Research paper paywalls are awful

This Lambda-the-Ultimate entry is about a study on the efficacy of Transactional Memory (TM). Apparently, TM proponents often claim that it makes concurrent programming easier (I've seen those claims), but that claim is often not backed up by citations. So they refer to this TM study (pdf) designed to test this assertion. The results:

On average, subjective evaluation showed that students found transactions harder to use than coarse-grain locks, but slightly easier to use than fine-grained locks. Detailed examination of synchronization errors in the students' code tells a rather different story. Overwhelmingly, the number and types of programming errors the students made was much lower for transactions than for locks. On a similar programming problem, over 70% of students made errors with fine-grained locking, while less than 10% made errors with transactions.

I know some people deny the utility of software studies, but I don't. I'm rather keen on getting some empirical evidence rather than being the proud captain of the USS Make Stuff Up and that's what many (most?) software debates seem to be when you get into the land of theory. However, what frustrates me even more than that is how difficult it can be to cite anything. Constantly when I'm trying to find a paper, I hit the damned ACM Portal. I wanted to read Language design to enhance programming reliability, but of course I couldn't. You have to pay for it. And what happens when I click their "Purchase a copy" link?

Sorry, No match found for the requested dissertation.
Actual server error: No match found for the requested dissertation. [23123]

It's awful that we have so much scholarship locked away. Karen Pauley (a.k.a., the President of TPF) pays for access, but she comments that when she writes about something she's seen, she can't even link to the source¹ How can I possibly convince you that something is interesting and worthwhile if I can't show it to you? I guarantee that we wouldn't be using roles so heavily today if the original traits research had been locked behind a paywall. How much great work are we missing out on because you have to pay for research papers? Many of those papers are paid for with tax dollars, but you still can't have them.

I might add that many times I can find the paper online by doing a Google search of the paper title in quotes with filetype:pdf added to the end of the query (didn't work for this paper). This isn't kosher, and it makes it hard for me to cite the work, but at least I can use it for personal knowledge. Damn.

1. And she might not even be able to link to that. For the ACM paper I wanted, Karen was able to get to the above article, but it turned out to be a paper written about that time and not the actual thesis. They entice me to buy a paper I want to read but it turns out they don't even have it?


FYI Authors will 90% of the time send you a pre-print of the paper.

Just email them.

Or in google search for the paper title and .pdf. Often you'll find a citeseer link that has a pdf or a ps.

To the quasi-anonymous poster above, requesting a pre-print from the author only works as long as the author is still reachable, which the author in this case no longer is:

I also noticed that the ACM portal page in question says "Bibliometrics
Downloads (6 Weeks): n/a, Downloads (12 Months): n/a", which suggests the unavailability of the paper.

I tried poking around the U of Toronto web site, but couldn't find out whether they make old dissertations available on-line (probably not).

I suspect in this case, the dissertation is not actually on-line anywhere. There's probably a hard copy in the U of T library, a few retired or nearly retired professors might have hard copies they requested from Dr. Gannon or U of T years ago, and Dr. Gannon's heirs might still have a copy laying around.

Your alternative is to cultivate a friend in a research institution. We basically have unlimited access to most stuff, and if we need to put in an interlibrary loan, it's generally on a no questions asked basis. And seeing as electronic holdings are so much better than in the past, we've don't generally have to get them as frequently as we used to.

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About Ovid

user-pic Have Perl; Will Travel. Freelance Perl/Testing/Agile consultant. Photo by Warning: that site is not safe for work. The photographer is a good friend of mine, though, and it's appropriate to credit his work.