Open Access as IP Communism

November 9, 2014 at 8:43 am 14 comments

Great piece by Moshe Vardi on the ills of open access (something I’ve written about).  I agree with him — the open access movement is not sustainable in its current form.  There are advantages to forms of capitalism.

It is regrettable, I believe, that the open access OA movement found itself in the IP communist camp. OA advocates unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. On the face of it, this idea is seductively attractive. Who can object to unrestricted access to research? Furthermore, after seeing the price of scholarly publications escalate in the 1990s, open access seemed like a perfect solution; no more escalating subscription fees. But just like any other intellectual property, online publishing has fixed costs, which must be covered. OA advocates often ignore or minimize this issue, but this reality cannot be ignored forever and the dominant business model that has emerged to support OA publishing is “author pays,” whereby authors pay article-processing fees to cover publishing costs. This model is not new, but in recent years it has gained a strong foothold in science publishing, both with for-profit commercial publishers and non-profit societies like ACM, which now offers such an option for any and all articles in its Digital Library DL.

via Openism, IPism, Fundamentalism, and Pragmatism | August 2014 | Communications of the ACM.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  November 9, 2014 at 9:24 am

    Just to beat “rights” and parallel ideas to death here …

    The Communications Act of 1934 had the purpose of “regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”

    This opened a few cans of worms, it tacitly kept ATT as a monopoly, and created the FCC (which needs to be really good in order to be a public benefit).

    But let me take the position that both the ideal and much of the execution was good. In the vein of the recent discussions here, it in effect established that all the citizens of the US have a -right- to communications services, and at -reasonable prices-.

    Going back earlier to one of my great heroes Andrew Carnegie who both promulgated reading and access to all reading materials as a -right-, and who put considerable funds behind this in funding many free public libraries. (An interesting requirement of these libraries was that — among the usual collections of books etc — there must be two special rooms: one for children, and one where reading and writing would be taught (and the funds he gave included support for this latter process).*

    The question of public good and public right came up in the early days of time sharing in the 60s. Art Luehrmann at Dartmouth divided the circulation of the Dartmouth library (which was open to the town) into the cost of the library and found out (ca 1965) that it cost $75 for a book to be borrowed, used and returned. Because of this, Dartmouth’s library as with other “free” libraries was completely subsidized by wealth distribution from both local taxes and the university’s funds. This led the Dartmouth BASIC folks to decide that they should make their time-sharing system available for free to the entire town of Hanover — and they did. This led to the first important experiences with personal computing and networking as a public utility.

    Again, before needless agonizing over this and that (and using really stupid terms like “Communism”), we should be asking questions about public rights and public benefits right alongside similar questions about how science works best and how it should be conducted.

    *One can find out more and why by taking a look at Carnegie’s bio, and especially one of his bosses when he was a teenage immigrant who opened his home library on Saturdays for his workers.

  • 2. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 9, 2014 at 10:00 am

    This is not a great piece; it’s an overly dramatic post guilty of silly reductionism, and it’s a pity you’ve bought into it wholesale.

    I’ll be the first to agree that there are many advocates of OA who do not think about the costs. This is why I prefer to not use the OA label myself when describing my views, because I care deeply about the costs.

    But that’s the point: I care deeply about the costs. I’ve authored enough and chaired enough to see how some of that money gets spent. I’ve talked enough to people who have access to what information the ACM will provide about the DL and its costs. The numbers simply do not add up.

    The ACM has come to finally admit that the DL is essentially in the business of subsidising the ACM’s “Good Works” (their term), a long list of things that on their face look reasonably uncontroversial but in practice I have many, many questions about. But irrespective of the virtue of these activities, it is now in the open that the large sums charged to access a single paper are not tied to the paper itself but to various other activities whose virtues one can reasonably debate. The ACM can, if it wants, vote to support or not support these activities (when’s the last time, as a member, you were asked?). But it is wrong to therefore suggest that _these are the costs of disseminating publications_. They are not.

    The obvious alternative is arXiv, whose numbers are completely public and at the absurdly cheap end of the scale.

