Monday, November 7, 2011

Research without walls

I recently signed the Research Without Walls pledge, which says that I will not do any peer review work for conferences, journals, or other scientific venues that do not make the results available for free via the Web. Like many scientists, I commit hundreds of hours a year to serving on program committees and reviewing journal papers, but the result of that (volunteer) work is essentially that the research results get locked behind a copyright license that is inconsistent with the way in which scientists actually disseminate their results -- for free, via the Web.

I believe that there is absolutely no reason for research results, especially those supported by public funding, not to be made open to the entire world. It's time for the computer science research community to move in this direction. Of course, this is going to mean a big change in the role of the professional societies, such as ACM and IEEE. It's time we made that change, as painful as it might be.

What is open access?

The issue of "open access research" often gets confused with questions such as where the papers are hosted, who owns the copyright, and whether authors are allowed to post their own papers on their website. In most cases, copyright in research publications is not held by the authors, but rather the professional societies that organize a conference or run a journal. For example, ACM and IEEE typically require authors to assign copyright to them, although they might grant the author a license to post their own research papers on their website. However, allowing authors to post papers on the Web is not the same as open access. It is an extremely limited license: posting papers on the Web does not give other scientists or students the right to share or archive those papers, or for anyone to use them for any other purpose other than downloading them for personal use. It is not unlike going to the library and borrowing a book; you still have to return it later, and you can't make copies for others.

With rare exception, every paper I have published is available for download on my website. In most cases, I have a license to do this; in others, I am probably in violation of copyright for doing so. The idea that I might get a cease-and-desist letter one day asking me to take down my own scientific papers bothers me to no end. I worked hard on those papers, and in most cases, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funding to undertake the research that went into each of them.

For most of these publications, I even paid hundreds of dollars to the professional societies -- for membership fees and conference registrations for myself and my students -- to present the work at the associated conference. But yet, I don't own copyright in most of those works, and the main beneficiaries of all of this work are organizations like the ACM. It seems to me that these results should be open for everyone to benefit from, since, well, "we" (meaning, the taxpayers) paid for them.

ACM's Author-izer Service

Recently, the ACM announced a new service called the "Author-izer" (whoever came up with this name will be first against the wall when the revolution comes), that allows authors to generate free links to their publications hosted on the ACM Digital Library. This is not open access, either: this is actually a way for ACM to discourage the spread of "rogue posting" of PDF files and monetize access to the content down the road. For example, those free links will stop working when the website hosting them moves (e.g., when a student graduates). Essentially, ACM wants to control all access to "its" research library, and for good reason: it brings in a lot of revenue.

USENIX's open access policy

USENIX has a much more sane policy. Back in 2008, USENIX  announced that all of their conference proceedings would be open access, and indeed you can download PDFs of all USENIX papers from the corresponding conference website (see, for example, for the proceedings from HotCloud'11).

USENIX does not ask authors to assign copyright to them. Instead, for one year from the publication date, USENIX gets an exclusive license to publish the work (both in print and electronic form), with the usual license granted back to the author to post copies on their website. After the one-year exclusivity period, USENIX retains a non-exclusive license to distribute the work forever. This is a good policy, though in my opinion it does not go far enough: USENIX does not require authors to release their work under an open access license. USENIX is kind enough to post PDFs for free on the Web, but tomorrow, USENIX could reverse this decision and put all of those papers behind a paywall, or take them down entirely. (No, I don't think this is going to happen, but you never know.)

University open access initiatives

Another way to fight back is for your home institution to require all of your work be made open. Harvard was one of the first major universities to do this. This ambitious effort, spearheaded by my colleague Stuart Shieber, required all Harvard affiliates to submit copies of their published work to the open-access Harvard DASH archive. While in theory this sounds great, there are several problems with this in practice. First, it requires individual scientists to do the legwork of securing the rights and submitting the work to the archive. This is a huge pain and most folks don't bother. Second, it requires that scientists attach a Harvard-supplied "rider" to the copyright license (e.g., from the ACM or IEEE) allowing Harvard to maintain an open-access copy in the DASH repository. Many, many publishers have pushed back on this. Harvard's response was to allow its affiliates to get an (automatic) waiver of the open-access requirement. Well, as soon as word got out that Harvard was granting these waivers, the publishers started refusing to accept the riders wholesale, claiming that the scientist could just request a waiver. So the publishers tend to win.

