Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The ACM Does NOT Support Open Access


I was a few hours ago cc'ed on some messages to some STOC authors -- well, really to Salil Vadhan -- with the opening statement:

"Dear Authors,

It has recently come to our attention that the "addendum" attached to your signed ACM copyright form is unacceptable (not recognized) with the ACM Copyright Office. Please let us know immediately if you can provide us with a new unaltered signed ACM copyright form..."

What happened? Well, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (as of February 2008) has an open access policy; we're supposed to put our publications in a Harvard database that serves as an open-access repository for faculty work, and grant Harvard the right to distribute them. Our Office for Scholarly Communications -- the director of which is computer science professor Stuart Shieber -- has a standard boilerplate to add to the standard copyright forms saying, essentially, we work for Harvard and Harvard reserves the right to distribute copies of our scholarly work in this open-access repository.

Apparently, the ACM just now noted that Salil added these on (I should point out, the proceedings are going to press pretty much now), and refused them. Salil called to explain and work something out, and was told explicitly that the ACM does not support open access policies. So officially Salil is now directing Harvard to waive the policy for these articles (the policy provides a waiver mechanism) to keep the ACM happy and his papers in the proceedings. I'm sure it will work out, but because Salil is conscientiously trying to follow everyone's official rules, he's having an unnecessary headache to deal with. (If there were time, I imagine he'd make more of an effort to find someone in the ACM to approve the Harvard addendum, but again, they're letting him know just as the proceedings have to get produced.)

It is often hard to tell in these situations whether this is REALLY ACM policy or if the person in the office at the time just assumes the appropriate response is to say only the original ACM form is acceptable. But this not acceptable behavior of our professional society. I support the ACM and the many good people that work there, but I can't support such limitations on distribution of scholarly work.

If you feel similarly, please pass your opinion, politely, along to any ACM higher-up you know. But if we don't get their attention, things aren't going to change. There is contact information for people on the ACM council or executive committee, as found here. Perhaps if you feel strongly enough mailing is a good start.

President: Wendy Hall,
Vice President: Alain Chesnais,
Secretary-Treasurer: Barbara G. Ryder,
SIG Governing Board Chair: Alexander L Wolf,
Past President: Stuart I Feldman,


Salil later received correspondence from the ACM, which included the following statement:

ACM Copyright Policy allows authors to retain several rights, many of which are contained in the Addendum, including distribution from authors’ personal and institutional web sites and use in lectures, presentations, etc., however, the right to grant permission for reuse is not among them and several other stipulations run counter to ACM’s established policies and interests.

Apparently discussions between the ACM and Harvard's office to come to an agreement are ongoing. Regarding the issue on the right to grant permission for reuse, there's some explanation on Harvard's side on the policy FAQ. Salil's response also reinforces that this was not what he was told when he called to discuss the issue:

Thank you for the clarification. It would have helped to hear some of these explanations during our conversation. Individual Harvard authors such as myself have no way of knowing what discussions are underway between ACM and the Office of Scholarly Communication, and do not appreciate being told to use the waiver option with no explanation beyond being told that our professional society does not support open access.


Anonymous said...

IMHO, it is simply unacceptable if ACM really does not support open-access. I want to hear a good explanation from ACM for this policy if this is true.

Stevan Harnad said...

It is incorrect to say that the ACM does not support Open Access. The ACM is Green on both preprint and postprint self-archiving. That means it endorses immediate, unembargoed deposit in the author's institutional repository. What the ACM does not support is the copyright addendum, which asks for more than this. But since the ACM is already completely Green, there is no need for the copyright addendum. ACM authors can already make all of their ACM articles OA without it.


Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Please see the updated post with further information on ACM and Harvard policies.

Panos Ipeirotis said...

Stevan, it is completely true to say that ACM does not support Open Access.

ACM does not pay any of the authors for the articles, but the ACM digital library is pay-only. Even ACM members do not have access to the library, unless they pay an additional yearly fee. It is pretty much as closed access as it gets.

Allowing pre-pring and post-print self-archiving is just a defacto acceptance of reality. Can you imagine a society that gets the subscription fees every year from its members actually prohibiting them from disseminating their work, when ACM does everything to actually stop the dissemination?