    “arXiv’s operating costs for 2013-2017 are projected to average of $826,000 per year, including indirect expenses.” That’s to distribute “985,836 publications”. That is _less than one dollar a paper_. If the ACM DL were to allow people to make a $1 “micro”payment for a paper, would we be having any discussion here at all? _This is the same price we pay for a song on iTunes_, so nobody could possibly argue.

    Moshe Vardi brought down up 1989, and it’s especially timely today, as Berlin and Germany celebrate the 25th anniversary of that momentous event. So I say to you, Moshe Vardi: Tear Down this Firewall (or, even better, replace it with one that charges $2 per paper).

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  November 10, 2014 at 8:11 am

      I don’t know all of ACM. I’m pretty familiar with my SIGCSE corner, having chaired the Symposium in 1998, ICER in 1997, and served on the board for three years.

      • Our costs are low. Board meetings are at seminar rooms at Universities with Jimmy John sandwiches for meals.
      • The things that SIGCSE does with its money are well-known (published in the newsletter, reviewed at the business meeting), and serve the community, from travel grants to the conferences to special project seed funding.
      • Our conferences are inexpensive, and sometimes go in the red.
      • We get significant funding from the ACM DL. We don’t have the funding to do it ourselves
      • Most people in SIGCSE have no research funding. They get sent to the Symposium as a PD activity (what a concept — some universities pay for their faculty to learn to be better teachers!), and present work they’ve done on their own nickel.

      I get angry when I hear open access advocates talk about taking that funding stream from SIGCSE. SIGCSE needs it, does good things with it, and the SIGCSE authors are submitting their material to the DL which supports their organization. I don’t see why this is wrong.

      • 4. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 10, 2014 at 8:28 am

        The individual SIGs are run by people like us and tend to be highly transparent about their finances. The ACM is run by people who, whether like us or not, are extremely closed about its finances. We’re talking here about the DL, which is an ACM-level issue. Therefore, what matters is what the ACM does, not what individual SIGs do.

        I appreciate your being honest about the need to be subsidized by the DL. In a different setting I might even heartily agree. But let’s remember that we’re not talking about SIGCSE, or about the goodness of Good Works; we’re talking about _the cost of OA publishing_. Vardi says, “… a total shift to the open access model would raise the annual costs of DL publishing and access to that department by at least tenfold!” What he should have said is “… shows a total shift to the open access model AND A SIGNIFICANT SUBSIDY OF SIGS would …”. It’s disingenuous to suggest that _the cost of publishing_ is so high, because it’s not!

        Your posting starts by saying that OA is not sustainable in its present form. Hosts like arXiv and Usenix make clear that OA is sustainable in its current (paid for) form, and I believe this would be true of a better-run ACM as well. If you’d said, “The problem with the OA advocates is that they don’t recognize that implementing what they want will end up destroying the subsidy baked into DL costs, and SIGCSE thrives on that subsidy”, well, we’d be having a very different discussion here.

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  November 10, 2014 at 10:23 am

          I don’t make the distinction between ACM and the SIGs that you do. I volunteer with SIGCSE and with ACM-wide efforts. I have worked alongside John White (ACM CEO) on the computing education in MENA effort in Qatar and on the ACM Ed Council. I read Moshe’s comments about funding ACM as including subsidizing SIGs like SIGCSE. Isn’t this what professional organizations do, find ways to raise revenue to support the community?

          If you look at the post that I reference at the start of this post, I make clear that I’m arguing for SIGCSE and the computing education community. arXiv and Usenix are not small, underfunded, education communities. They’re not relevant to the discussion about how to keep funding for computing education research that currently comes from the DL.

  • 6. Raul Miller  |  November 9, 2014 at 11:38 am

    I think the key phrase in this essay is “in its current form”. The open access movement needs to evolve into something better.

    But, also, so does the concept of “Intellectual Property”.

    Real property law has a concept of nuisance. (The wikipedia article on it can be considered an adequate introduction if you are not familiar with it.) For property law to be used in the context of “IP” we have to understand how Nuisance applies.

