Notes on ACM, Open Access, and Copyright

My last post listed the comments on open access and copyright of the candidates in the 2012 ACM Council Election. Since I first posted, several more responses came in, so you might be interested to check it out. Vicki Hanson's note, in particular, provided a concise summary of the rationale for ACM's current policies.

So what did the candidates think? There are at least two important issues:

  1. Not preventing access to papers: This is a question of the copyright or licensing policy. Does it inhibit researchers from distributing their own work?
  2. Actively facilitating greater access to papers: This implies that ACM itself would somehow openly distribute papers.

Not preventing access to papers

The candidates' statements differed fairly significantly on this point — so you have a meaningful choice in your vote!

Many candidates noted that already the ACM allows authors many rights. However, it still prevents uses such as posting on arXiv and commercial distribution.

The co-chairs of the ACM Publications Board explained ACM's copyright policy in the October 2011 CACM. Regarding copyright transfer, they write:

One might wonder, given the generous rights retained by authors, why ACM requires authors to transfer copyright to ACM at all. In fact, the transfer of copyright to ACM provides substantial benefit to the computing research community and to authors. By owning exclusive publication rights to articles, ACM is able to develop salable publication products that sustain its top-quality publishing programs and services; ensure access to organized collections by current and future generations of readers; and invest continuously in new titles and in services like referrer-linking, profiling, and metrics, which serve the community. Furthermore, it allows ACM to efficiently clear rights for the creation, dissemination, and translation of collections of articles that benefit the computing community that would be impossible if individual authors or their heirs had to be contacted for permission. Ownership of copyright allows ACM to pursue cases of plagiarism. The number of these handled has been steadily growing; some 20 cases were handled by ACM in the last year. Having ACM investigate and take action removes this burden from our authors, and ACM is more likely to obtain a satisfactory outcome (for example, having the offending material removed from a repository) than an individual.

My summary of this is that ACM gets the following from holding the copyright:

  • More revenue. Question: how much more?
  • Easier dissemination without contacting individuals. Question: wouldn't this be fixed with a non-exclusive perpetual license to distribute the work?
  • Ability to pursue plagiarism. Point of comparison: 20 papers represents a fraction 0.000065 of the 307,000 articles in the Digital Library, i.e., one in every 15,350.

Actively facilitating greater access to papers

Exactly zero of the candidates fully endorsed open access in the sense of ACM providing all publications freely online, though Radia Perlman came closest.

Open access does not necessarily mean that all the Digital Library's services would be free — only that papers would be distributed freely somehow (for example, many ACM conferences already distribute their proceedings freely online). Still, full open access certainly could impact revenue, perhaps significantly. Here are some interesting numbers. In 2011, the ACM DL grew by over 31,000 full-text articles, or 11%, to a total of 307,000 (up from 21,000 new articles in 2010). In 2011, from publications, ACM earned $18,275,000 in revenue (28% of its total) and incurred $11,750,000 in expenses. Thus, for each new publication last year, ACM took in $590 and spent $379 leaving about $211 to support numerous other activities beneficial to the community.

I assume those numbers include not only digital but also print distribution of some papers and articles. It would be interesting to have ACM's digital-only costs as a comparison to the arXiv. In 2010 arXiv wrote,

The annual budget for arXiv is $400,000. With over 60,000 new submissions per year one may think of this as an effective cost of <$7 per submission. Alternatively, with over 30,000,000 full-text downloads per year this is an effective cost of <1.4 cents per download.

The one-time cost of $7 per submission is as much as three orders of magnitude lower than some other estimates of the cost of providing open access per paper. In 2009 Michel Beaudouin-Lafon wrote in CACM:

But how much are authors ready to pay to publish an article? A few hundred dollars? The most prominent Open Access publisher, the Public Library of Science (PLOS), is a nonprofit organization that has received several million dollars in donations. Yet it charges between $1,350 and $2,900 per paper, depending on the journal. In fact, many in the profession estimate that to be sustainable, the author-pay model will need to charge up to $5,000–$8,000 per publication.

Some of these numbers might include additional services such as editing, but the arXiv numbers and similar numbers from JMLR imply that the cost of archiving and distribution is far lower than the thousand-dollar estimates. Indeed, PLOS ONE publisher Peter Binfield left to found Peerj which will apparently charge authors a $99 lifetime membership fee to publish open access papers starting fall 2012.

Remember the ACM election runs just a few more days, till May 22.