Why Does The IEEE Make It So Difficult To Access And Share Research?

from the hoarding-mentality dept

Matt points us to an article by Martin Rowe about the difficulty of accessing and sharing information and research published by the IEEE, which he finds to be a bit of a travesty, since the IEEE should be in the business of promoting technical knowledge. He describes how he found an interesting paper that he wanted to share with his readership, but that the IEEE forbids just reposting their content (a restriction he’s fine with). Instead, though, he hoped that the author of the paper would post it publicly (rather than behind the IEEE’s paywall) and let him link to it. The author agreed, but since the author wasn’t a member of the IEEE, he didn’t have a copy of the full paper (this part seems a bit odd — you would think at some point the author would have a copy of his own paper). So Martin agreed to download a copy for the author of his own paper — but the IEEE stamps it with Martin’s name and says that it can’t be used by anyone else.

Of course, you can see what the IEEE is thinking. It wants to hoard the information in order to build up its membership ranks, fearing that if it made that information available, people would be less interested in becoming an IEEE member. I would argue that’s rather short-sighted, and there are plenty of other ways the IEEE could make membership more valuable (member-only gathering, access to other members online, discounts on events/publications/etc.) while still making the papers it publishes free. In fact, by freeing up the content, and highlighting those other benefits, it could even make membership more valuable.

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Comments on “Why Does The IEEE Make It So Difficult To Access And Share Research?”

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Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps, just maybe, it’s those papers that are the valuable information that members pay for, not coffee klatches or miniputt games. Perhaps that is what members value.

Not really – it’s the letters after your name they pay for.

– and usually you don’t get full access to everything by joining anyway.

Journal access is mainly a convenience anyway – as you can always (in my experience) get the stuff some other way if you want to. Typing the paper title straight into Google usually does the trick. If that fails an email to the author is likely to work.

I did join ACM SIGGRAPH a few years ago to get access but

a) It was very cheap.

b) I signed up for 5 years at a time when the dollar was low. (I’m not in the US).

c) There are some other benefits (news about future conferences etc)

d) Actually I’ve not needed to use my membership lately as it’s often quicker to get the paper from the author anyway.

Getefix says:

Re: Re: Valuable!

Fiat currencies have tricked humanity into believing that there is a numinous, gestalt “standard” to value when in reality all value is situational. The problem with valuing knowledge is that the value is generally indeterminate until you have obtained and digested it (particularly true of recipes). Perhaps the only way to fairly value information would be for an independent party to “audit” how much a given portion of information helped a project and then specify a fair compensation. Of course this would require that the project prove lucrative, and that you could identify and compensate any giants the author of the info was standing on…

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Huh… this part is kind of odd, no?

“I contacted someone at IEEE who told me that if I have a full copy of Adobe Acrobat (we do here at T&MW), I could remove those words from each page and then send the document to the author for posting. I’m still waiting to hear from the author if he agrees to that.”

Do you think the person who told him he could do that was supposed to?

Richard (profile) says:

The mechanism at work

Authors submit papers are published by the IEEE because their conferences and journals carry more weight with research assessment panels (and for that matter job interviw panels, funding panels and so on.)

I find it strange however that the author would not have a copy – and usually a version is available via the institution’s website (that reminds me – I’ve got one I need to put up).

Most publishers are happy to allow you to do this provided it’s not absolutely identical to what they have. Many authors will put up an expanded version!

In the old (paper) days publishers usually gave the author some free reprints to hand out to anyone who requested them (I still have plenty lying around).

Learned societies and private publishers (Elsevier, Springer etc) get their income from institutional library subscriptions. There has to be the appearance of a barrier to free access otherwise the institutions would not feel the need to subscribe. On the other hand research needs to be available to authors – because a journal gets its credibility from referencing.

So they pretend you can’t get at the stuff without a subscription – but in reality you can.

The idea that the author hasn’t got a copy is not credible to me. (and I’ve published via the IEEE, helped run a conference that published with them and peer reviewed for one of their journals.)

