Or, why publishing papers behind academic-society paywalls is not good enough, part \( n+1, \) made particularly relevant because of the ongoing vote on whether SoCG should continue to let ACM paywall its articles.
A large fraction of computer science research goes on in conferences and journals sponsored by the two large societies in this area, ACM and IEEE, both of which put these publications behind paywalls so that only members and subscribers can access them. But in the case of IEEE it's a little more complicated than that: the IEEE as a whole, and the IEEE Computer Society, have separate web sites, ieee.org and computer.org, with separate paywalls. My library, naturally, subscribes to the whole IEEE library, since many of its users are engineers who are not computer scientists and who need access to the other parts of the library. So that means that if I want to access a paper I have to find the copy on ieee.org, because our subscription doesn't give us access to computer.org. Ok, minor inconvenience finding alternative URLs for papers, annoying but not too painful.
Today, I discovered that one of the papers I wanted to access ("If Escher Had a Computer", IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 4-5, May/June 2002, doi:10.1109/MCG.2002.10012) is available through the computer.org site but not through the ieee.org site. The IEEE version has IEEE CGA online, and gives me access to it, but the listing for papers in that issue of that journal in ieee.org starts on page 6; apparently editorial material (which I guess this is?) doesn't count as a paper and doesn't get included. So my only alternative options are to purchase the article from computer.org for $19.00 (!), to hope that the paper can be obtained through interlibrary loan, or to beg the internet for someone with computer.org access to send it to me.
This may seem like just a glitch in a database somewhere — someone neglected to transfer something from one database to another, or something like that — but I think this is typical of the sort of thing that happens when we give custody of our works to people who put extracting rents from them as their first priority, and making them widely accessible a distant second.
Pardon me--not truly part of the academic world... but isn't the whole point of scientific papers that they be available? Bricks in the edifice of knowledge and all that?
If you're an academic, yes. If you're a commercial academic publisher like Springer or Elsevier or Taylor & Francis, the whole point is to extract money from academics who need to get published to get ahead and who need to read other academics' publications to get their own writings published. So you get policies that fiction writers would find very strange, like having to sign over the copyright to anything you publish as part of the publication agreement.
Societies like ACM and IEEE also publish journals and conference proceedings, which are often more prestigious than the other ones. Their motivations are somewhere in between the academics and the commercial publishers: officially nonprofit, and motivated more by their members' interests than by profit, but still needing to bring in money to support themselves. This causes their actions to sometimes appear a bit schizophrenic — ACM, for instance, paywalls their publications if you find them directly but allows authors to make links that others can follow to read the papers for free. There are also a lot of new "open access" journals, some of which are run on a shoestring by academics and don't charge anyone to publish or to read, others of which are free to read but with big publication fees.
In many cases, authors put up preprint versions of their papers that can be read for free on their personal web sites, or on centralized preprint servers. Sometimes they do this in accord with the copyright agreement they signed when they published the paper, sometimes they modify the copyright agreement appropriately before signing it, and sometimes they blatantly violate the copyright agreement, but so far no publisher has dared to take legal steps to combat these violations. In this particular case, the official published version was all I could find.
By connecting to the internet from my office or through a VPN that lets my home machine look like it is on campus, I get access to all the subscriptions my university library has paid for, which includes many but not all major societies and commercial publishers. It was supposed to have included the particular paper I was looking for this time, but somehow it fell through the cracks. And there's always the fear that in some future year as the subscription prices continue to climb, my library will be forced to drop more of the subscriptions that I depend on.
They are available ... to anyone who pays for them. Now that distribution is (assumed to be) zero cost this is considered a problem: people should have access to knowledge.
There are other costs involved in publication so there is still some need for revenue generation (and perhaps profit).
One suggested solution to this problem is for the author to pay, which obviously has objections of its own.
Subsidy is often considered difficult or unlikely, but the review process where respected members of the field pass judgement on a paper before it is accepted or rejected mean that commercial publishers are already recieving a significant hidden subsidy.