Provocative proposal to force scholarly publishers to respect open-access wishes of their unpaid contributors

On Freedom to Tinker, Andrew Appel has been expertly analyzing the copyright policies of several technical academic journals published by the likes of ACM and the IEEE. The scholars who contribute to these journals are calling for a change in their way of doing business, so that article authors get to retain their copyright. Appel lays out a compelling economic argument for scholars refusing to assign their copyrights to journals. In today's installment, Appel discusses a shift in ACM's publishing policy that ends the practice of authors modifying their contracts to reflect their preferences on terms of publishing; now ACM's office of Copyright and Permissions states that "ACM does not accept copyright Addenda that exceed the liberal rights retained by authors under ACM’s Copyright Policy and the exclusive grant of copyright to ACM as publisher."

Appel points out that in one area of academic publishing, conference proceedings, scholars hold the whip hand. That's because, once papers have been accepted for presentation at a conference, and the program fixed, the authors could collectively refuse to sign the default contract. This would require the publisher to either modify its policy to reflect the wishes of the (unpaid) contributors who make its conferences possible, or to scrap the entire bill and start over reviewing papers, with short time.

Suppose almost all the authors of the 40 accepted papers were to write the same modification into their copyright contract? The publisher could reject all those papers, but there’s a serious time constraint: the conference volume has to appear, and it has to appear NOW, with a short deadline. If the volume appears but missing three-fourths of its papers, then that conference is effectively dead, and may never recover in future years.

It’s not like a journal, where the publisher can just publish some other papers instead. The papers are accepted all at once by a program committee whose members are not employees of the publisher, who are not under a contractual obligation to the publisher, and who may sympathize more with the authors’ views about copyright than with the publisher’s. The publisher cannot simply substitute other papers.

This is a game of chicken that the publisher cannot win. If the authors feel strongly and get their gumption together, they will prevail. The best course for publishers is to avoid playing this game of chicken, by adjusting their copyright contracts to fit the progress of open-access policies in the 21st century. I believe that the good nonprofits (such as ACM and IEEE) are heading in this direction, and Usenix is already there.

Contract hacking and community organizing


  1. I let my membership in both ACM and IEEE lapse a long time ago.  The internet has made them both obsolete; or in a roundabout way, you could say they’re a victim of their own success. Why go to some third party to publish when you can just do it yourself?

    1. … because if you’re trying to make a career as an academic in computer science or electrical engineering, you want to publish in ACM or IEEE conferences.

      Those organizations should figure out ways to support Open Access, because they look really foolish in comparison with, for example, the Association for Computational Linguistics and PLoS.

    2. As Alex wrote, it’s necessary for your career if you’re a scientist.

      To progress in your career as a scientist, you need journal and conference publications. The names of those journals and conferences are trademarks, belonging to various organisations — if you’re lucky, it’s the ACM or IEEE, if you’re less lucky it’s Elsevier or another purely commercial publisher.

      Fundamentally, it’s a reputation system.

      It’s a reputation system which is used to hire and fire and to allocate funding.

      It’s a reputation system which often hands the keys (in this case, the trademarks) to one or a few entities, depending on the scientific field, with little or no transparency or oversight. They are then in a position to extract monopoly rents, in money and copyrights and corvée, and otherwise behave badly.

      It’s a reputation system, which makes it hard to re-design — we humans basically don’t have the know-how to design a new one.

  2. Not only are authors unpaid, for conferences they will typically need at least one author to register at full cost (i.e., not the student rate). The big conferences are a huge cash cow for IEEE societies and sections. From my view, the oligopoly of publishers use their power to effectively extort the academic community not only of their copyrights (which equate to long-term value) but of cold hard cash.

    If academic institutions would band together to form a sort of co-op, open publishing model that still maintained peer review standards (which are not that high to begin with), then I think we could have a real solution on our hands. I would expect it to be cheaper for the institutions, no longer sending academics to conferences that were not that important to attend in the first place (or at least disconnect publishing from conferences since for the IEEE conferences, nobody goes for the paper presentations/posters — they go for the networking or the conveniently attractive locales). 

  3. Compare:

    “ACM does not accept copyright Addenda that exceed the liberal rights retained by authors under ACM’s Copyright Policy and the exclusive grant of copyright to ACM as publisher.”


    “I believe that the good nonprofits (such as ACM and IEEE) are heading in this direction.”

    Surely the former bullying ends for ever ACM’s already tenuous right to be referred to as a “good nonprofit”.  They are just not working in the interests of their members any more.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, since I’m in academia.  There are multiple paths through this jungle.  The first path, the most traditional, is to get a degree under the tutelage of prior masters and publish, get funding, publish, get funding, publish, get funding, become the master, hire apprentices, etc.  Everybody knows this.

    The second path, and I dare say a harder one, is to get your degree under the tutelage of prior masters.  BUT… as soon as you are able, strike out on your own.  Do this in conjunction with your research under the old cycle.  But be an entrepreneur.  Get funding THAT way, so that the papers that come out of your research either land in fair places or on arxiv or straight out to the web on your blog, etc etc.  You become your own cottage industry.

    This is a very hard thing to do.  You have to gear your work towards actionable products and methods.  If you are purely in the discovery business, you will have a very hard time doing anything other than the first path.  But if you think you can both discover AND create, then you ought to seriously consider some form of entrepreneurship.  You might be happier as your own boss.

    1.  That’s great if you’re doing applied research, bordering on engineering. It’s pretty useless for pure research.

      Eliminating pure research is like eating your seed corn, on a somewhat longer time-scale. It may help you survive this winter, but it pretty much guarantees that you’ll starve the next.

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