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Why ACM?

By Moshe Y. Vardi

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 55 No. 9, Page 5

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"Another reason to ditch ACM," thundered an ACM member in a social-media posting during the recent debate over the Research Works Act (RWA), introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2011. The proposed legislation prohibits open-access mandates for U.S.-funded research. While deep concerns with the bill were widespread, the nasty tone of the posting was surprising to me.

In this particular case, the member was frustrated by ACM's slow response to the introduction of RWA. Furthermore, ACM is a member of the Association of American Publishers, which supported RWA. (ACM issued a statement against RWA in February 2012, see http://www.acm.org/news/featured/rwa-frpaa-feature?searchterm=RWA.) I suspect, however, that the reasons for this anger toward ACM have to do with ACM's overall publishing business model, focused on issues such as open access, copyrights, and the like. It is inevitable that members' positions on some issues may not always agree with ACM's position. It is useful, therefore, to step back and look at ACM from a broader perspective.

ACM is a professional, scholarly association. Such associations have a very long history. The Roman collegia, starting from the third century B.C., included guilds of craftsmen that controlled secrets of their trade. The earliest universities, in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford around 1200 A.D., were formed as guilds of students or teachers, which is where the modern term "college" originated. The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known as the Royal Society, founded in 1660, is the oldest scientific society.

ACM, whose purpose is "advancing computing as a science and a profession," was founded in 1947. ACM today has an amazing range of activities. A typical ACM member is usually familiar with only a few of the association's activities, say, the Turing Award, the Digital Library, and a couple of conferences and journals, but these constitute only a small slice of ACM's total portfolio. For a fuller picture of ACM's range of activities, read ACM's Annual Report at http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/1/144822-acms-annual-report/fulltext, which describes activities pertaining to publications, education, professional development, public policy, students, internationalization, electronic community, conferences, and award recognition. So, before one calls for "ditching ACM" because of disagreements with ACM's policies, one should ask, paraphrasing the American columnist Ann Landers, whether one is better off with ACM or without ACM.

Beyond the utilitarian argument for ACM, it is important to put one's disagreements with ACM in perspective. ACM is governed by a council, chaired by a president. As a democratic association, the president and the members of the council are elected by the membership. ACM's publication policy is set by the Publications Board, whose members are appointed by the council. Thus, ACM's policy is not determined by some abstract entity, but rather by flesh and blood members, who are, just like you, computing professionals. When you disagree with ACM, you are disagreeing with your colleagues. Yes, ACM does have professional staff, responsible for daily operations of the association, but, ultimately, decision making is vested with the "volunteers," which is ACM's parlance for the members who generously offer their time to help run the numerous activities.

Of course, we are all entitled to our own passionately held opinions, and we are not obligated to agree with the decisions of ACM Council. Still, an association with over 100,000 members, tremendously diversified across geographical and occupational lines, is bound to reach decisions that are not always unanimously held. By all means, get involved, lobby for your opinions, write to ACM's president and council members, but accept their authority to reach a final decision in the best interests of the association.

Finally, as members, we are all obligated, I believe, to work in the best interest of the association. The open-access issue has raised a lot of passion, but we must consider this issue in the context of ACM's financial well-being. Publishing is about one-third of ACM's business. Thus, changing ACM's publishing model may have serious consequences for the association and should not be taken lightly. Generally, open access implies changing the business model of publishing from reader pays to author pays. Surprisingly, most people who tell me that ACM should adopt open access seem to equate open access with free access, as in "no one pays." Such an argument cannot be taken seriously. Open-access advocates cannot ignore the need to accompany their advocacy with serious business-model proposals.

Remember, ACM is not some abstract, anonymous organization. It is an association of you and your colleagues. Our slogan should be "l'association c'est nous," that is, "ACM is us."


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It is an excellent point that "free" articles mean money has to be taken away from somewhere, and not only from commercial publishers.

