Monday, November 21, 2011

On getting rid of ACM affiliation...

As I mentioned earlier, the SoCG steering committee is running a poll on whether to separate SoCG from ACM and run it as an independent symposium with proceedings published by the Dagstuhl LIPIcs series.

At the time I had considered writing a post expressing my own thoughts on the matter, and then promptly forgot about it. The poll is still open (although probably many of you have voted already) and so I thought (with some external nudging :)) that I'd state my position here (one that I summarized in brief for the poll).

If you'd rather not read any more, here's the summary: 
I think it's a bad idea.
And here's why

I understand the rationale behind this: it can be a little difficult to work with ACM. ACM does take a contingency fee that increases registration. The cost of proceedings is a significant fraction of the total budget, and the timelines can be a little tricky to work with. These and more are outlined in the poll document, and you can read all the points being made there.

But that's not why I think this is a bad idea (and I do have specific objections to the claims above). I think it's a bad idea because ACM is not just a conference organizing, proceedings publishing enterprise that has bad taste in style files. It's also the home of SIGACT. 

For better or worse, SIGACT is the flagship representative body for theoretical computer science in the US. General theory activities like the Theory Matters wiki and the SIGACT committee for the advancement of theoretical computer science were jump-started by SIGACT. Association with SIGACT means that the work you do is 'theoryCS (A)' in some shape of form.

If you're doing geometry in the US, then affiliation with SIGACT is not a bad thing. It means that you're part of the larger theory community. It means that when the theory community makes pitches to the NSF to get more funding for theory research, you're included. It also helps because there aren't other communities (SIGGRAPH?) ready to absorb geometry into their fold. 

While de-linking from ACM doesn't mean that we turn in our 'theory badges', it doesn't help the already fraught relationship between computational geometry and the larger theory community. And while the relationship with ACM is not crucial to the survival of the geometry community in the US, being part of a larger theory community that speaks the same language is crucial.

p.s The center of mass in CG is closer to Europe than many might realize. I understand that our European colleagues could care less about US funding and community issues, which is fair for them. But this matter affects US-resident folks more than ACM's surcharges affect the European researchers, and  our community isn't so big that we can withstand shocks to one side of it.


  1. This is an ACM decision - they decided not to let SoCG be run in collaboration with ACM. If they want to keep SoCG as ACM conference they have to show commitment to openness and flexibility. Otherwise, ACM would be completely irrelevant in 5 years.

  2. Yes, but who's hurt more by the decision ? ACM doesn't get enough revenue from SoCG for the conference to have much leverage. And many other conferences (even small ones) run in conjunction with ACM.

  3. ACM gets reasonable amount of prestige from having a conference like SoCG under its umbrella. This is not about money. This is about an association that no longer serves the community but instead serves some bizarre purposes of its own. There are many top communities in CS not associated with the ACM, and they seem to be quite happy (Machine learning/NLP comes to mind).

  4. ML and NLP are MUCH larger communities, and that's a primary reason why they can survive happily (VLDB is another example). CG is very small.

  5. COLT withdrew from ACM a number of years ago. Go ahead and try to search for the proceedings on the web. At least according to DBLP, you'll find that the papers are stored in a bunch of random places, some of which serve them well, some of which don't. It is a mess. There's no pay-wall but also no consistency. I am not sure one should think of COLT as such a positive example that SoCG should follow.

  6. @Paul, while your point about COLT is well taken, the SoCG steering committee did address that issue by recommending a switch to the Dagstuhl LIPIcs series, which has funding from the German government to provide a persistent archival function.

  7. Your "SoCG is too small" sounds like digging for excuses rather than a real reason. Graph Drawing is smaller than CG and survives well enough as independent. It's not only large conferences that can do that.

  8. Suresh, I share your reservations about leaving SIGACT (and to a much smaller extent, SIGGRAPH). It would be very easy to misinterpret SOCG's departure from ACM as further deliberate separation from the rest of the theoretical computer science community.

    Nevertheless, I believe leaving ACM is worth that risk. If the vote goes through, the steering committee will have to smooth some feathers. The SOCG community will have to become more active in SIGACT to ensure that they are properly represented, especially with funding agencies, but frankly, we need to do that anyway.

    The only other substantive argument in favor of staying with ACM is their financial backing for conferences, in particular, insurance against potential budget overruns. But as far as I know, SOCG has never run a deficit, and even in years when ACM did not sponsor the conference (every conference outside the US so far), local organizers have been able to secure significant external funding.

  9. i was re-reading your original post and some things don't seem right.

    I ran local arrangements for STOC 2006 in Seattle and ACM did NOT require any budgeted contingency - that was guaranteed by SIGACT (which incidentally has a large accumulated surplus that SoCG would be walking away from - on the order of $800K in the bank - under the control of people you can elect rather than admi staff).

    What ACM did charge was a 16% administration fee, a chunk of which went back to SIGACT. They did a lot for that overhead. They did the full RFP for the hotels, negotiated the contract, got us substantially reduced rates on regonline for registration and handled every financial item - I simply sent the bills to them and they paid them. I was finished with everything 60 days after the conference was over.

    We had printed proceedings back then which did cost a chunk of change BUT without them why are proceedings such a cost for SoCG now?

  10. @Paul Maybe we've been doing something wrong, but ACM has regularly charged us a contingency (at least that's what they called it).

