Open Access Flips Hundreds of Years of Scientific Research, Part 2

Open Access Flips Hundreds of Years of Scientific Research, Part 2

November 30, 2021 - by Andrew Oram

A true revolution has hit academia over the past couple decades, changing how publications fund their work and in consequence the ways researchers share information. The previous article in this series introduced Open Access, describing its benefits and how it works. This final article shows examples and explains the relationship between Open Access and Creative Commons.

Examples of Adoption of Open Access in Computing

Michael Collins, Senior Computer Scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, comments: "While publish-or-perish is the rule for academia, where the researcher chooses to publish varies in different disciplines. Computer science is an outlier because the discipline emphasizes conference publications, whereas journal publication is the norm elsewhere. This practice is changing, as top-tier CS conferences move from a single PC meeting to a continuous submission and review process, meaning that conferences are now becoming 'journalier.'  Still, that emphasis on conference publications means that CS researchers tend to have many more publications than other researchers."

I myself witnessed the astonishing evolution of one institution during about a decade from a position of skepticism and resistance to Open Access business models (an attitude of, "This is a nice ideal but not for us") to a commitment toward a sustainable transition to Open Access over a well-defined period of time. The Association for Computing Machinery dates to 1947 (just about the dawn of digital computing) and now has nearly 100,000 members from more than 190 countries. ACM is fully engaged in a transition to Open Access—but as an organization that relies heavily on subscriptions to publications for a large percentage of its income, it needs to handle the transition extremely carefully.

Some 75-80% of ACM publications are conference proceedings, but the Association also publishes more than 60 journals, 7 tech magazines, nearly 40 newsletters, and research-oriented books. Collectively, these outlets publish from 20,000-25,000 research articles each year.

Even before Open Access, ACM has made its publications freely available to institutions in many parts of the developing world where average incomes are significantly lower than in the developed world. 

ACM has been experimenting with various forms of Open Access since the early 2010s. At a board meeting held virtually in the Summer of 2020, the Association’s governing body, the ACM Council, made a formal commitment to transition all of the Association’s research publications to Open Access over the next five years—tempering the promise with a provision that the outcome can be financially sustainable..

According to ACM's Director of Publications, Scott Delman, "All other things being equal, Open Access is superior to subscription-based publication for readers and authors and fits better with ACM's mission to advance the field of Computer Science." At present, as a result of ACM’s introduction of the ACM Open model in January 2020, and factoring in Hybrid Open Access articles where the authors pay an APC, approximately 15% of ACM publications are made Open Access annually. The Association expects to hit a 20% milestone by year end and hopes to increase the trend by 10-15% each year until it covers all ACM research publications.

Specifically, ACM found that when its articles are published in front of the ACM Digital Library paywall, they are downloaded on average two to four times more often than articles behind ACM’s paywall. Most significantly, the number of citations for the articles in other publications have increased by a similar amount. Everyone in academia knows that the number of citations is a critical metric used in their fields to measure the value of an article and its author.

According to Delman, the ACM is recognized now as being at the forefront of Open Access. The Association is working with approximately 1,000 institutions around the world to make the transition to Open Access over the next 2-3 years affordable, sustainable, and permanent.

The transition to the ACM Open model upends its old financial model. Before the transition began last year, ACM relied on a long tail of almost 3,000 institutions to underwrite the cost of ACM publications. At the end of the transition, at least half of those institutions will pay significantly less than they currently pay for access to the ACM Digital Library. The transition involves complex negotiations with each institution, academic library consortium administrators, intermediary agents, funders, department heads, and deans of research, and will take years to fully implement.

With Open Access, most of the fees come from top tier institutions whose faculty and students do the most publishing. In general, with Open Access models, the more you provide articles, the more you benefit from publication, and the more you pay. Institutions who are more peripheral get a much better deal than they do with traditional subscription-based publishing.

USENIX (whose name is a pun on UNIX, the dominant operating system for hackers and researchers when the organization was founded in 1975) was an early adopter of open access. The web page says "USENIX has brought together a community of engineers, system administrators, scientists, and technicians working on the cutting edge of the computing world." The conferences I attended in the 1990s and 2000s focused on improving networks at all layers. Thus, USENIX was a bridge between academic computer scientists and advanced practitioners in industry and government.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), with hundreds of thousands of members in more than 160 countries, has also committed to a combination of Open Access and hybrid access. The IEEE Article Sharing and Posting Policies cover Green and Gold Open Access at various stages of publication.

Finally, the Learning Materials from Linux Professional Institute offer introductory and advanced educational information about a range of free and open source software.

Creative Commons

Parallel to the Open Access movement, Creative Commons was founded to promote sharing and collaborative development of all sorts of content: research articles, novels, music, films, games, etc.

The general understanding of Creative Commons, formed by law professor Lawrence Lessig, is that the idea was sparked by the landmark Eldred v Ashcroft copyright case that Lessig litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.

But Creative Commons doesn't do anything to mitigate the outcome of Eldred, which effectively blessed the maneuvers by movie studios and other copyright holders to extend copyrights indefinitely into the future and keep their popular features from entering the public domain. Instead, Creative Commons looks toward a different constituency: content creators operating in a stew of new ideas from many quarters, grabbing an image here or a snatch of a musical riff there and assembling innovative artistic collages. These creative types use copyright to facilitate distribution and reuse, not to derive profit in the old way by restricting access.

Lessig was directly inspired by the GNU General Public License, designed for software. Like the GPL, Creative Commons supports the classic four freedoms underpinning the free software movement. The "no derivatives" clause mentioned earlier in this article is a carve-out for creative people who don't want unauthorized variants of their work to circulate. Another departure from the four freedoms is an option to prohibit commercial uses of a work.

Open Access is one of the many types of content facilitated by Creative Commons. Attitudes are changing about how to support the development of research and other content. The copyright model that served the pre-digital era fairly well is straining to reflect the public's new needs and expectations. Seeing all the major funders and publishing houses that are adopting Open Access, we can be assured that it will dominate future research.

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About Andrew Oram:

Andrew Oram

Andy is a writer and editor in the computer field. His editorial projects at O'Reilly Media ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. Andy also writes often on health IT, on policy issues related to the Internet, and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM (Brussels), DebConf, and LibrePlanet. Andy participates in the Association for Computing Machinery's policy organization, USTPC.