Mark Wilson said...

Michael -
The standard ACM copyright form ( and the American Mathematical Society one ( have subtle differences (see point 4 of the latter). If ACM changed to AMS rules, would this be acceptable?

Matt Welsh said...

Of course this depends on your definition of "open access". Harvard's copyright addendum requests that Harvard retain certain rights so that it can maintain its own OA archive, but it is not clear that this is strictly necessary in cases where the publisher (ACM in this case) has other policies that would allow authors to, for example, post papers on their websites.

So ACM may very well support "open access" as they see it; Harvard's definition is another matter, and possibly irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting... Michael, I might put quotation marks around the ACM statement, as readers are now left to infer where your voice resumes.

Stevan Harnad said...

The nuances here are about the differences between "gratis" OA (free online access) and "libre" OA (free online access plus certain further re-use rights).

I will make no secret of what my own view on this is -- and I've been at this for a very, very long time: Free online access ("gratis OA") is all you need in order to make all the rest happen. The rest will come with the territory, eventually. Gratis OA can be and is being mandated by universities and funders (but so far there are only 77 mandates, out of a potential worldwide total of 10,000 or more).

Libre OA asks for more, and entails more complications. Hence the right strategy is to stick to mandating Gratis OA for now. The "Green" journals that have already formally endorsed providing immediate Gratis OA (63%) are on the side of the angels. It is foolish and counterproductive to demonize them. If one wants to rant at publishers, rant at the pale-green ones, that only endorse self-archiving unrefereed preprints, and that embargo Gratis OA to the refereed postprints (34%); or the gray journals, that don't endorse any form of self-archiving at all.

Libre OA will come, as surely as day follows night, once we have reached universal Green Gratis OA. To insist on over-reaching instead for Libre OA now (by insisting on Libre OA author addenda), instead of grasping the Green Gratis OA that is already within our reach (yet still not being grasped by 99.937% of the universities and funders on the planet) is just one of a long litany of gratuitous mistakes we keeping making over and over, needlessly delaying the optimal, inevitable, obvious and long overdue outcome, year upon year.

The "over-reaching" list is long, and includes the sublime and the ridiculous: Libre OA (re-publishing and re-use rights for refereed journal articles, when Green Gratis OA would already have them online free for any user webwide, 24/7), Gold OA publishing, central (rather than institutional) self-archiving, the publisher's PDF (rather than just the author's refereed, revised, accepted final draft), peer-review reform, publishing reform, copyright reform, freeing all "knowledge" (rather than just freeing all of refereed research first), solving "the" digital preservation problem, solving "the" online search problem, etc. etc.

Mark my words. We will no doubt continue this fruitless frenzy of over-reaching in all directions for some time to come (world hunger may be next on the OA agenda) instead of doing the immediately doable (which is the mandating of universal Green Gratis OA by all universities and all funders), but in the end it will become clear that in order to have all the good things worth having among the things that can be nontrivially linked to OA, all we ever had to do was those those simple 99,937 GG mandates (plus the distributed volley of keystrokes they entail).


Now back to the soothing fulminations against ACM for not immediately conceding the re-use rights that the author-addendum mandates are needlessly insisting upon...

Anonymous said...

I really liked AMS's copyright form.

The problem is not that ACM does not support OA at all, the point is ACM is not supporting OA enough as an association for computer scientists which collects membership fees. Its decisions SHOULD respect the view of majority of members, or at least convince them that ACM's decision is reasonable. It is completely different than forcing a commercial publisher to become OA (though they will be forced). ACM is our professional association.

Anonymous said...

ACM's copyright form is also nice, but I think the author should be able to give permission to others to use their work for (restricted) educational purposes.

Stevan Harnad said...

SUGGESTED EXERCISE: TEST WHAT COMES WITH THE GRATIS GREEN OA TERRITORY"Re-use rights for teaching" are as good example as any of how people are simply not thinking through what really comes with the territory with Gratis Green OA:

If you deposit your article, free for all, in Harvard's Institutional Repository (IR), every teacher and every student webwide has 24/7 access to it -- can link to it, read it on-screen, download it, print it off, data-crunch it.

