I'm delighted to report that USENIX, probably the most important technical society at which I publish (and on whose board I serve), has taken a long-overdue lead toward openly disseminating scientific research. Effective immediately, all USENIX proceedings and papers will be freely available on the USENIX web site as soon as they are published [link]. (Previously, most of the organization's proceedings required a member login for access for the first year after their publication.)
For years, many authors have made their papers available on their own web sites, but the practice is haphazard, non-archivial, and, remarkably, actively discouraged by the restrictive copyright policies of many journals and conferences. So USENIX's step is important both substantively and symbolically. It reinforces why scientific papers are published in the first place: not as proprietary revenue sources, but to advance the state of the art for the benefit of society as a whole.
Unfortunately, other major technical societies that sponsor conferences and journals still cling to the antiquated notion, rooted in a rapidly-disappearing print-based publishing economy, that they naturally "own" the writings that volunteer authors, editors and reviewers produce. These organizations, which insist on copyright control as a condition of publication, argue that the sale of conference proceedings and journal subscriptions provides an essential revenue stream that subsidizes their other good works. But this income, however well it might be used, has evolved into an ill-gotten windfall. We write scientific papers first and last because we want them read. When papers were actually printed on paper it might have been reasonable to expect authors to donate the copyright in exchange for production and distribution. Today, of course, such a model seems, at best, quaintly out of touch with the needs of researchers and academics who can no longer tolerate the delay or expense of seeking out printed copies of far-flung documents they expect to find on the web.
Organizations devoted to computing research should recognize this not-so-new reality better than anyone. It's time for ACM and IEEE to follow USENIX's leadership in making scientific papers freely available to all comers. Please join me in urging them to do so.