Creative Commons for research publications

The only way to ensure that research is de jure open access, rather than merely de facto, is by baking the open access requirement into the copyright license for the work. This is very much in the same spirit as the GPL is for software licensing. What I really want is for all research to be published under something like a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, allowing others to share, remix, and make commercial use of the work as long as attribution is given. This kind of license would prevent professional organizations from locking down research results, and give maximum flexibility for others to make use of the research, while retaining the conventional expectations of attribution. The "remix" clause might seem a little problematic, given that peer review expects original results, but the attribution requirement would not allow someone to submit work that is not their own and claim authorship. And there are many ways in which research can be legitimately remixed: incorporated into a talk, class notes, or collection, for example.

What happens to the publishers?

Traditional scientific publishers, like Elsevier, go out of business. I don't have a problem with that. One can make a strong argument that traditional scientific publishers have fairly limited value in today's world. It used to be that scientists needed publishers to disseminate their work; this has not been true for more than a decade.

Professional organizations, like ACM and IEEE, will need to radically change what they do if they want to stay alive. These organizations do many other things other than run conferences and journals. Unfortunately, a substantial amount of their operating budget comes from controlling access to scientific literature. Open access will drastically change that. Personally, I'd rather be a member of a leaner, more focused professional society that can focus its resources on education and policymaking than supporting a gazillion "Special Interest Groups" and journals that nobody reads.

Seems to me that USENIX strikes the right balance: They focus on running conferences. Yes, you pay through the nose to attend these events, though it's not any more expensive than a typical ACM or IEEE conference. I really do not buy the argument that an ACM-sponsored conference, even one like SOSP, is any better than one run by USENIX. Arguably USENIX does a far better job at running conferences, since they specialize in it. ACM shunts most of the load of conference organization onto inexperienced academics, with predictable results.

A final word

I can probably get away with signing the Research Without Walls pledge because I no longer rely on service on program committees to further my career. (Indeed, the pledge makes it easier for me to say no when asked to do these things.) Not surprisingly, most of the signatories of the pledge have been from industry. To tell an untenured professor that they should sign the pledge and, say, turn down a chance to serve on the program committee for SOSP, would be a mistake.  But this is not to say that academics can't promote open access in other ways: for example, by always putting PDFs on their website, or preferentially sending work to open access venues.

ObDisclaimer: This is my personal blog. The views expressed here are mine alone and not those of my employer.


  1. In relation with your last paragraph, I wrote some days ago a post on Why (unfortunately) I'm not signing it:

  2. Good move. SenSys had better go open access soon! :-)

  3. Jordi - So, basically you are saying that you're not signing it because you do not have the self-discipline to follow it. That's fine. Better to have signatories that intend to follow the pledge than those that are signing it just to have their name on the list.

    Not signing the pledge because it does not preclude publication in non-open-access venues seems silly. Go ahead and make up your own pledge for that. Nobody is stopping you from holding yourself to a higher standard. But you already said you won't hold yourself to that standard anyway, so what's the point?

  4. "Not signing the pledge because it does not preclude publication in non-open-access venues seems silly."
    An refraining yourself from reviewing but not from publishing in those venues is selfish and hypocritical, at the least. This only results in an overload of work for those of us that will continue reviewing papers, as is our duty to science.

  5. Mazo - Fair point. The problem is that - if you are advising students - you want the students to have every opportunity to get their work published. Telling your students they can't submit to an ACM conference is the equivalent of career suicide. So there needs to be some flexibility here.

  6. What's stopping tenured professors from signing this?

  7. Another great example is Association of Computational Linguistics (ACL)

    They are a pretty old conference(50+).

  8. Why not furthermore pledge that, for any works on which one is the sole author, one will not publish in closed-access journals? This still allows one to publish with students as necessary for establishing their careers in the existing climate, while sending a much, much stronger message about the role of closed-access journals in academia in the future.

  9. (Of course, this would be a pledge which is very, very, very difficult for an untenured, up-and-comer in academia to sign (career suicide, basically). Alas, this sort of thing may be necessary. The only way to make a message heard is through hard sacrifice; boycotting stuff that's easy to go without gets no attention)

  10. Matt --

    There's a lot to like about your post, and I agree with much of what you say. But I wanted to clarify some specific issues about the Harvard open-access policies, which are in place at seven of the Harvard schools as well as MIT, Duke, Stanford, and elsewhere.

    Unfortunately, my response grew to well beyond the word limit of the Blogspot comment system, so I've placed my response up at . In summary, the submission process is much less onerous than you imply, and the rights aspect of the policy actually requires no action whatsoever. Waivers are in fact quite rare, as very few publishers systematically require waivers.

    I hope the full response will clear up some confusions about the Harvard policy.

    -- Stuart

  11. what about professor's stealing student's work/ideas?


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