Behind an Association Journal’s Open-Access Move

The Association for Computing Machinery, following a broader trend, has made its flagship publication available for free, part of an evolving business model for research-based organizations.

Earlier this month, Communications of the ACM, published by the Association for Computing Machinery, made two substantial moves. First, it shifted from a print journal with a website to an exclusively online publication. The second and bigger change was its shift to open access, leaving the journal available for free to all visitors.

In a press release about the move, ACM stressed that the shift will speed the professional community’s access to the latest computing research and help ACM reach a broader audience. But the change also represents a transformation in how publications are paid for and how ACM in general is financially supported, said Communications of the ACM editor-in-chief James Larus. 

“It’s not a trivial change to switch your entire economic model from consumers to producers and not go out of business while you’re doing it,” he said.

For more than a decade, and more aggressively in recent years, ACM has been changing its funding structure around its publications. Traditionally, ACM publications have been funded by licenses paid by “approximately 2,700 universities, government research labs, and corporations around the world.” Under the new model, called ACM OPEN, the institutions whose researchers publish work in ACM publications will pay a fee to defray costs, and agree to a multi-year contract establishing how much they pay. Institutions that deliver more research will be placed in a higher tier, according to a chart explaining the ACM OPEN plan.

It’s not a trivial change to switch your entire economic model and not go out of business.

James Larus, ACM

The shift promises to increase ACM’s visibility among the tech community, which have traditionally been strong advocates of open access, Larus said. “In the past, there were a couple articles per issue that were open access on the web, but it was frustrating,” he said. “Somebody who wasn’t a member of ACM would go to the website, read one article, then they click on the next one, and it would say, ‘No, you can’t do this because it’s not open access.’”

With the new pricing format for Communications of the ACM introduced this year, Larus said it’s too early to determine how well the system is working. But because there’s overlap between the institutions whose researchers publish in the journal and those which have subscribed in the past, Larus said, the change shouldn’t be substantial for many and may even be more affordable. 

“The model that they have to adopt now is that they’re paying for something different, which is for the ability of people at the institution to publish in ACM publications, where previously it was the library that paid for it,” he said.

Larus said that by going fully online—and putting the journal’s archives online as well—the association can connect with a variety of audiences, from more general tech enthusiasts to serious researchers.

“The larger picture, the business case, is that since we want to grow ACM, the way we grow ACM is by attracting people and show them what goes on, and you can’t really do that with a paywall,” he said. “We would like to see the number of people who have come to the website go up, we’d like to see the engagement on the website go up.”

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