Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why does the ACM act against the interests of scholars?

[Updated Jan 6, Jan 7] Some stuff has been happening! I'm delighted by two developments. First, ACM's Director of Group Publishing, Scott Delman, wrote a series of comments that is now one big post: Response from ACM's Scott Delman. Second, I've observed that many other people came to the same conclusion I did - that it's time for our professional organizations to leave the Association of American Publishers. The reason I brought up ACM Author-izer was to argue that Author-izer makes sense only insofar as the CS community trusts their professional organization; I remain of the view that membership in the AAP is incompatible with this trust. Here's Cameron Neylon saying that a bit more forcefully, and here's John Dupuis, who is also compiling a list of all the things related to RWA. (Did I mention the AAP also supports SOPA? Yep, awesome.)

I've got two logic posts queued up in the To Do list. But, dear the internet, we need to talk about the ACM. TL;DR is bold and italics at the bottom.

My friend Glenn Willen tweeted something about the Research Works Act last night. [Update: you can read the very short bill here] Basically, it would (among other things) require that the government can't demand that publishers of federally-funded research make their research available to the public. You should really read the press release; it just a wonderful example of the "dripping in PR" genre of literature.

This is not shocking. Awful legislation gets introduced all the time with names ("Research Works Act") that do the opposite of what their title suggests (preventing research from working and acting, wildly attempting to maintain an ultimately unsustainable status quo). Frankly, I expect publishers to behave this way, and I expect there to be the usual variety of opinions about it. But then I ran through the members of the Association of American Publishers, the group which is cheering this legislation that the (presumably) they wrote, hoping against hope. I was unsurprised but a bit sickened by what I saw: the Association for Computing Machinery is a member of the AAP.

I like the ACM, I am proud of my membership in the ACM and ACM SIGPLAN, the Special Interest Group on Programming Languages. I personally think that the ACM's republication policies have been pretty reasonable during the time I've inhabited this academic world. I'm also proud of my involvement with ACM through their student magazine, XRDS. I write profiles of fascinating people, all of which are available on my personal webpage, for free, through the ACM Author-izer service.

Let's talk about that Author-izer

When I publish anything through the ACM, they own the copyright. This is totally fine-by-me for things I write for XRDS (when I worked for the Daily Princetonian in college they owned copyright on my work for them as well). In my mind, it's a little more complicated when I publish stuff I wrote in an ACM conference proceedings. I want to make sure people have access to that research-ey material - my reputation and career opportunities depend on people finding, reading, and liking my work, but in ACM's Digital Library it's behind a "paywall," accessible only to ACM members and people on university networks. The ACM (unlike IEEE) provides a couple of different-sized hoops that you can jump through to provide free access to your work from your personal home page; Author-izer is the newest of these.

On a technical level, ACM Author-izer lets you, the author of a work that the ACM now has copyright to, bless a particular URL on the internet (presumably your personal home page). The ACM then gives you a special link to their Digital Library - if you're coming from the blessed URL to the special link, you get access to the research. It sounds a little goofy but it works for me in practice and I'm cautiously pleased with it. (Here's Andrew Appel talking about Author-izer if you'd like a concurring opinion.)

But there's another view that Author-izer is a step backwards - because moving a web page (upon graduation or retirement) breaks the functionality of Author-izer links, ACM gets, in the long run, more exclusive content than if people were posting semi-definitive versions of papers on their web page. This is not a crazy concern, but I feel like lots of universities archive alumni's pages in-place, so I also don't feel too worried about it.

There's another argument I've read (UPDATE: from Russell O’Connor, I'd forgotten the link but Joshua Dunfeld reminded me in the comments). It's plausible, more insidious, and more long-term. The ACM might "go evil" in some way, sure, but even positing that the ACM is and will remain reasonably virtuous, what if the ACM goes bankrupt? In the bankruptcy proceedings, some copyright trolls get the rights to everything in the digital library, immediately shut down Author-izer, and start wreaking havoc on academia (threatening lawsuits and demanding money who posted ACM-published works to their webpage) because they're copyright trolls and that's how they roll. A lot of people are violating the letter of their agreements when they post work to their web pages - you're not allowed to post the ACM's PDF, and in fact my reading of the agreement is that you have to change the ACM copyright notice in your version of the paper to a specific other thing; most people don't do this. Of course the ACM-provided LaTeX class doesn't support this, so you have to go diddling around with .cls flies to produce a PDF that looks like this - see the lower-left-hand corner of the first page. Because people are less likely to jump (correctly) through the "author's version" hoop, instead relying on Author-izer, in this hypothetical narrative the ACM's policies have, indeed, worked against the interests of ACM's members.

