I’ve heard (and thanks to my college, Ellen Zegura, for helping me understand this) is to serve people the developing world — people who don’t have access to the resources of the developed world, and for whom ACM Digital Library access is prohibitively expensive.

Education research is different than most CS research because it’s a social science.  Are the papers published in the SIGCSE Symposium and the ICER conference directly useful to the developing world?

“Transferring education from the United States to Africa wouldn’t work,” argued Bakary Diallo, rector of African Virtual University. “Because we have our own realities,” he added, “our own context and culture.”

  • Writing humanities and social science research is a dialogue with an audience (as described in this piece in The Guardian).  It’s not merely a process of reporting findings.  If you are writing for a developed world audience, you are explicitly not speaking to a developing world audience.  If you want to write for a developing world audience, you should learn to write for that audience.

I have not worked in the developing world, so I can’t speak to the issues of bridging the gap between the developing and developed worlds.  But most education researchers have faced these issues of differing cultures and audiences.  I have talked about Media Computation in several countries.  When the places I visited were like my culture and audience, it worked pretty well — MediaComp is being adopted successfully in Australia, for example.  When the places I visited were not like my culture, I realized that I was solving completely the wrong problems for them and what I was saying was useless.  When I spoke to teachers in China and Mexico and Qatar, I realized that I needed to listen before I could say anything worthwhile to them.

The problem of transferring education research isn’t just a problem of the gap between the developed and developing world.  In ECEP, we are realizing that even curricula, outreach programs, and policy approaches don’t transfer between states — even neighboring states!  I work in Georgia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and California now.  The values and concerns are very different even between Georgia and South Carolina, and we’re really struggling to figure out what our summer camp model means in Massachusetts and California.

There’s a perspective that says that this view is “patronizing,” and continuing an “us/them” perspective. I believe in tailoring for different audiences, but that doesn’t imply superiority of one audience over another audience.  The key idea in my work is that one size does not fit all for computing education. In our CS classes, we often make the mistake of assuming that what works for some percentage of our class is good enough for everyone, and if some don’t succeed with that approach, it’s their fault. There is evidence to believe that different students succeed best at different approaches, e.g., that there are aptitude-treatment interactions,. Cognitive science has told us for decades that students’ prior background influences how and what they learn. Our Media Computation approach improved the success rates of liberal arts students at Georgia Tech, from a less than 50% success rate to an 85% success rate.   I don’t believe that my liberal arts students are superior to my CS students, or vice-versa, but I do believe that each group has different goals and succeeds best with different approaches.  I’m concerned that pushing for open access is making the same mistake that we keep making in CS — if it works for us, it’s good enough for them, so just give it to them and let them figure it out.  (Kind of like MOOCs.)

Any responsibility that the developed world has to share research with the developing world is not met by simply sending them our papers.  If we want to share our research findings, we have to learn their educational problems and their educational goals and values.  We would have to learn to communicate about their issues.

Where does the money go

I have to admit a bias here: I consider myself part of the ACM community. I value being part of that community, being an editor and reviewer and author, and that funds from those efforts goes to sustain the community. Language matters — ‘paywall’ sounds permanent, as a “wall” is. It’s really more like a ‘tollgate,’ where the tolls support the community.

The ACM does good with the funding it receives, from my perspective in education. The funds generated by the DL go back to support the authors’ research communities

  • A portion of all fees generated from SIGCSE publications goes back to the SIGCSE Board. I have served on that Board for the last three years. The funds are used for travel grants to new faculty to get them to the SIGCSE Symposium, for special projects funding to produce new curricular materials for the community, and to provide for a rainy-day fund in case conferences don’t break-even. If the DL funding wasn’t there, the conferences would probably have to raise their rates, to reduce the risk of ending up with a deficit.
  • ACM itself funds efforts like the ACM Education Board and Education Council. These organizations fund the development of curriculum standards. By “fund,” I mean pay for travel, food, and lodging. The participants volunteer hundreds of hours of their own time for a really important purpose. These curricular standards are particularly important in the developing world, to serve as a guide for what a CS degree is supposed to be.

Of course, part of the fee goes to maintaining the DL, and that’s not insignificant. I hope the DL will continue. That costs money. A fee-based system is sustainable.

The ACM is not a nameless corporate entity. It’s a volunteer-driven, membership community. The DL is not a bank that is covetously hoarding intellectual wealth. It’s a source of knowledge for computing professionals, and a source of funding for the good work of ACM.  If we want to make our research findings useful elsewhere, we should actively do that by understanding those cultures and audiences. We cannot expect that creating open access will necessarily fix educational problems elsewhere, but demanding open access may cost our community a lot.

