Kent  Pitman's

Personal FAQ

Note that this content was written in 2003, about grievances dating back for several years. If anyone happens to know whether any of these circumstances have since changed, and some probably have, they're welcome to inform me. I might or might not update this page to mention the fact. But I'm not especially itching to rejoin even if they have. I just don't see the point.

What is the ACM?

The ACM, for those who don't know, is the Association for Computing Machinery. It's a professional organization that many computer professionals join.

Why I'm not an ACM Member

I was once an ACM member. But I long ago renounced my membership and am now happy to have nothing to do with the organization.

Since you’re reading this, I assume you are asking “Why?”

Well, the short answer is this: The ACM made me sign an ethics pledge to become a member, and I felt my obligations under that pledge required me to disassociate myself with ACM itself because I personally feel many of its practices are unethical. This page discusses my reasons.

This is all just my personal opinion.

Unpaid Content

Sometimes things are not what they seem. I used to think Disneyland was a theme park that happened to sell souvenirs. I now, more cynically, think it's a curio shop with a "hook" to get you to come visit—rides. At least in that case, though, what you see is what you get.

There are some publishing houses that are not that way, however, and ACM is key among them. I no longer view ACM as an organization of scientists who happen to have a way of publishing, but rather as a publishing house that has a clever way of making scientists think they should buy from it... and an even more clever way of generating free content.

It "allows" aspiring authors (who are young, ill-organized, and basically don't know any better) to publish their articles for free. This is a windfall for ACM, which doesn't have to pay for content in the many magazines it sells. Further, in exchange for the "privilege" of not being paid for their work, authors are required to mark their articles as "free for copying". This is absurd. They are lucky to have free content at all—they shouldn't be imposing additional restrictions beyond those necessary to do the publication. Authors who want to, and who have a submission of sufficient value, should be able to charge money for copies in order to offset what ACM didn't pay them for the original article. But the final straw is that ACM then charges authors for a subscription to the journal in question in order to obtain a printed copy of what they wrote.

I wrote a regular column, Parenthetically Speaking in its now-defunct Lisp Pointers magazine, for ACM. I was not paid for that. ACM charged subscribers, but I never saw a dime of it. I even had to subscribe to the magazine in order to see myself in print. Eventually, I decided, enough was enough.

Foonote 2009:

A more modern practice is to require authors to sign over not just a right of use to ACM, but in fact the entire copyright. The ACM agrees to grant back certain rights, but if they think that's sufficient, I don't see why merely receiving certain rights would not be sufficient in the other direction.

Conference Discounts

ACM seeks to acquire members against their will by bankrolling conferences and then charging non-members a higher rate. The difference in the rate is sometimes more than the price of becoming a member. That means there is an active tax on being a non-member.

Footnote 2009:

Lately the discrepancy between member and non-member pricing seems smaller than I remember it being. Nevertheless, I have still been asked to pay to register for a conference at which I was both on the program committee and asked to be part of the program. For example, as fun as it would have been to attend the 50th anniversary of Lisp event, co-located with the ACM-sponsored OOPSLA’08 conference. I had decided that given the US economic situation and given my other commitments to work and family, I could not afford to attend. But then I was invited to come and be a speaker at the event and was told that my travel and airfare would be paid. This may seem like a generous gesture, but it was still a lot of work for me to prepare, and overall did not break even monetarily. It cost me a lot of preparation time for the talk, and later many whole days of work putting together a write-up of the talk for ACM publication; the ACM will see revenue from that, reimbursing them, and I will not. It was by no means a free gift. And yet with all of that, ACM policy required organizers of the Lisp event to register me in the OOPSLA conference, a conference I did not attend, in order that I be allowed to speak. I even volunteered not to attend any part of the Lisp50 event other than my own talk and was told I would still have to register uselessly for the ACM event if I were to be allowed to give the free talk that the ACM would charge money for, even not giving me any of the money. I didn't need this event to make money for me, but the ACM needed me to help it make money—and it still insisted on charging me for the privilege of helping it.

Now for the International Lisp Conference I have participated on the conference committee, spending quite a number of hours reading over my Christmas vacation reading papers so that there could be a useful program. Often in recent years I have done this for workshops that have been too far away to attend. I don't ask for compensation for that. But this workshop is close enough that I won't have to pay travel to attend. And I am due to be on a panel of speakers at the workshop. And yet, I received this notice from the conference organizer:

I have been asked to send this reminder to all authors:

If you are attending the 2009 International Lisp Conference, whether as a presenter or not, then you do need to register for the conference. You can register online at [...]

Note in particular that it does not say “If you are speaking, you will be allowed as a courtesy to attend free only for the day on which you speak.” It also does not even say “If you are speaking, you will be allowed to enter from the rear door and do just your talk and then to exit without talking to anyone after. If you want more than that, you'll pay like everyone else.” Rather, it says that if you want to speak at all, you'll register. And the registration form offers no special price for anyone who's speaking.

The assumption is perhaps that you work for some company or educational institution that would be happy to see you speak, and to pay for the privilege of having you there. But that involves a lot of assumptions. Some schools may not have such money, and certainly some companies may not. But people often write about things on their own time these days, not necessarily for their employer.

Generous offers are often made by conference organizers to help people who are in dire financial situations to work around these policies. But this involves the indignity of exposing one's financial situation to scrutiny and it still endorses the basic notion that it is moral and ethical for an organization to be asking volunteer/contributed work of others, taking in money itself, and charging the volunteer for the privilege of contributing. For an organization that requires ethics of its members, I find that more than a bit inappropriate.

Dead Trees

The ACM substantially delayed its entry into the world of e-communication, I think because its primary business is cutting down trees (i.e., publishing). At the time I exited the organization, I had gone years asking for a paperless membership, but was unable to obtain one. (I think they've partly corrected this problem since, although I still think you can't get a CACMless membership.)

CACMless memberships impossible

I suspect because it makes money advertising and wants to claim a large base, ACM requires subscribing to CACM as part of membership. I didn't want CACM. I didn't read it. I don't like the wasted paper on my behalf. I felt it was both unethical of them to claim me as a subscriber and unreasonable of them to charge me money for the subscription.

Sleazy invoicing

ACM used to routinely request certain kinds of "volunteered" contributions and/or subscriptions on my annual invoicing. They would do this by adding the things they wanted me to do (without my requesting it) and make me have to line out the items I didn't want. Anyone not paying careful attention might accidentally pay the higher amount thinking they were just paying for their normal annual load, and not realizing that ACM was continually jacking up their normal contribution. I repeatedly asked that this not be done and but could not seem to affect it.

For all of these reasons, I am proud to no longer be an ACM member. I do not recommend the organization to others.

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Copyright © 2010 by Kent M. Pitman. All Rights Reserved.