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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Openism, IPism, Fundamentalism, and Pragmatism

Moshe Vardi, Communications of the ACM's Editor-in-Chief

Moshe Y. Vardi, Editor-in-Chief, Communications of the ACM

I consider the 20th century to have ended on Sept. 15, 2008. On that day, U.S. financial-services firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. This bankruptcy filing, the largest in U.S. history, threatened to turn the economic recession of the 2007–2008 financial crisis into a fullscale economic depression. Only the drastic measures taken by the U.S. government averted that catastrophic possibility. But, in the minds of many people, this event shredded the dogma of capitalism as the ultimate and best economic system, just as the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, shredded the dogma of communism as the ultimate and best economic system. Of course, just as communists once did, many of today's capitalists blame these failures not on the system itself, but rather on its being "impurely" or "improperly" applied. Yet, history shows that fundamentalist ideas rarely work over the long term, and we are likely destined to move toward the more pragmatic reality of state-regulated free markets. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, recently asserted, "unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself."

Just as ownership of tangible property was the main battleground over which capitalism and communism fought in the 20th century, ownership of intellectual property is fast becoming the battleground in the 21st century, with today's economy being increasingly driven by large corporations dependent on these intangible assets. At one end, "IP capitalists" view intellectual property as no different than tangible property. IP capitalists chafe at the limited term of copyright and see nothing wrong with the activity of patent-assertion entities (also known as "patent trolls"), who enforce patent rights in an attempt to collect licensing fees, without manufacturing products or supplying services based upon the underlying patents. At the other end, "IP communists" object to copyright protection and software patents, and even argue that software should be free.

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).

But the move from "reader pays" to "author pays" simply shifts the burden of publishing costs from readers to authors (or their institutions and funders) and it is not yet clear whether this is a more sustainable model than its predecessor. A back-of-the-envelope calculation for a top computer-science department in the U.S. shows 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! Such a move would indeed result in unrestricted online access to scholarly research for the broader community, but is it fair for the costs to be covered by only the creators of the intellectual property and not its consumers? A total move by ACM to the author-pays model would result in only about 500 institutions worldwide supporting the ACM DL, instead the current 2,700 subscribing institutions. Surely, such a significant shift of cost allocation would have major unforeseen consequences.

The U.S. Constitution says "Congress shall have Power...To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The goal was pragmatic! Much like the evolution that capitalism is now undergoing since the financial crisis, society needs to take a more pragmatic approach to intellectual property, including the evolution of access models for scholarly information. Revolution and fundamentalism may be appealing when a system no longer works as it once did, but it is important to remain pragmatic or risk collapsing the entire system in an effort to improve it.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2014 ACM, Inc.


Gunnar Wolf

The possibilities, however, are not only "author pays" and "reader pays". Many scholarly magazines exist as media of universities, departments and associations, which either get government or industry money to pursuit research activities, or receive membership fees (or both). At least in my country, this seems to be every time more the case: Most new scholarly magazines are starting their life as fully open access, and many preexisting have shifted to this model as well, without requiring either the authors or the readers to pay. Funding can be secured in many other ways.

Besides, with the shift to electronic publishing, a good portion (of course, not all!) of a magazine's running costs are dramatically reduced.

Fernando Pereira

You might want to consider why ACM does not have much of a publishing or organizational presence in my main research areas, machine learning and natural-language processing. All of the most prestigious venues in those fields, both journals like JMLR and Computational Linguistics, and rigorously refereed conferences like NIPS, ICML, and ACL, have always been or have become open access, at no cost to authors, thanks to the advocacy and fund-raising efforts of many of us in those fields. And as for "intellectual property," preciously little inheres in the venues relative to the contributions of the unpaid authors and reviewers, so your argument about IP absolutism is just so much obfuscation in defense of an obsolete business model.

Moshe Vardi

Fernando, ACM's weakness in the area of artificial intelligence is historical and predates the open-access era.

John Fitzpatrick

I believe that you miss the point of the Open Access movement. The argument is for access to research funded by the government; the research has been paid for by the American public and should be available to them. Restricting the results to only those who pay is viewed as an additional charge.

Moshe Vardi

It is standard practice for the government to charge fees for services. For example, see Also, universities patent government-funded inventions and collect licensing revenue, see

Stefan Savage

University licensing of IP is perhaps not the best point of comparison since, particularly in computer science, it is typically done poorly and at a loss. However, I think Fernando's key point was spot on: "author pays" vs "reader pays" is a false dichotomy that does not capture the set of opportunities and challenges in funding this activity.

