Ted is writing things

On privacy, research, and privacy research.

Personal open access policy

I do not provide free work for closed-access scientific venues.

By "free work", I mean peer review or organizational work, like participating in program committees. By "closed-access", I mean "which retains exclusive rights on papers, and in particular prevents authors from publishing them under a license like CC BY-NC-SA".

Now, a few answers to frequently asked questions.


My time, like yours, is precious. If I work on something without being paid for it, it's because I believe that it is somehow beneficial to the world. Scientific venues that do not allow authors to publish their work for free, and forbid others to reuse and republish it, do not meet this requirement. Scientific knowledge is meant to be universally accessible, well-organized and useful. Barriers, especially financial ones, impede scholarly work and discriminate against underfunded researchers and institutions.

Some closed-access venues definitely do some valuable things, e.g., bringing scientific minds together and providing organizational work. But scientific papers are the results of work done entirely by researchers. There is absolutely no reason why they should be owned by a third party. If closed-access venues shut down all at once tomorrow; the scientific community would quickly adapt, and the change would overall be extremely positive.

Scientific venues are gradually moving towards open access, but this is taking place very slowly. I wish to accelerate the process, and I think it is past the point where it makes any sense to encourage the old model.

What about submitting papers?

I try not to publish in closed-access venues. However, I do not make this a matter of absolute personal policy, like for reviewing, for two reasons.

First, I cannot take that decision entirely on my own. Scientific papers are typically collaborations. My coauthors should have a say in where we publish. This is particularly important since the stakes can be much higher for them than for me. I do not want to pursue a purely academic career, so publishing in a less prestigious venue does not cost me much. My coauthors might feel very differently, and I respect that.

Second, publishing a paper in a prestigious venue is not exactly free work. I'm personally getting a lot out of the deal: recognition, personal gratification, visibility of my work… This is very much in contrast to peer reviewing or organizational work, which researchers are doing because they feel a moral obligation to do so.

What about the reciprocity rule?

Researchers do free work because they know how important it is for the scientific community. The peer review process is crucial to publishing good science, and the organizing work behind conferences and journals is extremely valuable to researchers. So, if you publish scientific papers that are reviewed by your peers, you should also review papers.

I understand the importance of this rule, but I choose to do my share of peer reviewing in open access venues. This way, I not only contribute to my field of research, but I also encourage a better, more equitable and accessible publishing system.

Many people interpret the reciprocity rule differently, and think that researchers should review where they publish. I respectfully disagree, but I acknowledge that my position might seem ethically problematic if you feel this way. I think that the ethical problems of closed-access scientific publishing far outweigh these concerns.

What about gray areas, like…

… postprints?

The only difference between the postprint and the final published version is typically minor editing work, if any. I consider this distinction negligible. Thus, it's fine if the postprint can be published in open access, even if the publisher's version cannot.

… preprints?

The preprint version of a paper is essentially a draft. Once a paper has been improved after incorporating the comments of peer reviewers, all preprints published online should be replaced by the improved version.

Allowing preprints but not postprints to be published in open access encourages people to read the preprint, when a better version exists. In the worst case, the draft version contains factual errors that were fixed during peer review. Not replacing the preprint by the postprint is counterproductive, and completely nonsensical. The people providing reviewing work did so for free, and the result of their work should not be owned by a third party. If only preprints can be published in open access, then I do not consider the venue as open access.

… papers accessible online, but not under a permissive license?

Some publishers will tell you that they will make your paper freely accessible online through some portal, but will still forbid you to publish it elsewhere under a permissive license. These promises are worthless — if publishers lie or impose ridiculous conditions before giving people access to your papers, what are you going to do? Sue them? Anyway, the fundamental problem is that publishers should not own rights over scientific papers. They should not be able to hinder the dissemination of knowledge they did not create. I do not consider venues of these publishers to be open access.

… author fees for open access?

Some conferences allow authors to pay an additional fee for their work to be published in open access. Some fees are reasonable, on the order of 100€ or less, but when big publishers use this model, these fees are generally much higher: ≈$1000 for ACM, ≈$2000 for IEEE, and up to an eye-popping ≈$6000 for Elsevier. Needless to say, such high fees are absolutely ridiculous compared to the actual costs to the publisher.

Small fees might be acceptable, especially if they are mandatory and are only there to recoup publisher costs. Larger fees, however, creates a system that is unfair to researchers that cannot pay, and actively encourages them not to make their research available in open access. It also takes financial resources out of valuable research projects, and gives it to publishers instead, which are providing a comparatively negligible value. If this is the only way that a venue allows authors to publish their own papers, I do not consider it open access.

… embargo periods?

This refers to a model where authors have to wait a certain time before publishing their own papers on open repositories. Before this delay, the paper is only available behind paywalls or subscriptions. Again, it is unfair to students and researchers that are not well-funded, and is an artificial and arbitrary barrier to the dissemination of scientific knowledge. To me, venues which operate under this model are not open access.