However, this line "Finally, as members, we are all obligated, I believe, to work in the best interest of the association." illustrates some of the problems with the current model. Our obligations as computer scientists are to society as a whole, and perhaps to the advancement of computer science, in the service of social benefit. We should embrace organizations like the ACM only to the extent that they advance these larger goals. If the ACM has been corrupted by its publishing revenues to the point where it helps pay the AAP to lobby for RWA, then we can reconsider our "obligations" towards the ACM.

(As an aside, the medieval guilds are not great role models. They operated as cartels and often used violence to prevent innovation. They are good examples of organizations that help their existing members while harming society overall.)

It is also misleading to argue that "no one pays" doesn't work. It works fine for researchers in theoretical quantum computing. Most articles are on arxiv.org, and the flagship conference QIP operates without published proceedings that would require copyright transfer. Yes, someone has to pay for arxiv.org, but this is peanuts.

-Aram Harrow

John Fitzpatrick

Allow one of the provincials (that is, a non-academic) to comment:

"ACM is a professional, scholarly association."

Yes it is. Has been since its founding. Yet in the recent years (decades?), ACM has chosen to reach out beyond academia to practitioners. This has lead to an interesting result: many members are not academics but practitioners in "the private sector" or "the government sector".

"ACM, whose purpose is 'advancing computing as a science and a profession' "

An interesting statement. For this provincial, the main activity of ACM seems to be the perpetuation of the incestuous ecosystem of authors, grant applicants, and ACM publications. Authors write papers in the hopes of citations (and grants) and cite others (providing good grant-karma to others). This all works for the academics, and perhaps "computing as a science" but it provides nothing to practitioners. The ACM is, in my view, an enabler of this behavior.

We provincials tolerate the shenanigans of academics in search of grants because in the end, we don't care. We give not one whit about the number of citations an author gathers, not one iota for publication. We care, instead, about getting our jobs done, about delivering a usable solution to a customer.

This focus on the delivery of solutions (for mere money, no less) may seem crass and unsophisticated to the academic world and the elites of the ACM. Yet just as the ACM can trace its roots to the Roman collegia, we practitioners can trace our roots to Roman merchants and earlier.

The ACM has apparently built its business on the collection of fees for access to articles. This business model assumes that its articles are desired and scarce, and therefore of high value. For those members in the "citation game", these articles are important. The citation seekers pay their dues by providing citations to others and hope for publication and eventual citation by others. For those members in the "delivery game", most articles in the ACM digital library are insignificant. Content and ideas are primary; citations are simply footnotes.

Opposition to the RWA does not mean opposition to ACM's business model. It means that government-funded research (that is, taxpayer-funded research) should be available to those who have paid for it. I have no objection to ACM funding its own research and charging for access. I do object to ACM charging for access to works paid by others.

ACM's response to the FRA (and its non-support of the FRPAA) puts it in the position of opposing everything and recommending nothing. The delayed response to the FRA shows that ACM is not paying attention to current events and not leading.

ACM must step up and define a vision of the future.

"we are not obligated to agree with the decisions of ACM Council"

Damn right we're not. And if we disagree enough, we will leave.

The question is not are we better off without the ACM than with, but this: is ACM better off without us practitioners than with us? It is a question I would advise the ACM Council to ponder carefully.

ACM must decide its future. Does it cater to the academic game of citations, or does it advocate for practitioners?

John White

Anonymous takes issue with Moshe Vardis point that as members, we are all obligated, I believe, to work in the best interest of the association saying Our obligations as computer scientists are to society as a whole, and perhaps to the advancement of computer science, in the service of social benefit. In reality, ACM is obligated to advancing computing as a science and as a profession ... and to seeing computing serve in a socially beneficiary way. So the issue of whether one is obligated to ACM or to the principles outlined by Anonymous is moot. They are essentially the same - given the unique nature of ACM.

Fitzgerald argues that the main activity of ACM seems to be the perpetuation of the incestuous ecosystem of authors, grant applicants, and ACM publications. ACM does serve the academic/ research community, but as even Fitzgerald notes, ACM has made a concerted and substantial effort over the past decade to engage practitioners. This effort has led to new products/services such as Queue (the magazine and website), the Practice Section of CACM, online course, online books and references, TechPacks, Learning Paths, and webinars for practitioners.