What does this have to do with the "Research Works Act" breaking research?

My view of Author-izer is that it requires a high level of trust: trust that the ACM will continue supporting authors, and that we'll be able to continue supporting the ACM (since if we don't or can't support the ACM, it will go bankrupt and be taken over by copyright trolls). I can overlook little things where the ACM is not acting in the interest of its members (why doesn't the standard .cls make it easy to make an authors version?) because the world isn't perfect.

Furthermore, with experiments like Author-izer, I believe that ACM has demonstrated that it's trying to do the right thing, as opposed to IEEE, which doesn't give authors hoops to jump through to legally post their work to their webpages. (You should read IEEE's hilariously awful responses to Matt Blaze on this issue. Blaze, I should add, sees much less difference between ACM and IEEE than I do.)

However, the "Research Works Act" makes it clear that ACM's membership in the Association of American Publishers is an egregious and unacceptable instance of working against the interest of scholars and ACM members. We should be thinking about how to demand that our professional organization, the Association for Computing Machinery, do two things: 1) withdraw from the Association of American Publishers 2) take the clear position that the so-called "Research Works Act" is an unacceptable piece of legislation that is not supported by the computer science community.

We should do this even though (I suspect) the primary target of this ridiculous act is medical science. (At the present time, the NIH admirably puts a higher priority on open dissemination of research than the NSF.)

P.S. added January 7: The title of this post is intentionally re-asking the question Blaze asks in his aforementioned post, "Why do IEEE and ACM act against the interests of scholars?" I am focusing on the ACM simply because I care more about the ACM. The IEEE is also a member organization of the AAP.


  1. I'm not really surprised. If the ACM really cared about the interests of scholars, they wouldn't ask us to give them copyright. It's clear that they don't need to own the copyright, since they don't require copyright transfer if you're a "US Government author", because they can't; all "works for hire" by the US government are public domain under US law. The only advantage the ACM gets from copyright transfer (as opposed to giving them a non-exclusive right to publish) is that they can expand the volume of work behind their paywall, and consequently, expand the volume of work that is (for whatever reason) available solely through their paywall.

    And it was only a few months ago that the ACM petulantly refused to publish a paper because the author had dared to make it public domain (

  2. Thanks, that was the forgotten source for the copyright troll failure mode.

  3. Also, Joshua, I'm curious whether the "Research Works Act" would actually modify the "all works for hire are public domain under US law" bit; the PR bulshytt is vague enough that I can't say definitively one way or the other.

  4. "They're copyright trolls and that's how they (t)roll."

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  8. (Note: I deleted four comments here. Three, by Scott Delman, became a separate post, Response from ACM's Scott Delman. The fourth, by 單中杰, was a comment that duplicated a comment on that other post.)

  9. Rob, the bill says it only affects "private-sector research work", which it defines as "an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government." So federal works-for-hire would remain in the public domain. But very few papers in our field are federal works-for-hire; I can't recall seeing a single ACM-published paper with anything but the standard copyright notice.

  10. Joshua: yep, I'd noticed that when I read the bill, but hadn't corrected the record here, so thanks for doing that. I've never seen an ACM-published paper with anything but the standard copyright notice either.

  11. The answer is simply to publish in an OA journal. Don't publish in journals that support RWA. It is unethical to do so when we know they will restrict the research to an unreasonable degree. My blog post on this: Ethical responsibilities of scientists: re proposed US federal legislation on open science.

  12. Rich: I can respect this point, but this is one place where I agree with Scott Delman - there's a lot of gray area.

    I think there is definitely an ethical dimension to open access, but in my area of computer science, I happen to think that the any "green" SHERPA/RoMEO policy meets a reasonable ethical standard of allowing ideas to be accessed and disseminated. I understand how it might be quite different for someone doing medical/science research or research in an area with a stronger ethical considerations against publishing preprints ArXiV-style.