However, even before we get to the issue of who pays, I think its worth talking about the cost structure. As Fernando points out the labor of writing, reviewing, editing, etc is typically volunteer effort implicitly carried by research institutions. The remaining costs are production (sometimes) and distribution and there are a range of ways to do this and some have far lower cost structure than others. arXiv represents the no-frills version (just distribution) and handles a collection of 1M articles on a budget just north of $800k/year. Clearly ACM, IEEE (to say nothing of Springer) likely have higher cost structures in exchange for offering other value (e.g., ACM needs to pay Sheridan to ensure consistent formatting, page numbers, etc...). Now I enjoy the high production value of CACM (really, it's quite nice these days), but I could certainly imagine a world in which conferences and workshop publication distribution was entirely online and provided "at cost" and production consisted of "use this style file". This question -- "how much production quality do I want to pay for" -- tends to not come up in these discussions.

However, having decided on a particular cost there are a number of ways one might meet that cost outside of either direct author or reader pays models, including fund raising, membership fees, conference fees, etc (note that USENIX does not charge for publication access and thus needs to fold distribution and production costs into the remainder of its cost structure). Lower costs structures (e.g., the arXiv model) permit a wider array of options to handle those costs. I think the real challenge is that existing organizations cannot change business models quickly. The for-profit groups obviously have little interest in working at cost. The non-for-profit segment might be more aligned with an "at cost" cost structure, but has other non-revenue-bearing activities (e.g., lobbying, education, organization, etc) whose costs exceeds what existing non-access revenues will support (i.e. membership... which is shrinking everywhere). Change is painful and no organization should be expected to sign on to a solution that requires their employees to lose their jobs. Still, I think some of these changes in publication model are inevitable and ACM, IEEE and others are going to need to work hard on how to adapt.

Eric Pederson

It is surprising that Pragmatism is in the title of this article yet the only choices are between reader pays and author pays? It seems like the only thing at risk of collapsing are pay walls. It's not like if the ACM goes away all of a sudden universities will stop researching. There will always be a way to get the research out. Indeed there are many ways already.

David Karger

As is argued above, the focus on "author pays" versus "reader pays" distracts from the primary question of why anyone has to pay so much. Our conference publications are not professionally edited; the sum total of the production work is the creation of tables of contents and the production of physical copies. If we migrated to purely electronic proceedings, then the "author payment" would become an unnoticeable part of the conference registration fee.

Journal publication is more complicated because there may be substantial investment of effort by professional editors. But here I advocate for the author-pays model, because it actually represents a "government pays" model---it is our government research grants that we use to cover such charges. And I believe it is in the public interest to make these publications broadly available. Charging readers as a way to recoup publication costs has the strong negative effect of deterring readership and thus decreasing the spread of innovation. I might tolerate charging fees to commercial organizations, but nonprofit researchers should be encouraged to broadly consume ideas.

Kevin Karplus

As an unfunded researcher, I have problems with the author-pays model. I don't believe that publication should be restricted to those who have federal grants or work for wealthy institutions. Small research groups deserve to have a shot at publication also, or we limit research even more to just what the government wants us to know about.

But the for-profit gouging of university libraries for their subscriptions is also clearly not sustainableeven fairly wealthy institutions like the University of California have been having to cancel many journal subscriptions, because the prices are way too high.

I want my work to be read, and I want to read the work of others. I assume others have similar desires. Achieving this at scale means that we need to keep the costs of disseminating research results down, and find ways to pay those costs without assuming that everyone in some class (authors, readers, libraries, ) should pay all the costs.

One model for open access that I like is the delayed-open-access model. For example, the journal Bioinformatics does not charge authors for publication, but releases the papers as open-access one year after publication. This gives the subscribers enough value (1 year earlier access) to justify the relatively modest subscription costs, but does not keep things hidden behind a paywall forever. Authors with funds can pay for immediate open-access, providing a hybrid between author-pays and subscriber-pays models.

A one-year delay in something becoming open-access is not a big deal for work of lasting value, and those researchers who care about the absolutely latest, most fashionable results can pay extra for following fashion, just as people do with clothing fashions.

Sandy Flath

When my university in Germany published proudly that a german researcher (professor) had received an award during a conference in the US for her studies I called her office to find out why I can not find at least a presence exemplary of it in the universities library. I was told that due to rights protection the work can only be bought. I wonder which answer the researcher has to her students (in terms of availability) of whom some might have contributed to these studies she was been awarded for. On one hand it is important to protect IP on the other the value of sharing insights and know How to further develope your work and its application is essential. Sandy Flath, (2nd degree student - now finally computer science! ;-)) Technical University Darmstadt Germany

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