Acm Sustainable Open Access

:: computers, acm, publishing

Every so often I see publishers and the ACM complain about open access being expensive and needing difficult planning to create sustainable open access models. And every time I see it, it seems like so much hogwash.

As far as I can tell, the only costs they pay are, well, for publication, which today basically means file hosting. Depending on how many graphs or other images a paper has, it might be a few megabytes large. However, many papers are just measured in kilobytes. The entire corpus of research papers published in ACM venues must weigh in at just a few gigabytes per year. The ACM was founded in 1947, so the back catalog only goes back 73 years. Supposing their catalog takes an average of 10GB per year, the entire catalog could fit on a single 1TB drive.

Obviously hard drives aren’t the only cost of secure long-term hosting and archival. They need redundant, resilient storage in multiple locations, for instance, and they need servers, electricity, and bandwidth. However, the ACM is asking authors to pay hundreds of dollars per paper for gold open access when it is an option. That is far beyond the cost of archival and hosting.

What other costs are there? The reviewers and conference organizers are all volunteers. Researchers do their own typesetting. Often the paper that is actually used is the preprint that the publisher hasn’t touched in any way that is hosted by the author or by arXiv. Speaking of which, arXiv seems to be able to operate on a tiny fraction of the budget the ACM and other publishers claim to need.

What other costs am I missing, besides monumental profits to publishers? Do these other costs provide real value to society and to researchers? Do these costs matter in computer science, or are they limited to certain fields?

If I’m missing something I’d really like to understand it. But it seems like open access for all CS research is not only the obviously right thing to do, but that it would be inexpensive and easy to accomplish as well.

If anyone with influence at the ACM reads this, will you please publish a breakdown of the costs of publishing, rather than just repeating the mantra of “sustainability”. If anyone with insider knowledge of publishing reads this and has answers to my questions, please email me. I’d really like to know the answers.

2020–02–27 update

I’ve been informed of this post from Sigchi (an ACM special interest group, for those not in the know) that gives some detail about the financials of the ACM, reasons why the ACM currently tries to earn high revenues from publishing, and potential paths forward. Clearly it must have been written in response to my post, though the email they sent to notify me of their response must have been lost in the series of tubes somehow.

The punchline is basically that the ACM uses revenues from publishing and access fees to subsidize other ACM activities, and open access requires either alternative revenue sources or reduction of ACM activities that are not self-sustaining.

The Sigchi post explains financials in broad strokes, and I would like to know more about what goes into the “other” category of those graphs. The “other” category is huge, and I’m really not sure what it covers. It includes “staff, overheads, premises, etc.”, but is that staff for running activities, or is that wholly captured by the “activities” category? Are student scholarships to attend conferences included in “activities” or “other”? I could try to go looking for answers to these and similar questions, but it’s almost time for bed, and I have other things I need to do. At any rate I’m grateful for this explanation rather than the repetetive and uninformative cries for sustainability that I had read up til now.

Despite being an ACM member (at least until the end of this month, I’ve been hesitant to renew due to this open access kerfuffle), I haven’t really looked into all these other activities and expenses of the ACM — I’m mostly concerned with publications and conferences. I’m sure many of these activities are valuable, but I believe that open access publication would be a greater good to the world than these activities, and I would support the transition to open access even if all these other activities would have to be reduced or cut entirely. However, I think it is likely that a good portion of lost publication revenue can be gained by seeking more grants and making other adjustments. Of course, my opinion matters little, and I’ve already admitted my ignorance of and apathy towards these other ACM activities.

But while perhaps nobody cares about my opinion, I’ll still give it on this, my blog. Full steam ahead to open access!