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

IEEE Membership

I am a long-time IEEE member (over 20 years) and director of an IEEE affiliate group. IEEE membership has a number of benefits, and access to publications is only one of them. There are continuing education credits one gets at IEEE-sponsored technical presentations that are necessary to maintain a variety of professional certifications, such as Professional Engineer (PE). There is the networking aspects of the regular chapter meetings and conferences. There is the IEEE job site where one can look for employment, or employees. There are the consultants’ networks and consultant postings. There is the cachet of being an IEEE member in one’s resume – that one has a certain level of education and experience in the field.

Publishing technical journals as does the IEEE is a very costly enterprise, and they don’t take advertising to help defray these costs. So, membership in the Institute, subscription to these journals, or purchasing copies of the articles online, is the only way we have to subsidize these activities. FWIW, you don’t need to be a member to purchase articles, though it costs somewhat more for non-members. As a member, I subscribe to a number of journals (they cost extra) and can access the content of those journals online. However, unless I purchase an IEEE Library subscription I have to pay for full access to publications that I don’t subscribe to. Do I object to that? Well, once in awhile I find reference to an article I would like to read in detail that I also have to pay for, and while I grumble, if it is something I really need then I will pay. If I needed access to a lot more than I currently do, then I would pay the couple hundred USD per year for unfettered access to the IEEE publication “hoard”.

Comboman (profile) says:

Re: IEEE Membership

Publishing technical journals as does the IEEE is a very costly enterprise, and they don’t take advertising to help defray these costs.

I’m not sure why it should be so costly, since the IEEE doesn’t actually create the content, their members do (and pay for the privilege of doing so). If they get rid of dead tree journals and go electronic only (assuming they haven’t already), then their publishing costs should be minimal.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Re: Re: IEEE Membership

Editors, layout artists, printing costs (for those who still need paper publications), servers, software tools, internet connectivity, bandwidth… These all cost $$. Sure, a PDF costs effectively nothing (other than the time to research the paper, write it, lay it out, etc), but that is only the smallest tip of the iceberg. Maybe the IEEE doesn’t pay for content contributions (not sure), but all the companies that I have worked for over the past 25 years pay their employees for publishing in technical magazines and journals. I’ve earned a fair amount in bonus bucks for this in the past.

All this said, I’m not sure that the current rates are appropriate, and I would be strongly in favor of releasing content into the public domain after some reasonable period of time (a year or two?), but fundamentally to charge a nominal fee for access to content published by an organization is not inappropriate. However, to keep research from public access is not. Anyway, this debate is healthy, and I will certainly discuss this issue at length the next time I get together with my colleague Dr. Gary Blank who is the current director-at-large of the IEEE-USA.

bj honeycutt (user link) says:

Re: IEEE Membership

What do you mean they don’t take advertising dollars? A full page ad in Spectrum, one of their gummy publications is $15K. You’d think that a “society of engineers” would be able to figure out a way to target advertising to their members, but alas, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and while engineers can put rockets into space, they’re unable to tell me people in the power industry or telecom industry are members. WTF is up with that? If I were advertising, I’d start to wonder…most publications can give you job level,title, and job category. The Itriple Idiots don’t seem to be able to handle this. I wouldn’t spend 15K to advertise to a “blob” of people. Don’t engineers understand “targeting” and “demographics” like most people do? Ridiculous.

Not to mention that the whole organization is basically a bunch of little clubs in a mashup. Foolish way to organize.

james says:

Re: IEEE Membership

But some of us do not have the money to just “buy the papers we need” and occasionally need to reference material ‘locked away’ behind that paywall.

for example the CCIR recommendations for FSS communications are internationally adheared too and regarded as ‘the’ reference yet the IEEE locks all that data away where one must pay to access it.

Outragous, egregious and obscene.

99% of the people who wish to view the data do not need the “benefits” of being an IEEE member.

Whilst it may not be a “for profit” company they sure make a great deal of money to spend jetsetting about and eating caviar.

Anonymous Coward says:

Professional membership

I belong to a similar type of professional membership for management. One of the more annoying things is that they (much like other journals) have a moving wall for LIBRARY access to their journals, meaning if you aren’t a member of the organization, you cannot access the most recent published research EVEN IF your university subscribes to the journal.