ACM obligations are significant and the investment made to back these obligations is substantial. As a result, ACM and its leaders are committed to, and are delivering on:

Ensuring computer science is a well-understood, well-represented discipline backed by solid (and constantly evolving) curriculum guidelines and accreditation criteria

Ensuring real computer science exists and counts in meeting core graduation requirements at all high schools in the US and in other parts of the world

Ensuring computing is a discipline/field/profession that is open to ... and engaged by ... a population that reflects real diversity in gender, race, and individuals with disabilities

Ensuring policy makers understand the technologies they are influencing ... or being influenced by, and

Ensuring ACM delivers on these obligations worldwide

Clearly, ACM obligations go significantly beyond just scholarly activities such as conferences and publications. The resources required to deliver on these obligations ... to be the society envision by its members and leaders ... are substantial. Some of the required resources can come from dues, but not all. Thus, ACM has a publishing program that creates additional value, is priced incredibly fairly, and contributes to delivering on our obligations to the discipline and to society.

Some confuse the added value ACM creates in its publishing program as something that must inherently be "anti-open-access." This is not the case. ACM grants authors the right to post a version of their ACM-published works on personal, institutional, and/or funding-agency-mandated repositories. In reality, whether an authors ACM-published work is free to the world is a decision the author makes.

John R. White

Graydon Hoare

As an ACM member, I'm embarrassed that the organization -- representing professionals in the field of computers, the bit-copying devices! -- is not at the forefront of OA advocacy. The notion that the costs of archival are somehow prohibitive is laughable. We all know what storage and bandwidth costs. How many terabytes are we talking about? Why isn't this all edge-cached by now, or living in a torrent / mirror network (the way arxiv.org is)?


I understand the concern that some of our members may have concerning ACM's dual role. I think that our actions speak louder than any statement I might make. First of all, let me point out that we were one of the first publishers to set up our copyright policy to explicitly allow our authors to post the juried copy of any paper they publish with us on their own or on their institution's web site. When authors then pointed out that they were not being accounted for properly in terms of number of hits on the DL once they published their papers on their own sites, we developed the to address that. Authors can now post a link from a site of their choosing to the ACM Digital Library that grants free access to the content to anyone who clicks on it. It also enables you to have the current citation count and number of downloads of the paper reflected on your own site in real time. Is there more that we could be doing? Certainly, and we are constantly looking to update the tools that we provide to better serve our members.Concerning RWA, yes, USACM is working on that at the moment and I will be publishing new links as they become available.

Dave Williams

I would quote specific items in the article that I disagree with, but I am not sure if it violates the copyright statement appearing at the bottom of the article, or if I need to include a fee payment first.

Let me state that it is my opinion that as much information as possible should be distributed for free to the person requesting it, and that it is upon us, as members, to pay for that service.

Echoing Graydon's comments, it is also my understanding that with the creation of the internet and electronic publishing that storage and distribution fees have dropped significantly since 1660. Mr. Vardi's justification of ACM's actions using references to the Roman and Renaissance eras only shows how out of touch with the 21st century the ACM has become. Most "computation" professionals prefer to look to the future rather than the past.

Also, I would like know who, the ACM believes, would be interested in paying the $10 fee for this particular article. Because if they cannot answer that simple question, then it is clear they have no understanding of their "customer base" for article fees. Would the hallowed halls of the ACM come crashing down if this article were allowed to be distributed or used for commercial purposed without fees? Of course this outside the RWA argument since this is not likely U.S.-funded research, so even if the ACM were compliant with the legislation, the fee for this article would still apply.

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the December 2012 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/12/157873).
--CACM Administrator

Concerning the proposed Research Works Act, introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2011, Moshe Y. Vardi's "Editor's Letter" "Why ACM?" (Sept. 2012) left me a little confused as to Vardi's own position on both the law and open access. He wrote, "...most people who tell me that ACM should adopt open access seem to equate open access with free access, as in 'no one pays.'" Open access implies free access, but free access does not automatically imply some kind of free lunch or lead to a situation where no one pays. Taxpayers have already paid for the research and its access by funding the research.