(Thanks to Ian Bogost, Briana Morrison, and Leo Porter for advice on an earlier draft of this post.)

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Neil Brown  |  August 8, 2013 at 3:38 am

    Aside from anything else: the ACM allows authors to put freely available copies of their own papers on to their own websites. (Clauses (iii) through (v) here.) Every paper I’ve published through ACM is freely available on my website. If every author publishing in the ACM pledged to do this (rather than boycott), that would gradually eliminate the problem for those who want paper access.

    (Incidentally, this clause creates a slightly odd “market”, where new papers tend to be available for free somewhere, but older papers tend to be locked up in the digital library paywall.)

  • 2. andrea forte  |  August 8, 2013 at 5:39 am

    The fact that ACM provides *infrastructural support* for open access on a per-paper basis through authorizer makes them one of the good guys IMO. ACM is a non-profit society of scholars, it’s not Elsevier.

  • 3. alanone1  |  August 8, 2013 at 8:34 am

    I think a big issue is the size of the fees. When Jack Valenti was trying to suppress video taping on behalf of the motion picture industry, we used to tell him that the right price point would get people to prefer to buy movies on tape from the studios, and would boost the income for the studios. They fought this for years and finally came down to a reasonable price — and the movie studio’s income actually doubled.

    Springer and Elsevier etc and any other journal should be put out of business for charging outrageous fees ($20-$30) for a single article. Especially since a lot of the journals effectively charge authors for publication in the first place yikes.

    iTunes might be a better model (and it does follow the anti-Valenti idea of finding a reasonable price point). How about $.99 or $.50 for getting an article?

    I think the ACM is a force for good in computing, and it should be supported by more than the ca. 70,000 members it currently has. (That number is outrageously low!)

    And, as mentioned, it has a reasonable author policy (rather like the classic Scientific American) that gives authors considerable control over their own works.

    However, I do think they should look to much lower fees for non-members.



    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  August 8, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      I agree that the size of the fees matters, and an iTunes model would be worth trying.

  • 5. Cecily Heiner  |  August 8, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Mark and Alan,
    I think you both make interesting points, but I think perhaps the issues are even more subtle than your posts indicate.

    For example, at some schools it is deemed acceptable to charge ACM membership to the department or college. At my school, we are expected to pay our ACM fees out of pocket. If your membership fees are being paid for by the department with overhead fees charged by a grant, then arguably they are being paid for with tax-payer dollars, and shouldn’t the taxpayer be entitled to the benefits that come with those fees, including article access?

    Also, the argument about cultural relevance using Africa as an example is a bit of a stretch for arguing that others should not have access to your work. There are probably many K12 computing teachers in Georgia who could benefit from access to the digital library and find culturally relevant materials, but who simply cannot afford it from both a time and money perspective. I know when I took a break from academia to teach K12, lack of access to resources was frustrating to me, and I still had an active card for the incredible local university library. The argument about cultural relevance is an interesting one-one that could potentially work in your favor, but also potentially work against you. If your work is really only relevant in Georgia(and not South Carolina and the other states), then shouldn’t it be Georgia funding your work,not the federal government?

    You also argue that a lot of research is volunteer work, but if you love something enough to volunteer that much to it, why not volunteer to share the fruits of those labors too? I grew up in a church with a lay leadership, and it is not uncommon for leaders to pay for their own conference registration fees, camp fees, training fees, etc. even though they are putting in 10+ hours a week. All of the official church curriculum materials used in our three hour meetings on Sunday as well as in our missionary training sequence are available for free download in multiple formats to anybody who wants them(and it is a pretty impressive set of materials). Additionally, dozens of members make additional materials available via the Internet.

    Alan, I completely agree that current journal article funding mechanisms are way out of line, and we need an improved model for selling and trading this kind of information. Utah is in a two year period of austerity due to a drop in enrollment related to a local cultural change(we all expect enrollment to rebound/grow in 2 years). One of the first things we cut was several library journal subscriptions. I suspect that as other states face similar financial challenges that libraries and journal article subscriptions will continue to be a popular target. However it will take pressures from several states(and not just Utah) to motivate the journals to change their pricing models.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  August 8, 2013 at 10:51 am

      Cecily, I agree that the issues are complex and subtle. This may be the hardest post I’ve ever written — WordPress says I did 20 revisions of it.

      If the taxpayers paid for someone’s ACM membership, maybe they are due access. Maybe the payment was contribution to professional development. If the taxpayers pay for a teacher to take a workshop, does the teacher have to donate the materials received to the library? Even if the taxpayers are due access, does that mean that the whole DL should be opened up to everyone?