    In the past, we have had a variety of mechanisms to relieve us from the curse of oppressive interpretations of copyright law:

    * Fair Use
    * Libraries
    * Citations (and many sources)
    * Reverse Engineering (and reinvention)
    * Parody

    … as well as undesirable approaches such as fraud and plagiarism.

    The internet changes the economics of scale and requires us to evolve new mechanisms to satisfy these old needs. Some of this is going to be uncomfortable, and some of this is going to wither.

    That said…

    “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” – Howard H. Aiken

    … and maybe that highlights the real problem with Open Access?

    • 7. alanone1  |  November 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm

      A terrific comment!

    • 8. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 9, 2014 at 8:04 pm

      I’ve read a lot of things online today, and this response is by far the best thing.

  • 9. Peter Boothe (@pboothe)  |  November 9, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    CS already has an author-pays system. We just call it “conference fees” and then charge readers too. Other fields with a healthy journal ecosystem can argue about how best to fund things, but in CS our conference proceedings are our journals, which means that the organization that runs the conferences and publishes the papers is getting paid twice.

    The argument that we don’t know here the funding could possibly come from is disingenuous. I would happily pay $100 to $500 out of my own pocket per article to make everything I published in my (now abbreviated) academic career be perpetually open access. I (and everyone else who publishes a paper in a conference) already paid more than that to have each one published in the first place! Attending the conference was a condition of publication, and hotel + plane + registration + food quickly added up.

    • 10. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 9, 2014 at 8:07 pm

      Peter, we don’t even need to imagine this. This is what Usenix does. For an almost-indistinguishably-greater conference fee (indeed, not greater than some other conferences that don’t follow this practice), the paper goes on-line right away for free, and they publish quality videos of the talks, too. The organization is super organized—totally pro, run the way I’d expect one to run. Just about everything about their experience is professional and focused on serving the true audience (authors, conference attendees, readers…).

  • 11. Cameron Neylon  |  November 10, 2014 at 9:42 am

    So first full disclosure: I work for PLOS, an Open Access publisher which charges APCs and publishes mainly biomedical sciences where there is sufficient funding for an APC model to be viable (in fact cheaper than subscriptions on a per article basis but that’s another argument).

    That said, we’d probably agree on more than you might think. To make OA feasible in less funded areas we need lower cost infrastructures and to be serious about the costs. We also need to find models that transparently fund those activities currently supported by subscriptions that the community wants to continue and that will include finding an equitable way to redistribute existing funds.

    All that said I want to quibble with this term “IP Communism”. A big part of the problem is that the current system is a centralised monopoly. I’m not a free market booster by inclination but a big part of the problem we find ourselves in relates to market failure – which could be addressed by making authors more aware of the costs they incur in publishing vs the services they are receiving.

    The current system centralises a lot of research funding (flowing mainly through university libraries) and then allocates that to publishing activities, stockholders (for listed publishers) and in part back to the community. The community has no control over that redistribution for the most part, it is managed at the centre. Nor do you really have a choice to take your business elsewhere. if you want to publish in ACM Communications you have to do that through ACM. If you want to read ACM communications you have to get it through ACM. You can’t substitute the articles from a different publisher. Centralised provision, monopoly supplier, five year plans…

    Or put it another way. Does the ACM publishing machinery run as cheaply as it could? Could they distribute more money to SIGCSE if they were more efficient? The problem is that there is no market mechanism in place that forces ACM publishing to be efficient. By contrast if there was a market in place where you would choose, based on price and service between ACM and IEEE for your publication services (with the choice of redistribution to your community) then there would be pressure to be efficient. ACM have you locked into a monopoly at multiple levels – if you don’t publish with them (and therefore drive subscription money to them) your community won’t get funded. As they say of social media, if you’re not paying for it, you *are* the product.

