Matt Blaze's
Science, Security, Curiosity
Shaking Down Science
Why do IEEE and ACM act against the interests of scholars?

If there is one area where the Web and Internet publishing is truly fulfilling its promise, it has to be the free and open availability of scholarly research from all over the world, to anyone who cares to study it. Today's academic does not just publish or perish, but does so on the Web first. This has made science and scholarship not only more democratic -- no journal subscriptions or university library access required to participate -- but faster and better.

And many of the most prominent scientific and engineering societies are doing everything in their power to put a stop to it. They want to get paid first.

I've written here before about the way certain major technical societies use regressive, coercive copyright policies to obtain from authors exclusive rights to the papers that appear at the conferences and in the journals that they organize. These organizations, rooted in a rapidly disappearing print-based publishing economy, believe that they naturally "own" the writings that (unpaid) authors, editors and reviewers produce. They insist on copyright control as a condition of publication, arguing that the sale of conference proceedings and journal subscriptions provides an essential revenue stream that subsidizes their other good works. But this income, however well it might be used, has evolved into an ill-gotten entitlement. We write scientific papers first and last because we want them read. When papers were disseminated solely in print form it might have been reasonable to expect authors to donate the copyright in exchange for production and distribution. Today, of course, this model seems, at best, quaintly out of touch with the needs of researchers and academics who no longer expect or tolerate the delay and expense of seeking out printed copies of far-flung documents. We expect to find on it on the open web, and not hidden behind a paywall, either.

In my field, computer science (the very field which, ironically, created all this new publishing technology in the first place), some of the most restrictive copyright policies can be found in the two largest and oldest professional societies: the ACM and the IEEE.

Fortunately, these copyrights have been honored mostly in the breach as far as author-based web publishing has been concerned. Many academics make their papers available on their personal web sites, a practice that a growing number of university libraries, including my own, have begun to formalize by hosting institution-wide web repositories of faculty papers. This practice has flourished largely through a liberal reading of a provision -- a loophole -- in many copyright agreements that allows authors to share "preprint" versions of their papers.

But times may be changing, and not for the better. Some time in January, the IEEE apparently quietly revised its copyright policy to explicitly forbid us authors from sharing the "final" versions of our papers on the web, now reserving that privilege to themselves (available to all comers, for the right price). I found out about this policy change in an email sent to all faculty at my school from our librarian this morning:

February 28, 2011

Dear Faculty,

I am writing to bring to your attention a recent change in IEEE's policy for archiving personal papers within institutional repositories. IEEE altered their policy in January from allowing published versions of articles to be saved in repositories, like ScholarlyCommons, to only allowing pre-published versions. We received no prior notice about this change.

As a result, if you or your students/colleagues publish with IEEE and submit papers to ScholarlyCommons, I am writing to ask that you PLEASE REFRAIN FROM UPLOADING ANY NEW PUBLISHED VERSIONS OF ARTICLES. It is unclear yet whether IEEE material uploaded prior to January already within ScholarlyCommons will need to be removed. Anything new added at this point, however, would be in violation of their new policy.


To be fair to IEEE, the ACM's official policy is at least as bad. Not all technical societies are like this; for example, Usenix, on whose board I serve, manages to thrive despite making all its publications available online for free, no paywall access required.

Enough is enough. A few years ago, I stopped renewing my ACM and IEEE memberships in protest, but that now seems an inadequate gesture. These once great organizations, which exist, remember, to promote the exchange and advancement of scientific knowledge, have taken a terribly wrong turn in putting their own profits over science. The directors and publication board members of societies that adopt such policies have allowed a tunnel vision of purpose to sell out the interests of their members. To hell with them.

So from now on, I'm adopting my own copyright policies. In a perfect world, I'd simply refuse to publish in IEEE or ACM venues, but that stance is complicated by my obligations to my student co-authors, who need a wide range of publishing options if they are to succeed in their budding careers. So instead, I will no longer serve as a program chair, program committee member, editorial board member, referee or reviewer for any conference or journal that does not make its papers freely available on the web or at least allow authors to do so themselves.

Please join me. If enough scholars refuse their services as volunteer organizers and reviewers, the quality and prestige of these closed publications will diminish and with it their coercive copyright power over the authors of new and innovative research. Or, better yet, they will adapt and once again promote, rather than inhibit, progress.

Update 2 March 2011: There's been quite a response to this post; I seem to have hit a high-pressure reservoir of resentment against these anti-science publishing policies. But several people have written me defending ACM's copyright transfer in particular as being "not as bad", since authors are permitted to post an "author prepared" version on their own web sites if they choose. Yes, a savvy ACM author can prepare a special version and hack around the policy. But the copyright remains with ACM, and the authoritative reviewed final manuscript stays hidden behind the ACM paywall.

Until that changes, I'll confine my service to open-access conferences such as those organized by Usenix.

Update 4 March 2011: I'm told that some ACM sub-groups (such as SIGCOMM) have negotiated non-paywalled access to their conferences' proceedings. So conference organizers and small groups really can have an impact here! Protest is not futile.

Update 8 March 2011: A prominent member of the ACM asserted to me that copyright assignment and putting papers behind the ACM's centralized "digital library" paywall is the best way to ensure their long-term "integrity". That's certainly a novel theory; most computer scientists would say that wide replication, not centralization, is the best way to ensure availability, and that a centrally-controlled repository is more subject to tampering and other mischief than a decentralized and replicated one. Usenix's open-access proceedings, by the way, are archived through the Stanford LOCKSS project. Paywalls are poor way to ensure permanence.

Update 9 March 2011: David A. Hodges, IEEE VP of Publication Products and Services just sent me a (for some reason in PDF format) "clarifying" the new policy. He confirms that IEEE authors are still permitted to post a pre-publication version on their own (or their employer's) web site, but are now (as of January) prohibited from posting the authoritative "published" PDF version, which will be available exclusively from the IEEE paywall. (You can read his note here [pdf]).

Still no word on whether there's a reason for this policy change other than the obvious rent-seeking behavior that it appears to be. According to this FAQ [pdf], the reason for the policy change is to "exercise better control over IEEE's intellectual property". Which is exactly the problem.