Interpreting Vardi, the ACM position would seem to be: No implicit support for open access despite implicit support for the RWA by taking a neutral position. A respected professional scientific association like ACM should not take a neutral position here, as suggested by (past) ACM president Alain Chesnais in his President's blog earlier this year (http://blog.acm.org/president/?p=67).

At least two well-respected professional associationsthe Optical Society of America (OSA) and the Institute of Physics (IOP)do support open access, integrating the practice into their publishing policies and operations. Ignoring such support for open access would represent gross arrogance on the part of ACM; see the OSA and IOP positions spelled out at http://www.opticsinfobase.org/submit/review/pub_charge.cfm#OA and http://iopscience.iop.org/info/page/openaccess. OSA also supports the idea of sponsorship; for example, any existing article can be made open access to the general public regardless of its publication date by subsidizing the cost of publication, usually including for peer reviews, lifetime operation, and long-term maintenance of the article in the organization's digital library. So Vardi's argument that open access means a financial burden for ACM does not hold up entirely.

Dissemination of knowledge is a core ACM value involving access to knowledge and pursuit of scientific inquiry. ACM must weigh its position as a not-for-profit professional scientific association, not as a commercial publisher. I appreciate that publishing is costly, but in almost all cases I know the cost of publishing is covered through government research grants.

Open access to publicly funded scientific research in the public interest is fundamental to an open society and to ACM's own values. ACM should therefore move toward some kind of open-access publishing. Perhaps it can introduce optional open access under certain conditions following the OSA and IOP models.

Mehmet Szen
Bonn, Germany



Szen seems to have misread my editorial. Please note ACM issued a clear statement against RWA: ACM supports open access in several ways, including allowing personal and institutional repositories and the Author-Izer service. Dissemination of knowledge is a key value of ACM, but as ACM members, we need to decide how to cover the cost of publishing; for example, both OSA and IOP allow authors to pay to open access to their articles. ACM is considering adopting this approach.

Moshe Y. Vardi

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the December 2012 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/12/157873).
--CACM Administrator

I was impressed by Moshe Y. Vardi's willingness to engage the ACM membership, including me (Lifetime Member since 2008), concerning open-access publishing (Sept. 2012), and by ACM for not being dogmatic about its copyright policy (such as by not requiring copyright transfer in all instances, like IEEE, and by introducing Author-Izer). I was also pleasantly surprised to see that publishing is the source of only one-third of ACM's annual revenue stream, which represents a great opportunity to develop a business model that would enable (much more free) access to (many more) people. ACM could easily get stuck in its current publishing model, blinding itself to potentially ground-breaking opportunities; for a sad example of such ostrich-like thinking, see the recording industry.

As a way to help ACM move in the right direction, please consider the following:

Opt-in. Provide an opt-in option for, say, a higher-price level of membership. In particular, some members whose subscription fee is paid by universities and employers or who are able to claim that fee on their tax returns might be willing to take such an option. Some current members might be willing to pay more simply because they see the goal (and the organization) as worthwhile and worthy, the way some people donate to keep Wikipedia free;

Crowd-funding. Determine the amount ACM needs to publish all its articles and papers in a year, then ask ACM members, libraries, foundations, and other subscribers to contribute toward that costbasically a form of crowd-funding. (Only if the amount is actually raised would ACM then make the articles and papers available.); and

Set free. Determine the amount needed to make a paywalled article available for free, amending it to each article and paper. If potential readers would be willing to pay that amount or make a micro-donation (such as via Flatter), then the amount would go toward the goal until the article or paper becomes freely available to all.

ACM could develop an innovative business model leading to totally free access, not as in "no one pays" but as in redistributing who pays.

Holger Kienle
Berlin, Germany

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the November 2012 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/11/156596).
--CACM Administrator

Moshe Y. Vardi's Editor's Letter "Why ACM?" (Sept. 2012) explored the publishing dichotomy of "reader pays" vs. "writer pays." When the author of an article pays for publication, the reader gets thinly veiled advertising. Consider all the free publications we get (as "qualified professionals") but never read because we realize the content is really nothing more than marketing.

Robert Wilkens
Levittown, NY

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