The days of permissions and "course packs" (for refereed journal articles) would be over -- completely over -- if all universities and funders mandated that all their employees' and fundees' refereed journal articles (the authors' final refereed drafts) were deposited in their IRs, thereby making them Gratis Green OA (the kind ACM endorses).

Now try that out as an intuition pump with some of the other things you thought you desperately needed the Author's Addendum for, over and above GG OA...

There will be a few -- a very few. But none of them will be remotely as important and urgent as Gratis Green OA itself. Yet here we are, holding up GG OA because we are holding for and haggling over needless Author's Addenda instead of working to universalize vanilla GG OA.

And even the very few uses that don't come immediately with the GG OA territory will follow soon after, once we have reached or neared universal GG OA.

First things first... Or, Let not the better Best stand in the way of the (immeasurably) Better...


JQ Johnson said...

Stevan writes that "If you deposit your article, free for all, in Harvard's Institutional Repository (IR), every teacher and every student webwide has 24/7 access to it -- can link to it, read it on-screen, download it, print it off, data-crunch it."

My reading of the ACM license suggests that ACM is not in fact a green publisher, contrary to Stevan's claim. If carefully examined, we find that ACM allows public display in an archive or whatever, and allows a member of the general public to read the displayed copy, but that right is limited to "noncommercial access." As I read bullet 4, I don't think that I as an author have the right to let commercial users (e.g a teacher at U of Phoenix) view the archived copy of the work.

Even if I did, the license granted by ACM does not in fact explicitly allow downloading, printing, or data-crunching. All of these require copying, and the license does not mention extending a copying right to the public. A completely reasonable interpretation of ACM's license is that no viewer of the work is allowed to copy it, so the viewer can't for instance place a copy of it in a powerpoint presentation.

This distinction between rights granted to the author and rights granted to the public may not matter very much if ACM is in fact willing to allow (noncommercial) copying. Then the question reduces to whether gratis oa for noncommercial use is gratis oa.

JQ Johnson said...

In rereading the ACM copyright form, I think I was wrong about what rights ACM commits to granting to the public, and that they do include the right to make copies "for personal or classroom use" as long as it's not for profit. That still puts U of Phoenix or a Microsoft employee in a bind.

Anonymous said...

It seems that MM is concerned with giving Harvard vs. ACM appropriate rights. What about the public? If the NSF, say, funds the research, why are only "Harvard teachers and students" guaranteed access to the work? Why not everyone? Why should taxpayers pay and not have access?

Stevan Harnad said...

Because I so much admire and applaud the adoption of the Oregon's Library Green OA Self-Achiving Mandate (the first mandate by a library faculty) I will not call U. Oregon's JQ Johnson's worry about whether or not everyone can freely access whatever is freely accessible on the web "pedantry," but rather an occasion for exercising the intuition pump I proposed (regarding what comes naturally with the free online -- gratis OA -- territory). There is no need for us to be "plus royaliste que le roi" here, just because we have become so accustomed to being enmired in permissions/rights/licences issues elsewhere. What any user can already do with the billions and billions of other naked web pages linked by google (read, link, download, print-off, store, data-crunch), they can also do with GG OA IR pages, without the frantic need to seek or adopt a CC license to do so.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #14: Your comment is so misguided, I had to respond.

I don't have a horse in this race. My goal would be to have my papers as available as possible.

I agree the public should have access -- so does Harvard. That's why they've instituted this policy. Go read up on the page I linked to about the program. The entire reason Harvard has pushed in this direction is entirely because many publishers -- and here I intend nothing pro or con about ACM specifically -- don't allow access to the public in what would seem to be an appropriate manner.

Anonymous said...

Here is my viewpoint, as a non-lawyer: ACM policy DOES allow for articles to be posted in university repositories for download, personal websites etc. What it does not allow is re-use (which, as I understand it, basically means republishing elsewhere of the paper in exactly the same form, re-sale etc.). I'm not surprised that they object to a note that would allow a university to do basically anything, including republishing without permission. It seems to me to almost defeat the purpose of having a copyright form.

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