The royalty problem for electronic computer-science publications

Eric | November 19, 2011

The VG WORT is the German collecting society for royalty fees on scientific articles. For years now, I have been diligently signaling each of my publications to the VG WORT, until last year without any problem. Once a year or so they send a cheque. It’s usually not a large amount of money, but it’s always a nice surprise. But recently things changed…

Two times in a row now, my papers have been rejected because they have an “insufficient distribution”. This includes an ICSE paper! The VG Wort requires that articles be present in at least 10 German libraries – in print. Apparently, for ICSE proceedings this is not the case any more. (It’s true, I checked it online.) Now of course one can raise a question if this is a good thing, but maybe it’s just a reality that libraries, at least for current scientific articles, are becoming a thing of the past.

The other question is, though, what does this mean for royalty fees? Surely ICSE papers are read by thousands of people, probably by many more people now than 10 years ago. Still the authors go away empty-handed. I raised the issue with the people responsible at VG WORT, who kindly replied that there is an alternative way to apply for royalty fees. This alternative system is called METIS. It’s meant to be a system to track how often an article is downloaded online. The method is flawed, however: an article is assumed to be downloaded whenever a certain invisible pixel (residing on the VG WORT webserver) is requested. I don’t need to explain to anybody with a computer science background, why this is problematic… adding these pixels to personal websites is quite labor intensive and hardly pays off. The method could work to a large extent if ACM and Springer integrated with the METIS system, but they don’t – and why should they? They have zero incentive to do so.

The problem has been known for a while (see here and here) but it seems that one is still quite far from a solution. Of course this is an interesting and challenging problem: how do you measure how often a paper is copied if it is copied electronically? I am curious to see how things will evolve.