Open Access And The Art Of Contract Hacking

Open Access continues to gain momentum, as more and more researchers seek to make their work freely available online. One way of doing that is by modifying the contract that academic publishers routinely send to potential authors, inserting a clause that allows digital copies to be distributed.

That’s been working quite well, but some publishers are starting to object, as Freedom To Tinker blogger Andrew Appel discovered recently (link found via BoingBoing.) The Association of Computing Machinery, which claims to be “the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society“, sent him an email that stated it “does not accept copyright Addenda that exceed the liberal rights retained by authors under ACM’s Copyright Policy and the exclusive grant of copyright to ACM as publisher”.

But Appel has come up with a neat idea for getting round this block:


In the strange field of computer science, we publish most of our scholarly articles in refereed conferences. In other fields they have unrefereed conferences and refereed journals. We have journals too, but they are less important than the top conferences. In a typical CS conference, 200 or 300 papers are submitted, three months later they have been refereed and 30 or 50 papers are accepted; three weeks later the authors must send in their full-length refereed articles as camera-ready PDF files. Then the conference proceedings must appear (in print and online) within a short time, a few weeks later, when the conference convenes.

Imagine, then, he says, if enough of those authors of the accepted papers simply wrote in a change to their publishing contracts regardless of what publishers might have said about accepting them. The publisher could, in theory, reject those papers, but then it would have a rather thin conference volume, since it could not easily find alternatives to fill the missing pages in the short time period available. As Appel says:


If the volume appears but missing three-fourths of its papers, then that conference is effectively dead, and may never recover in future years.

The publisher is unlikely to run that risk, and so will probably acquiesce to open access for those papers.

Of course, this approach will only work in those disciplines that have such conferences and refereed conference volumes produced to tight deadlines. But that’s not really a problem. This isn’t about converting the entire academic publishing industry to open access overnight, it’s about keeping up the pressure to move there sooner rather than later.

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