ACM considered harmful

The Association of Computing Machinery is the premier US representative body for computer science and according to its own blurb:

“serves its members and the computing profession with leading-edge publications, conferences and career resources”

Well, yes and no.  The ACM may perhaps serve its members but for sure it does not serve the profession in general. It has copyright policies for publications which don’t respect the rights of members and it restricts information to those who are not members either explicitly or by excessive costs.

Firstly, the copyright issue. The ACM, in common with other organizers, requires those who have papers published in its journals and conferences to sign over the copyright to them. This means that you can’t republish a paper elsewhere and that the ACM can charge for your writing without paying you any fee. If you are not a member of the ACM’s Digital Library and you lose your own article, you have to pay to get a copy back from them.  Remember ACM don’t pay for articles but (as discussed below) don’t hesitate to charge – and as an author, you get no revenue.

Another area where the ACM’s policies are restrictive is in access to information. I tried today to access what I thought was rather a good idea – a tech pack in cloud computing, which is an annotated bibliography of articles in this area. But to access it, you need to login i.e. its not a resource for the profession but for members only.

Correction. I have been contacted by the ACM and it has been pointed out that you don’t have to be an ACM member to get a login to access the tech packs. I have included the full response from the ACM as a comment to this post.

I also tried to access the ACM Digital Library to get a copy of a paper that I had written in 1988.  This was interesting to me as a historical document but let’s be honest – it doesn’t have much to do with modern CS. Now, my university is an ACM subscriber so I could access it for free but the ACM actually ask for $15 for non-members for this (and all other) articles.

How can this outrageous sum be justified for articles, especially when only very limited information about that article is available. While I think that there is some rationale for charging a small fee (not $15) for very recent papers, all papers that are more than a few years old should be available to the profession for free.  I really can’t believe that this would have a significant effect on ACM’s revenue stream. The Computer Journal gets it right in making its articles available.

The ACM should realize that if they wish to be taken seriously, then they have to broaden their vision and truly serve the profession – this is how they can expand their membership.

Older readers will recognize that the title comes from Dijkstra’s famous letter published in the CACM in 1968 “Goto statement considered harmful”. You can buy this classic of CS literature for $15 from the ACM Digital Library. Fortunately, there are enough people who are willing to ignore ACM copyright rules – its available here for free.


Filed under CS education, Reading

37 responses to “ACM considered harmful

  1. dan

    Another thing I found funny was when they sent me out a certificate to show I had completed all the membership requirements. You know, those really tough requirements that made me a worthy member, for example – well, its not just an example, its the ONLY requirement: paying the membership fee. What an accomplishment worthy of a certificate!

  2. mahmud

    Kent Pitman has a similar stance on the ACM:

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. I was a member of ACM for several years as an undergraduate and beginning professional, as it gradually became obvious that they were doing more harm than good to the profession. It is a shame, though, that there isn’t a better clearinghouse for CS publications. ACM feeds off the academic world, wherein individual users don’t feel the pain because their digital library fees are covered by their institution. Those of us now on the outside either pay exorbitant per-article fees or join ACM to avoid them. Either way, the evil is perpetuated.

  4. ron phillips

    Assignment of copyright without remuneration is pretty standard with academic publications, and is not uncommon in other periodicals. I’ve had articles in law reviews, software trade magazines and journals and the vast majority required copyright assignment and offered only reprints and bragging rights in exchange. It’s a PR activity, not a revenue generating activity. That doesn’t mean it’s the right path for everyone, but it is not an anomaly in the publication industry.

    Personally I get enough out of my ACM membership to make it a good investment each year. Your mileage may vary, and if you’re not a member and don’t want to pay for the article, chances are good that the local university’s ComSci library has a copy.

    • Assignment of copyright is standard but that doesn’t make it right. Societies such as the ACM should be leading the way in member’s rights – not removing these rights.

      Unless things are different in the US, university libraries are unlikely to have paper copies of articles. Digital subscriptions are much cheaper.

    • foljs

      And here it comes, the stereotypical guy defending the un-defendible as “standard practice”.

  5. Yoda

    It would seem that the only reason that ACM still exists is so that academics can play the publish-or-perish tenure game. If the goal were just to make research available to colleagues, people could publish in free repositories like, or on their own web sites. However, the real goal is to publish in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals and get tenure.

    • Pedro Pinto

      Academics, like everyone else, want to advance in their careers. I am sure most would prefer to have their work as easily available as possible but they have little choice in the matter. Academic institutions would be in a better position to curtail ACM’s racket.

      • It’s all wrapped up in the monopoly grants of copyright. Today’s legal morass of “intellectual property” laws and rulings are just one result that exposes the immorality of having any monopoly copyright enforcement at all. I deliberately avoid the word “protection” because it’s more like a Mafiosi type “protection”. Big Boss owns the neighborhood and as long as you recognize his authority and pay up other subjects’ “copyright” charges, he’ll figuratively kneecap anybody who “violates” yours. It’s not so much “figurative”, because they will put you into a cage it is criminal law.

        But as we see with ACM and with Hollywood monopolies, the artists and the authors have to pay a very long debt with the Entrenched Monopolists before they are really able to enjoy the fruits of their intellectual labors. That eliminates the only “moral” argument for it.