… nonprofit organizations?

Some organizations earn money via copyrighted academic papers, and are doing good scientific things with this money. I understand how it came to be, but I still think that blocking access to scientific knowledge is not an acceptable way to fund such programs. We, as a society, should absolutely fund scholarly institutions and education programs. But we should do so via other means.

I agree that there are significant ethical differences between for-profit scientific publishers and nonprofit scholarly institutions. But a closed-access venue will not get my support simply because it is organized by a nonprofit.

… books, or other works that need heavy editing?

Paid editing work is either nonexistent or useless for scientific conferences and journals. But the situation is very different for books or monographs, most of which require professional editing before publication. This work should be compensated, and copyright is one way of achieving this. I do not know this space well. By default, my personal policy does not apply there.

… other types of free scientific work?

Some other types of free work are not explicitly covered by this policy.

  • As I already mentioned, publishing my own papers is not free work. Similarly, giving a talk at a conference is not necessarily free work either. It depends on the message, the audience, whether expenses are reimbursed…
  • Course materials, and other physical artifacts from education and mentoring efforts, should in principle also be freely accessible. But I could imagine that in some cases, benefits that come from these efforts might outweigh the ethical issues that I have with closed-access publishing.
  • There are certain types of work that I simply do not know enough to have an opinion about: reviewing grant proposals, participating in technical standards organizations, etc.

For all those examples, I decide what I do on a case-by-case basis rather than applying a blanket policy.

Why are you publishing this?

First, I want to draw a line in the sand for myself, and taking a public stance is an excellent way to do so. Second, I hope to start a discussion, and maybe get other people to consider adopting a similar policy.

If everyone stopped reviewing for closed-access venues, the entire scientific publishing model would change for the better overnight. Refusing to do free work will likely not hurt your career significantly, especially if you do not take a public position like I do.

Why aren't you going further?

My standards are relatively low: allowing authors to retain rights to their own papers should really be the absolute minimum. I think that journals and conferences should do more. For example, they should automatically publish all papers under a permissive license like CC BY, rather than simply allowing authors to do so.

I do not feel as strongly about this. For now, I'm okay with providing free work to venues which simply say "sure, feel free to put your papers under a permissive license yourself". It's good enough, and in some cases, it's the best compromise that program committees for major conferences could negotiate with publishers. I might reconsider this in the future.

Why are you so judgmental?

I hope I did not come across this way, but in case I did, I want to make the following explicit. I absolutely understand that you might not make the same choices than I do. I do not think badly of anyone choosing to do otherwise. Part of why I can afford to have this stance is because it is not costing me much. It is not my place to judge what other people should be doing, especially people who would be more personally impacted by such choices.

I do hope that more people try to accelerate the switch to open access. Tenured professors have more freedom to refuse to encourage closed-access conferences, even if these conferences are the most prestigious. People in positions of power within closed-access venues might lobby to change publishing policies. I think that they should, but I'm not in their shoes. To them, other things might seem more important or urgent to work on. It is about values, and it is not my place to tell you what your values should be.

Is this type of personal stance really the best way towards open access?

No. The best way is through funding agencies. They should mandate that all papers published using their grants must be published in open access. Laws should automatically give researchers the right to do so without fear of retaliation from publishers, no matter what the copyright agreement says. Some countries are already doing that. It is great, and should be generalized globally. These top-down mandates are the best path towards a world where 100% of scientific papers are published under an open access license. They have much more impact than personal policies like mine.

Also, if I already had some power within publishing institutions, I might try to accomplish change from the inside instead. This might be the most efficient path for someone already there. I am not in that position, though, and probably will not be in the near future. So, I am doing what I can, at my level.

Can I try to change your mind?

Sure. My contact info is at the bottom of the page. Note that I have already heard the following points, and taken them under consideration.

  • "You're going to make some people angry and possibly hurt your career."
  • "For-profit publishers are useful, here's a long list of valuable things they do."
  • "It is unethical to publish in a venue but refuse to peer review for it."
  • "Publishers generally don't bother you when you upload your papers on your personal website, so there's no pragmatic reason to care about these things."

If you want to try and convince me that I'm doing something wrong, I encourage you to bring new ideas to the discussion.

Note: none of these ideas is originally from me. I wrote this after being inspired by friends and colleagues who also chose not to support closed-access venues with free work. I'm not reproducing names for privacy reasons (not everyone is comfortable with taking a public stance), but most of the credit goes to them.

All opinions here are my own, not my employer's.   |   Feedback on these posts is very welcome! Please reach out via e-mail (se.niatnofsed@neimad) or Twitter (@TedOnPrivacy) for comments and suggestions.   |   Interested in deploying formal anonymization methods? My colleagues and I at Tumult Labs can help. Contact me at oi.tlmt@neimad, and let's chat!