    I get that APCs at their current levels aren’t going to work for unfunded disciplines. Computer science ought to be the place demonstrating how low cost publishing could be done. But the bottom line is that there is plenty of money in the system as a whole. There’s a real opportunity to ensure that CS recaptures the money currently being spent on CS subscriptions to make CS publishing sustainable for the future – and open access as an added bonus. But I don’t see any way to drive that shift if authors are completely protected from price sensitivity. And that means there’s little immediate pressure for ACM to support you to make that shift.

    So in the end I agree with you. A little capitalism is exactly what’s required. APCs are one mechanism to achieve that, but I’d love to see other options that can generalise to more disciplines and situations. We’ll have to get a bit redistributive as well so that things like SIGCSE can continue – but the way to do that is for the communities to get out ahead of the curve and make a transparent bid for the value of that investment.

    • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  November 10, 2014 at 10:17 am

      Thanks, Cameron. I don’t know what an APC is. I appreciate that you see the concerns about funding SIGCSE. I’m all for developing and revising ACM’s publishing model in ways that are more efficient and more effective. I’m against reducing ACM’s publishing revenues which fund efforts like SIGCSE.

      • 13. Cameron Neylon  |  November 10, 2014 at 11:26 am

        Heh, apologies for the jargon. APC = Article Processing Charge, a publication fee if you prefer.

        If I could probe a little further, are you against reducing ACM’s publishing revenues or against reducing the funding available for SIGCSE-like activities? Those are two quite different things. To reiterate the point, its far from clear that ACM is as efficient in its publishing operations as it could be, and therefore that it is redistributing as much money to activities as it could.

        I haven’t looked at ACM’s accounts specifically but societies often run very inefficient publishing operations. I recently heard a society rep say “We’d have to charge £8,000 an article to recover existing revenue, and £5,000 an article to cover costs.” PLOS charges an average of £1,000 an article and makes a healthy surplus – we could do better but we’ve got a much lower cost base than most other publishers.

        Personally I’d much rather see community activities transparently funded. If those costs are hidden in other things (like publishing) then they’re vulnerable to shocks to what should be a completely separate system. It always bothers me that we are reliant on things that communities agree are important but aren’t willing (or to be fair in some cases currently able) to make a case for direct, transparent funding. That’s what irks me about the “communism” epithet. I get that this isn’t going to be easy, but seeking to preserve a system where costs have to be hidden in a different budget line strikes me as fundamentally problematic from any market-financial perspective.

        For me a community like SIGCSE needs to get out in front of the inevitable tightening of subscription funding. The case needs to be made direct to libraries/institutions that those funds currently paying ACM subscriptions need to be protected to ensure community viability. That’s not going to be easy but in the end trying to preserve the status quo will mean leaving things until its too late to change.

        I’d also pose the question internally, what is ACM doing to reduce its cost base to ensure the longevity of the communities it supports? Or is it just lobbying to protect the status quo as long as it can? Are they offering you low cost OA options or insisting on charging you full market rates because “that’s what it costs”? Are they helping you with options that might enable a transition? Help with identifying parts of your community that maybe can afford to pay something? Are there revenue sharing options in any OA offer? What plans do they have if (when) mass journal cancellations start? Are they keeping you apprised of how the subscription base is dropping? Do they have to keep raising subscriptions to maintain revenue?

        Protecting ACM revenue won’t protect activities like SIGCSE in the long term because that revenue will become more and more brittle. ACM will need to change to protect the activities. Not stay the same to protect legacy revenue streams. Because it’s the activities that matter so we need to find a long term solution to funding them.

        • 14. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm

          Well put, Cameron. Teasing apart these issues, and being more clear about them, is critical.

          As an example of brittleness: I helped create a new programming languages venue that is meeting for the first time next year. It was evident to us that we wouldn’t be forking our publications over to the ACM DL (which, amongst its many other issues, is also quite an awful digital “library”). We’re going the arXiv route.

          Other sub-communities of computer science have stayed away from the ACM almost entirely. And worse (from Mark’s POV), still others (like computational geometry) have been actively breaking away from it. All this is very concrete evidence of your (accurate) concern that relying on the DL for revenue is a very brittle proposition.


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