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Communications of the ACM


Open Access and ACM

Former CACM Editor-in-Chief Moshe Y. Vardi

The Budapest open access Initiative was issued on Feb. 14, 2002. It argued that "An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. ... The public good they make possible is the worldwide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it." I was immediately captivated by the intellectual elegance of the open access proposition, which aims at removing barriers to scholarly knowledge. In 2005, together with colleagues, I launched a new open access journal, Logical Methods in Computer Science (LMCS),a which to this very day is free to both readers and authors.

But it did not take long for me to realize there is a problem with the business model of "free to both readers and authors"; that is, there are expenses involved in publishing, but "free" means that there is no income! LMCS is run on a shoestring budget, but this model is not scalable. When I became EiC of Communications in 2008, I realized how expensive publishing is. According to the latest ACM Annual Report,b ACM's total publication expenses in fiscal year 2016 were close to US$11M! Furthermore, ACM's publication revenues were close to US$21M. The surplus of US$10M helps fund numerous ACM activities—in education, professional development, public policy, and more. Clearly, ACM's publication business model must be consistent with these realities.

In the standard business model for open access publications, authors of published articles are required to pay article-process charges (APCs), which range from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars. The fact that the monetary transaction of publishing is between the publishers and the authors rather than between publishers and institutions gave rise to the phenomenon of predatory publishing,c an ugly, unintended consequence of the open access movement.

And yet, in spite of all the complications of open access publishing, the emerging sense of the scientific community is that science publishing should be done under an open access model, which means that articles should be available to readers without charge. ACM is under significant pressure from its membership to move from a subscription-based publishing model to an open access publishing model. Such a transition is exceedingly challenging. A significant drop in ACM's publishing revenue, which would threaten ACM's financial viability, is a risk that must be taken seriously. ACM must engage with its membership to develop and carry out such a transition plan, yet ACM has an obligation to manage such a transition in a way that protects the organization's financial viability and vibrancy.

In his Viewpoint published in this issue—"Push Versus Pull: Flipping the Publishing Business Model" (p. 25)—Sheldon Jacobson proposes an alternative business model for open access publishing. In the traditional publishing business model, institutions paid publishers reader-subscription fees to enable their employees and students access to published content. In Jacobson's flipped model, institutions will pay author-subscription fees to enable their employees and students to submit articles for publication. This can be viewed as a variation on the APC-based model, but it takes the authors out of the monetary transaction and recasts it again as a transaction between institutions and publishers. This offers a solution to the predatory-publishing problem, as institutions are less likely to subscribe to publications of low scholarly quality.

The most significant feature of this proposal is that it involves a significant shifting of publishing costs to research-intensive institutions. The ACM Digital Library (DL) has about 2,500 subscribing institutions, but only about 500 of these institutions publish more than 10 papers annually in the DL, so on the average, author-subscription fees would be about five times higher than reader-subscription fees. But such average-case analysis is misleading. As one would expect, a relatively small number of institutions are "heavy publishers." Jacobson proposes dividing institutions into tiers: Tier I consists of the 70 institutions that publish more than 44 articles per year, while Tier II consists of 850 institutions that publish 6–44 articles per year. His proposal is for Tier I institutions to pay US$16K for annual author-subscription, and for Tier II institutions to pay US$10K annually. Other institutions would pay a US$500 submission fee per article.

As Jacobson points out, the proposed new model may be viewed as unfair to research institutions, but the shifting of publishing costs from readers to authors is inherent in the open access model. Regardless of the weaknesses in Jacobson's proposal, he has opened the door to a substantive discussion about ACM's publishing business model. If we are serious about open access, then we must discuss its underlying business model. Let's get serious about open access!

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Moshe Y. Vardi ( is the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering and Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University, Houston, TX, USA. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Communications.

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Richard Gabriel

it takes the authors out of the monetary transaction and recasts it again as a transaction between institutions and publishers.