        Better to have reputation sort it out, and there can also be reputation arbiters that themselves earn their fame. I believe in credit where credit is due.

        Especially in software, copyright -and patents- is counter-productive. Assume the premise and conclude the absurdio.

        Premise: My idea or algorithm is a property right.
        Absurdio conclusion: I have the right to extort compensation from any of 7 billion people worldwide who might come up with the same idea or algorithm –even if they got there first!

        That’s why there’s so much “preemptive copyright” registrations, and patents. That’s why even attorneys who offer scathing rebukes of the ideas of “intellectual property” are compelled to copyright their own stuff, to protect their own use of it.

        That’s why Richard Stallman himself says he created the GPL and the LGPL, and Eric Raymond the Open Source Foundation. At MIT they saw people take the innovations of code written by hackers in the lab like themselves and slap a copyright lock on it. That’s theft. Hollywood movie studios are among the worst historical offenders of their own stated principles.

  6. I completely agree with you. Although my university is an ACM member, I need to be in the library to access the research papers. There is no sense in holding back these papers from the general public.

  7. +1

    I’m no expert, but does anyone know how IEEE compares to ACM with regard to the things said in this post? Is the story the same or are there significant differences between the two? Thanks!

  8. Håvard Espeland

    It is worth noting, however seldom done by authors, that ACM (and also IEEE) permit having an author’s version of papers on their own homepage.

    The author version of papers must have a slightly different copyright notice. I agree completely that papers should be freely accessible, but authors should at least care to add such a version.

    From the ACM copyright policy (

    Under the ACM copyright transfer agreement, the original copyright holder retains:


    * the right to post author-prepared versions of the work covered by ACM copyright in a personal collection on their own Home Page and on a publicly accessible server of their employer, and in a repository legally mandated by the agency funding the research on which the Work is based. Such posting is limited to noncommercial access and personal use by others, and must include this notice both embedded within the full text file and in the accompanying citation display as well:

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  10. Yes, the IEEE Computer Society is the same. What really gets to me are all the “standards” that the IEEE Computer Society publishes. These have really good material like the one on Code Reviews; but 99% of practitioners will never read it because of the fees involved. Academia has only itself to blame for people re-inventing the wheel in the agile movement and so on. They wouldn’t have to if they could read the old research!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. What I find particularly avaricious is that the ACM puts up pages for papers that are otherwise freely available and charges $15 to buy it through their site.

    For example, a (quoted) search for one of my conference papers “Surrogate Regret Bounds for Proper Losses” returns a link to an ACM portal page [ ] that gives absolutely no indication that you can get the official version for free from the conference web site [ ].

    It seems they are not content to make money off people who publish to their publications but also from other publications too.

  12. Ganesh Sittampalam

    As an individual with an interest in CS research, I don’t entirely like it, but $200/year for membership + DL access isn’t too bad. The $15 individual article charge seems to be punitive and aimed at persuading people to pay for general access instead, which is a bit of a shame.

    Overall the situation isn’t ideal, but I think Springer are a much bigger problem – they charge far more per article and don’t seem to have any general offering for individuals to get access to all their journals + LNCS.

    • See my comment on another post for my views on Springer.

      $200 is maybe not much for an employed professional in the West – but it’s a lot for people in countries with much lower incomes.

      • Ganesh Sittampalam

        They have cheaper membership for students, and for developing countries:

      • Etienne Schneider

        In reply to Mr. Sittampalam:

        Even if it is cheaper for “developing countries”, the ACM’s process to register and pay is a pain in the whatever: enter you credit card number online, and for a reason or another you have to fax both sides of your credit card (that you are not supposed to do).

        And the system don’t even send you any email or information if you are not registered: you wait couple of days and after that, you have to contact the ACM to know what’s going on.

        I never got clear cut on the whys I had to do so, while I can pay on Amazon and any other websites without any issue.

      • Ganesh Sittampalam

        Personally I haven’t had problems paying by credit card online, so I guess whatever the problem is isn’t universal.

        I don’t really like ACM either – but I think any energy people have to get away from expensive publishers would be better focused on Springer first.

  13. Actually, the ACM is really nice compared to most other publishers (Elsevier, Springer, etc.).
    You are allowed to post your own paper on
    your website. Some conferences publish their whole proceedings online for a short time during the conference (e.g. TEI 2010). You can get permission to put a whole special issue of a journal online [1].
    In general, ACM does not seem to actively hunt down ‘illegal’ copies of papers.

    I do not think that the ACM’s publishing terms are great [2]. However, it is not ACM, it is the whole system that is problematic.

    Nevertheless, if the ACM would adopt an Open Access publishing process, it might change the system. At least in computer science ACM conferences and journals are quite important.

    [2] For example, all images in my most recent paper would belong to ACM and I would generally not be able to reuse them without permission. Therefore, I added some kind of disclaimer to all figures. Thanks to ACM, you can have a look at

    • Yes – of course Springer is worse but they are a commercial company and don’t claim to ‘serve the computing profession’ as the ACM does.