That is clearly going against the goal of scholarship (i.e., to build knowledge), and it really annoys a lot of people. But profit centers are hard for people (or organizations) to give up.

davebarnes (profile) says:

How and Why not?

“Publishing technical journals as does the IEEE is a very costly enterprise, and they don’t take advertising to help defray these costs.”

How is it costly? Do the editors get paid that much? Thanks to the great god of PDFs, the publication and distribution costs approach $zero.

Why not accept advertising? What is so righteous about journals being ad-free?

someone who actually knows what he's talking about says:

Re: How and Why not?

in high end fields, advertisement cheapens everything. many journals have a policy against inter-page advertisement, but they may have a section in the back couple pages where it’s set up like the classifieds in a newspaper. i don’t think this policy as bad because practitioners in every field always need some way of finding services related to their field.

the problem with inter-page advertisement in journals is that companies will try and present an advertisement made to look like an article, or an abstract/summary of an article (a LOT of pharma journals have this problem). some journals that do allow inter-page advertisements write “ADVERTISEMENT” at the bottom in bold letters, while some ban advertisements made to look like journal content.

:) says:


There is a push to make open scientific publications available for free.

http://www.biomedcentral.com/ (For Profit organization, authors pay and ad supported)
http://www.hindawi.com/(for profit authors pay)

The IEEE also makes compulsory to transfer the copyrights from the work.


Bernstein opinions about the IEEE


Tara Drennen (profile) says:

IEEE Membership

I’ve been following the comments on Martin’s column on LinkedIn as well as on the TMW site. IEEE isn’t alone on this; IPC has gotten MUCH better, but I prefer the JEDEC model where standards and technical info are available for download, and Member benefits add participation in the standards committees, etc., as well as discounts on full CDs and dead tree versions.

In searching for data on test issues, I often come across references to IEEE pubs – and usually have to settle for trade pub extracts or comments to get the gist.

The Real Zano says:

I recently published a paper in a IEEE conference and the story being put forth here doesn’t gel with my understanding of the standard copyright agreement that I signed with the IEEE.

From the IEEE Copyright form:

2. Authors/employers may reproduce or authorize others to reproduce the Work, material extracted verbatim from the Work, or derivative works for the author’s personal use or for company use, provided that the source and the IEEE copyright notice are indicated, the copies are not used in any way that implies IEEE endorsement of a product or service of any employer, and the copies themselves are not offered for sale.

So the paper’s author in this case either got into a non-standard copyright agreement with the IEEE or has no idea what his rights as the author are. Or perhaps he is just a really bad record keeper and doesn’t keep copies of his own published work – which is a terrible practice for a variety of reasons.

The Real Zano says:

Re: Re: Re:

Basically it amounts to the fact that the number of higher quality venues available for publication is quite low, and a lot of these are IEEE.

Besides, I actually don’t have a problem with their copyright agreement; it doesn’t seem that I, as the author, am not giving up any of the rights that I care about (ability to distribute for free, use subsets of the work in whatever way I see fit, and the copyright on any process described within). In fact I think that the only meaningful right actually given up by the author is the right to sell copies of the published work, which is an awful idea anyway IMO.

Luke Houghton (profile) says:

Open Access

This isn’t just a IEEE thing. I had an experience recently where I had a paper accepted into an Operations Research journal and nobody can see and another into an Ed Tech journal which everyone can see and download. Guess which one has more cites. Granted it’s not many (4) but it beats the crap out of the 0 I have for an older paper is a higher ranked journal. If you want more cites, more people reading your work, then given them access to it. PDF’s are free to duplicate.

Samantha Atkins says:


The members pay for it because they can’t access it otherwise. But the question to be considered is *should* there be such paywalls and as difficult to escape around technical knowledge. In the case of IEEE it is not at all clear that I am getting $800 plus of value per year (current subscriptions) that I should be charged simply to keep abreast of current knowledge and use it in producing the value I produce or simply satisfying my insatiable curiosity. It is not clear to me that IEEE adds enough value to justify such a charge. Nor does the any of the money paid in, to the best of my knowledge, go back to the authors of such papers.

Paywalls like this made some sense in the days when publishing was on paper and expensive. But those days are long past. Today the prices charged are close to pure profit and for what increasingly looks really arbitrary.

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