How we need to change for more inclusive and open publication practices

Authors: Julie Williamson
Posted: Fri, July 10, 2020 - 10:18:44


While progress toward more inclusive and open publications can be made through top-down policy, power within SIGCHI is distributed across a wide range of volunteers beyond the Executive Committee, for example conference Steering Committees, conference leadership, and the author and reviewer communities. The real work of enacting change comes from advocacy at all these levels:

  • We could reduce bias in peer review by implementing two-way anonymization, but members of the community must advocate to conference leadership and steering committees to enact change.

  • While advances in accessibility have been put into policy by the Executive Committee, authors must also put in work and learn how to provide accessible content.

  • Moving toward universal open access will require authors to take on work to support automated processes and be prepared to contribute to the fixed costs of publishing.

I have no doubts that there are structural inequalities that prevent all members of our community from participating in publication equally. I firmly believe that breaking through these barriers will require everyone to do additional work and learn new skills. Many of the challenges we face require widespread behavioral change and cannot be enacted through top-down policy alone. What power volunteer leaders have is quickly extinguished in the face of widespread resistance to change.

I speak from a position of relative privilege and power: I am a member of the ACM Publications Board with significant experience drafting and applying publication policies, including the Conflict of Interest Policy for ACM Publications and Policy on Author Name Changes. I am the SIGCHI Vice President for Publications with significant experience deploying publication production pipelines for the new TAPS process, advising conference leadership, and advocating for author rights on a variety of issues. I enjoy spending time building my knowledge on publication policies and writing on open access issues. I consider myself an expert on nonprofit publishing and have positions that give me an opportunity to express and further develop this expertise. 

So here is my call to the community: If you value inclusion, accessibility, and openness then you must be willing to change, take on new work, and learn new skills to make this happen.

Two-way anonymized reviewing

In "A Call to Action for the ACM," Black scholars made the direct recommendation to implement either fully open or two-way anonymization for peer review. There are interesting experiments in open reviewing, like the many conferences using I am more excited about two-way anonymization, given the significant evidence that one-way anonymization is biased in many ways.

Adopting two-way anonymization requires additional work for reviewers at all levels. It requires everyone to learn the details of the relevant conflict of interest policy, reflect on their conflicts, and declare these in advance. This can be a tedious task, requiring everyone to read long lists of potential conflicts and mark their selections thoughtfully. But putting in this work is crucial to reducing bias at all levels of reviewing. Especially in the case of conferences like ACM CHI, where program committees bid on papers, complete reviews, and hold positions of power over acceptance in the context of one-way anonymization, this upfront work to declare conflicts is vital.

Accessible format and content

I recognize the longstanding de-prioritization of accessibility in publications. Although there has been significant progress on accessibility at SIGCHI—for example, accessibility audits of peer review software, producing accessible HTML proceedings, and providing author instructions for accessible content—progress is often impeded by communities that are slow to change.

I have been actively involved in advocating for accessibility in SIGCHI publications, most notably through the transition to the new authoring templates, which enables the creation of accessible HTML documents. The greatest frustrations I experience are community responses that although accessibility is important, it was not “worth the extra work” to make it possible.

The reality is that everyone will be required to do additional work to create accessible publications, and it will require us to learn new skills like writing figure descriptions and providing numerical summaries of visualizations. Providing these details is also good research practice, advancing the transparency and reproducibility of our research and making visual elements of publications indexable. As SIGCHI VP for Publications, I can ensure this work doesn’t create an undue burden, but it is not possible to make this work nonexistent.

Open access

Authors, reviewers, and volunteers do a significant amount of work to prepare, review, and present publications. For ACM publications, this volunteer labor is also supported by professional staff, who turn a collection of documents into a structured proceedings that is of publishable quality, is searchable, and is available for download. This includes work such as defining and enforcing standardized metadata, supporting and training volunteers who oversee publications, preparing proceedings for upload into the content management system of the DL, and releasing proceedings. Much of this happens in the background, and relies on manual effort from a small number of people. As an indication of scale, in 2019 ACM added 34,000 full-text articles to the DL. ACM employs 20 staff in the Publications department, three of whom focus on production.

If we want to move toward universal open access, we need to optimize and automate our processes and develop new financial models. For example, the new ACM templates make it possible to automate metadata collection and validation, but authors must learn how to use these new processes. Authors may need to pay additional fees, such as submission fees, increased conference fees, or presentation fees to provide continued support to the fixed costs of publication.

What do we do now?

Top-down policy alone will be ineffective to make these changes. In practice, the SIGCHI Executive Committee has little or no “power” over the distributed network of volunteers that make up SIGCHI. Advocates for change will need to engage with a wide range of volunteer leaders at all levels—conference chairs, steering committees, individual authors and reviewers—to be effective 

Implementing two-way anonymization through policy is only part of the process: Conference leadership must be willing to participate. In my experience, taking agency away from conference leadership through top-down policies like this creates toxic friction. When I was involved in drafting the Conflict of Interest Policy for ACM Publications, a general resistance to two-way anonymization came up throughout the process. As an Associate Chair and Subcommittee Chair for the User Experience and Usability CHI Subcommittee, I’ve also seen how these positions of power can depend on one-way anonymization; I expect there would be resistance to two-way anonymization. To enact changes like this, we need pressure from the top down supported by pressure from the bottom up.

Policies on accessibility, like work I have completed enforcing the use of templates that generate accessible documents, are only partially effective in creating accessible conference proceedings. For example, requiring authors to provide figure descriptions would be a simple policy, but ensuring that content is appropriate and useful is a significant challenge. When forced to provide figure descriptions, a large proportion of authors simply copy the captions, which adds nothing of value for accessibility. Making progress requires everyone to hold conference leaders and authors accountable.

ACM recently announced a commitment to go fully open access within five years “if this can be achieved in a sustainable way.” Authors must be prepared to take on additional work when manual, costly labor is replaced by systems that automate these tasks. For example, copyright processes that were supported by vendors may need to be run by volunteers and automated systems. This approach means authors must complete these forms correctly and within deadlines without the support of a vendor to ensure publication of their work. Additionally, authors, conference attendees, and libraries may be required to pay more to maintain financial stability currently supported through subscription fees.

In the positions I hold, I actively work for change through policy. However, I recognize that most of the hard work is in “socializing” important ideas so that policies are accepted and effective. If there is an appetite for change in the community, it will take action from the community at all levels. Where there are gaps in policy, we work to express our values in new policies, and where policies are unfair, we work to change them.

Posted in: on Fri, July 10, 2020 - 10:18:44

Julie Williamson

Julie Williamson is a faculty member in the Glasgow Interactive Systems Section at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on non-planar displays and immersive experiences for public and social settings. Her service focuses on publication matters at SIGCHI and ACM, including open access, accessibility, and proceedings production processes.
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