      My explanation about ECEP was incomplete and unclear. ECEP is about taking models from Georgia and Massachusetts, providing them (perhaps with transformation) to other states, and create new models. I’ve been surprised at how much transformation and new creation we’re doing so-far. The federal government paid for the original work in GaComputes, as a testbed. Now we’re funded to take it elsewhere, and figure out how to support statewide change elsewhere. No, we don’t know what we’re doing — if we did, it wouldn’t be research :-). But it is an example of what I’m saying for the developing world. All our papers about Georgia are in the DL. That doesn’t mean that change just happens in other states.

      Certainly, volunteers can volunteer the fruits of their labors. They shouldn’t be coerced. It shouldn’t be a requirement.

  • 7. Jeff Rick  |  August 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

    The ACM Digital Library is a joy to use and I wholeheartedly appreciate what the ACM does. I am annoyed that you don’t get access to the library with a yearly ACM membership, but that’s a separate issue. In general, I agree with the post.

    There is an inherent trade off. Charging for access allows the publishers to exist. Restricting access does sometimes prevent access for people who probably should have it (e.g., teachers or faculty in poorer countries). I personally love that the ACM offers the Authorizer service and use it. That’s a good compromise. Other venues do something similar, allowing you to post work to your website after two years. I wanted to bring up my experience with ijCSCL (I’m on the editorial board), which is published by Springer. Their policy is to put up pre-prints on the website but restrict access to the published papers. In general, the same information is available in pre-print; the only differences will be page numbers and perhaps a few grammar corrections. Both the journal and the publisher are happy with this model. About equal number of downloads come through the pre-prints and through the publisher. Most of the pre-prints are being downloaded in countries where universities are not rich enough to pay publisher’s fees. So, there is a large international audience (as well as non-academics) who would benefit from a more open model of publication.

  • 8. Colleen Lewis  |  August 8, 2013 at 11:31 am

    This is tangential to the point of your post Mark, but I think it is important to point out how offensive the use of “whores” was in the tweet you mentioned:

    “someone tweeted that we were ‘whores’ by allowing our paper to be sold by ACM.”

    In the analogy to “whores,” the tweet implies that ACM papers and women’s sexuality should be free. This, likely unintentional, message seems pretty easy to avoid by not using the language of “whores” as an insult in a tweet (or ever).

    A long post already, so I understand that you didn’t make this a point in your post Mark.

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  August 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      Really interesting point, Colleen! I’d not even considered that perspective.

    • 10. Monica McGill  |  August 14, 2013 at 12:49 am

      Very glad someone noted that the use of this term, particularly as an attack, is highly offensive to women, possibly more so than to men (though I doubt if a replacement word would have made the comment any less tolerable).

      On the bright side (!), this individual only took aim at you and your co-authors because of excellent work he/she feels you must do. You should be flattered that he/she wishes your work to be even more widely distributed than it is now.

  • 11. Steve Cunningham  |  August 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Mark, some time ago I understood that all SIGCSE materials in the DL were available without fee to SIGCSE members. If this is so, then the very modest SIGCSE member dues would be worth paying — though anyone really in the CS education community should already be a member.

    • 12. Steve Cunningham  |  August 9, 2013 at 10:34 am

      I just checked the SIGCSE member benefits, and they say:

      Free access to SIGCSE publication archives through the ACM Portal.

      And while computing professionals should join ACM and then add SIGCSE if they’re interested in computing education, it is possible to join SIGCSE without joining ACM.

  • 13. dennisfraileyDennis Frailey  |  August 8, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    I too often resent the barrier represented by a “pay-wall” and would certainly prefer to see things free, or at least available at a lower price. But there are some realities to face.
    1) The research reported in a publication may have been sponsored by someone, but there is significant additional cost involved in actually producing a publication, even an electronic one. There are editorial costs and IT costs, for example. I’ve been working on the “inside” at the IEEE Computer Society and I see how many intangible costs there are to produce high quality publications, and the proliferation of devices that people want to use for access only increases these costs. Who should pay these costs? Those who argue that publications should be “free” always seem to figure that someone else should pay the costs, but the “someone else” options are sometimes scarce. For example, few are willing to place advertisements in technical publications, so that source of funding is usually unavailable. Technical societies like ACM and the IEEE Computer Society are not supported by any government (taxpayer) sources. What few donations these organizations receive are usually for specific purposes, especially if they are sizable. So the bulk of their revenue comes from memberships and the sale of products and services. Society members already perceive their dues as high, and unless the publications can generate revenue in some other way, many of them simply won’t get published.