      Springer truly exploits the academic publish or perish culture in academia but we should expect much more from professional societies such as the ACM and the IEEE.

    • from-the-chalk-face

      Actually, the ACM is really nice compared to most other publishers (Elsevier, Springer, etc.). You are allowed to post your own paper on
      your website.

      Same with Elsevier, actually. I’m less confident about Springer.

  14. Ha! I had the very same experience a couple years ago, when I wanted to re-read 2 books on the History of Computer Languages, I have read in my Library. I am not a ACM member. I have a ACM login/web account.

    Your rant was legit, yet there are several issues addressed and should now be kept separate?

    1. 19th Century Copyright and publishing practices.
    2. 20th Century Fight Club Style (profit-oriented?) closed ecosystem Membership, vs
    3. Modern era (Internet, interconnected, open source style) advanced publishing?

    Many old publishing houses and member-based organizations have struggle in their schizophrenic approach to keep being ‘relevant’ to their peers, while fishing for fresh blood?

    If I cannot read it for free or cheap, I move on. So do many others? The user base shrinks eventually, until they are factual history?

    • … sorry for the typo(s).

      • You are right that the underlying issues revolve around a worldview that is not appropriate for the 21st century, Internet enabled world.

        The issue of whether all research should be freely available is a complex one – publishing is never free and I don’t think that we are ready yet for a systems where only the originators of the research pay. I don’t have a problem with charges in principle – just stupidly high charges which almost certainly mean that revenue gained is virtually nothing. If recent papers cost $2 (say) and older papers $0.25 then I don’t think this would be a problem. Apps have shows that you can generate a lot of revenue from a low unit price

  15. ACM is certainly not without blame for the situation of scientific publishing. However, I think they are part of the academic game, and must be seen within that context. When we complain at ACM as outsiders, we have to understand that they serve the academic world, not the programming world. Their charges are reasonable for Universities and other scientific institutions, unlike commercial publishers like Elsevier.

    We should have some mechanism to avoid this separation between academy and industry, but the solution is still not there.

  16. citeseer?

    Have you noticed Citeseer? It has links to author’s copies.

  17. The publishing side is one thing, but the part that blows me away is the conference fees. The full conference fee for siggraph is $1,170 for members. While students less than half $495 it is still totally insane.

    For a point of comparison, the American Historical Society charges student’s $81 to attend their annual meeting.

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  19. I have had a response from the ACM to this post. I have included below, unedited and without comments.

    Hi, Ian,

    I’m the Education Manager in ACM’s Membership Department and we recently came across a blog post ( where you expressed some frustration with (among other things) ACM’s policy on access to Tech Packs. While I cannot address your copyright concerns, I can speak to the issue of Tech Packs. There are three important points I’d like to bring up:

    ACM Tech Packs are not restricted to ACM members. The bibliographies, with reading lists and annotations by subject experts, are open to anyone with an ACM Web account (please see ). This just means you register with our site — you need to provide a valid email along with your first and last name to set one up. Our “Related Materials,” which consist of additional resources not cited in the bibliography (some of which may be subject to controlled access through their third-party sources), are available in the “Introduction” page for each Tech Pack — a page that does not require a login.
    Full access to the content of ACM Digital Library articles included within Tech Packs does indeed require ACM membership. I understand this limitation is less than ideal from your point of view, but this type of restriction represents the cost associated with maintaining and providing a repository in computing.
    It’s also important to note that ACM Tech Pack Committees who create these learning documents do not work with a bias toward ACM Digital Library articles. They are chartered to curate and compile the best resources available, regardless of source. A great example of this diversity of resources is in our Parallel Computing Tech Pack (, which you can access by logging in with a (free) ACM Web Account.

    I hope that this offers some clarification with regard to access. It would be great if you could offer the same clarification on your blog. It is also my hope that you will continue to explore ACM Tech Packs—we’ve been getting very positive feedback on them thus far.


    Yan Timanovsky
    Education Manager
    Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)

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  21. I won’t comment in general on ACM copyright policy, but I think it is worth noting that the subscriptions paid to access the ACM Digital Library (DL) are paid back to the Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that organize the conferences and journals that provide much of the content of the DL (in proportion to the number of downloads of that content). The SIG that I chair, SIGPLAN, receives about $90K/year for accesses to content we generated, and we in turn use that to fund our Professional Activities Committee (PAC), which provides grants to aid students and others in attending conferences.

  22. from-the-chalk-face

    ACM’s and IEEE’s practices are often defended – including in comments above – because they are non-profit organisations that serve the community.

    What many people don’t understand is that “non-profit” has a different meaning from “doesn’t make a profit”! Subtracting costs from income gives what a non-profit organisation calls a “surplus” – the name is what makes it different from a profit. The more important difference is that the surplus/profit is not taxed. So a better name than “non-profit organisation” would be “non-taxed organisation”. The people who are charged with making sure that such an organisation is financially healthy no more or less evil than the people who run commercial organisations.

  23. Computer Scientist wannabe

    I think that new, aspiring scientists will stick rather to and scientific articles freely available in the Internet than buy access to ACM or IEEE. This model of limited access to new articles and literature is something that just doesn’t fit these days.

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