Well, sort of. There is, I believe, a class of publishing researchers not taken into account by this plan, and the size of this class is growing. The class consists of people who either are retired but still active researchers or are researchers who work for companies that do not support their research. I am in this class, and over time I have been in it according to both definitions.

In the past, computer scientists required expensive computing facilities to do their research. This was a major driving force behind affiliating researchers with institutions that could afford those facilities. Not anymore. For example, since 1990 every research paper I published reported on work done on computers I personally owned.

Almost all researchers want to be employed by institutions that support their research work, but such good marriages are slowly growing more difficult to achieve. Research money is getting scarce and where it isnt scarce, its going into mainstream, safe research areas - not a good thing in my opinion.

In other arenas, people pursue their passions without direct support. For example, most published poets can be described as self-patrons: they work at an unrelated job and support their poet-selves who work at night.

I am such a poet and also such a computer science researcher: the last half dozen or so papers I published as sole author were on work my employers - all of them research labs - did not support. I am now retired and still an active researcher with a couple of publications either published since retirement or in the pipeline.

I know a number of senior researchers in Silicon Valley who have been let go by their (research-centric) employers. Several are ACM Fellows. Some were forced into retirement; others now work for non-research companies. Some are still passionate about research and have a lot to say. Do we really want to lose their contributions?

If ACM adopts a pull model, it should take this emerging (!) class of non-institutional researchers into account.

Moshe Vardi

Dr. Gabriel is raising a valid point. An implicit assumption in the open-access movement is that authors are "rich" and readers are "poor". As Dr. Gabriel points out this assumption is not always valid. Clearly, this is an important issue that Jacobson's pull model does not deal with..In fact, I suspect that many Tier III institutions would balk at the requirement of paying US$500 submission (not publication!) fee per article.

Jonathan Aldrich

I appreciate your leadership in the area of open access, Prof. Vardi, through the LMCS journal. But unfortunately the article focuses on the wrong issues. The main problem is that ACM's publication model is too costly. Of course it is nice for the publications department to subsidize the rest of ACM to the tune of $10 million annually, but that is not a necessary model, and it is not a luxury we can afford if we are to move to open access publishing, which I believe is a moral and scientific imperative. In this new world, the financial goal of not-for-profit publications, as with conferences, should be to break even.

Even aside from these subsidies, ACM's open access fees are several times those of competing high-quality but low-cost open access publishers such as LIPIcs, PeerJ, and USENIX. Those are all in the range of $100 or less per published article. We need to be asking hard questions about why ACM's publications are so expensive. Is the digital library adding unneeded gold-plated features? Are we paying double for everything because of ACM's New York offices? Are there operational efficiencies we could find by reorganizing and working in similar ways to LIPIcs, PeerJ, and USENIX? We cannot compromise on certain things, such as ensuring that knowledge in the library is preserved for future generations, but the central goal of a digital library is sharing knowledge, and the open access model fundamentally does that better than the paywall model. It is worth giving up a few perks and features for, as long as we cover the essentials well.

Like you, I believe that removing barriers to the broad dissemination of scholarly knowledge by moving to an open access model should be one of ACM's most important goals. I agree that we have to find a sustainable financial model for doing this, both for ACM and for authors and institutions. Paying $700 per published article, or even $400 per article in bulk (as PACMPL is now doing), let alone $500 per submission, is not sustainable for authors, especially those in Tier III institutions or those in situations like Dr. Gabriel's. To stay solvent while supporting a realistic open access model, ACM must significantly reduce its costs, while staying true to the essence of publication: the preservation and dissemination of peer-reviewed scientific knowledge.

Moshe Vardi

Jonathan, ACM represents all ACM members, not only the readers. There is a trade-off between being a lowest-cost publisher and being a medium-cost publisher and and being able to subsidize numerous ACM activitiesin education, professional development, public policy, and more. Both options are legitimate points of view. This trade-off is discussed regularly by ACM Council, which consists of elected representatives of the computing community. So far, the decision has been in support of continuing to support ACM activities.

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