    2) Many who publish, myself included, are either not employed (I’m retired) or do the work they publish independently of their employer (I did this for over 40 years). Technical publications are generally not trying to sell you something. Lack of pay for our efforts is a serious consideration when deciding whether or not to put in the effort to produce something that is of high quality. If there is no way to be compensated for one’s work, the result in many cases will be failure to perform the work.

    An interesting comparison is Television. In some countries there is government sponsorship of the costs of producing Television programs but even if there is such sponsorship, there is usually a lot more cost than there is government money. So what do we get? Either sponsored programs, with commercials, or programs you must pay for, via subscriptions or “pay per view” or whatever.

    Regards, DJF

  • 14. daveho  |  August 8, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    I agree that there are some complex issues at work here, but I find it very odd that the CS education community is trying to expand access to computing education as widely as possible, and at the same time squirreling away important articles behind a paywall that makes them inaccessible to most K12 teachers, faculty at small colleges, teachers in developing countries, etc.

    In principle limiting access to intellectual work can serve as a revenue stream for worthy organizations such as ACM. In practice I think it denies access to large populations who could benefit from access.

    • 15. Mark Guzdial  |  August 9, 2013 at 7:11 am

      Dave, I’m speaking for me as me, not for the CS Education Community. I’m not on the SIGCSE or ACM Education Boards anymore. I’m not sure that “squirreling away” is the right phrase, if we’re selling the articles. Is a bakery “squirreling away” cakes and cookies because they charge for them? Most K12 CS teachers would not find the papers in SIGCSE all that useful — most SIGCSE papers presume someone teaching undergrad CS who has a CS degree. However, the SIGCSE community can play an important role in creating resources and providing PD for K12 CS teachers. So opening up the DL wouldn’t necessarily help the K12 teachers, but would hurt (in terms of reducing funding) to the community that could help the teachers.

      • 16. daveho  |  August 9, 2013 at 1:11 pm

        Mark, I understand that you are speaking for yourself – apologies for implying that you were speaking for the entire CS education community.

        I think the issue boils down to how much of the potential audience for CS education research published in the ACM DL is denied access. I teach at a small college, and until very recently I had to pay for my ACM membership out of my own pocket. The extra $99 for the DL was (and is) a large enough cost to make me seriously question whether it was worthwhile. I think there are lots of other people that the work in the ACM DL might possibly reach more effectively if it were free.

        It has always puzzled me that academia, and by extension organizations such as ACM, do not work more like the open source community, where it is a shared value that the products of intellectual work are the most valuable when they are least encumbered. I gladly donate money to open source projects whose work I appreciate: I find it more satisfying to support work that I know will be freely available to all. Maybe donations would be a possible funding model for the ACM DL?

        • 17. Mark Guzdial  |  August 10, 2013 at 12:51 pm

          Because language matters in how we perceive of these issues, it’s worth pointing out that no one is “denied access” to research published in the ACM DL. If a movie theater charges you $10 for a ticket, are they denying you access to a movie?

          My guess is that crowd-sourcing approaches to funding research would not reach the levels needed to support large-scale education efforts. Most of the ECEP budget pays for travel costs for people attending professional development or other meetings. That’s the same for the ACM Education Board and Council.

  • 18. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  August 9, 2013 at 11:55 am

    As an unfunded researcher in bioinformatics (a field that strongly supports open access and open source—more so than any other field), I have mixed feelings about open access publication. I’ve posted about 13 blog posts on the subject:

    I can’t afford an author-pays model for publication, but the library subscription prices from the monopoly publishers are killing the University library. The per-article charges are so high that I can’t see anyone knowingly paying them.

    One hybrid model (used by the journal Bioinformatics, for example), is to have subscriber-only access for a year, followed by open access, though authors can pay for immediate open access. This model seems to be working for them, without outrageously high subscription prices.

    The model of separate repositories (used by NIH and now University of California) seems problematic—different versions of the paper get archived and the problem of submitting a paper gets multiplied by the number of repositories that need a copy. NIH at least has a very awkward submission system that requires proofreading a paper that NIH has reformatted, which seems way beyond what an archive should be doing. (Note: the Bioinformatics journal will automatically submit the real paper to NIH when it becomes open access, if you check the right boxes when submitting the paper.)

  • 19. Mark Guzdial  |  August 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks to Alex Rudnick for a thoughtful response:

  • 20. alexrudnick  |  August 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks, Mark! :D

  • 21. Mark Guzdial  |  August 26, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Greg Wilson has another thoughtful response here: (and referencing a recent post on doing outreach).


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