  11. Do you have a sample budget I can see? That seems weird.

  12. We had printed proceedings back then which did cost a chunk of change BUT without them why are proceedings such a cost for SoCG now?

    The cost of printed proceedings for ACM-sponsored conferences is amortized across the thousands of libraries and subscribers that pay for them. In years that SOCG was held in cooperation with ACM instead of sponsored by ACM (sometimes due to banking laws in the host country), ACM only amortized the cost of printed proceedings across the conference registrants. Add international shipping costs, stir, and bake. If I recall correctly, when SOCG was held in Korea in 2007, each copy of the proceedings cost the registrant about $60.

    (Remember when you could still buy old SODA proceedings for $25 a copy?)

    Without printed proceedings, printing and shipping costs go away, but the cost of updating and maintaining the ACM Digital Library does not. My impression is that going electronic-only does not substantially lower ACM's budget line for proceedings.

    SIGACT... has a large accumulated surplus that SoCG would be walking away from - on the order of $800K in the bank

    Can I correctly conclude from this comment that FOCS has no access to this surplus, since it is sponsored by IEEE rather than ACM?

  13. Hmm. I wonder whether this has to do with joint sponsorship. When I was on the SIGACT Exec in the early 2000's we decide to drop the contingency fee (for conferences that regularly didn't have a loss) and back it with SIGACT funds. We did have a big hit with a RECOMB loss one year. Maybe SIGGRAPH won't do this. This seems like a point worth negotiating but not a reason to leave.

  14. My mistake. When I looked back we had a minimal 4% contingency for STOC 2006. (ACM's default was a much larger figure and SIGACT covered the difference.) This is pretty small compared with anything else and frankly a little over-optimism in receipts and # of attendees easily covers it.

  15. Alex Lopez-Ortiz11/22/2011 05:08:00 AM

    It's my understanding that SIGMOD was able to negotiate much lower contingency fees since they had never ran a deficit. It would be worth exploring this option, as well as the one indicated by Paul before making a final decision.

  16. Jeff: When I last checked which was five years ago, ACMs charges for CDs were only about 25% of the costs for printed proceedings and the shipping costs were much lower. (For STOC 2006 it cost us only an extra $1K for 300 CDs in addition to printed proceedings but there is a fixed editorial cost.) I have dealt with IEEE publishing where they charge about the same for CDs as printed proceedings but we did an "electronic only" version which costs about 1/3 of 250 printed proceedings. It would be easy enough to check recent budgets of ACM conferences like STOC that are doing electronic only.
    (ACM kicks back money from every DL page-view to SIGACT. This isn't what they are charging for - they are charging for indexing, table of contents and final version editing and submission management.)

    You ask about FOCS and IEEE. You are right. IEEE does not give a similar benefit to the TCMF which runs FOCS, CCC, and LICS. There is no permanent budget, no kickback from the DL; we have to budget 20% overhead, 10% contingency and we only get HALF of the money back from surpluses which must be spent in the following year with no carry-over, whereas at ACM, 100% of the surplus over that 16% admin fee goes straight to SIGACT which can carry funds over.

    SIGACT has been nice enough to advance money or, like last year, give a small donation, if FOCS might otherwise run a deficit. (As you can see we don't really want any surplus at FOCS since the community loses half of that money.)

  17. It's a shame that this conversation has been so centered around money, because my feeling is that the obstacles to organizing the conference outside the US (as happens regularly), the demand for copyright over our articles, and the automatic paywalling of those articles, are bigger issues than the money.

  18. I'm not a CG theorist, however I agree with your assessment. Before floating off to industry I was involved in a niche area of optimization algorithm theory. The community moved into the ACM and it has been a benefit. The ACM can be viewed as infrastructure for letting the community focus on the science.

    WRT proceedings, why bother with the difficulties of traditional printed proceedings? The JMLR does fine with electronic only publishing and the ACM's digital library indexes them as does the DBLP.

  19. @Paul

    I attended FCRC 2011 this summer. The EC proceedings were a USB stick with a logo. What does the ACM charge for this type of thing? Did STOC does something similar at FCRC?

  20. Neal: I didn't actually register for STOC - I registered for CCC - but I am not sure they even did a USB stick for STOC. I think they made them available on a website for download. For FOCS we did the USB stick format - it cost around $5 each even with rush delivery because the content was only ready 2 weeks before the conference.

    David: I don't comment on your blog because of the identity-wall you have on it. However, I will comment here. It is a big mistake in your latest post to lump the disfunctional IEEE in with ACM.

    IEEE has financial problems of losing money on print journals. The disfunction is in part the result of a lawsuit. The IEEE Computer Society DL competes with IEEExplore because the Computer Society was first with CSDL and does not get a proper cut of revenues from IEEExplore. They put the content on CSDL first and it later migrates to the IEEExplore.

    There is a lot of meta-data that goes with the ACM DL (including disambiguated forward and backward cites) that Google scholar may eventually get right but you won't get with other sites.

  21. Paul: sorry about the id-wall but every time I take it down I get hit hard by spammers. You should be able to comment with openid, but I think some people have been having trouble with that, too, so I don't know. Anyway, I definitely agree that ACM is much better than IEEE in this respect, but that doesn't mean that I think ACM is perfect.

  22. It's a shame that this conversation has been so centered around money,

    David, that's because the most significant benefit of staying with ACM involves money. I agree that the other issues you list are more important.

    SIGACT has been nice enough to advance money or, like last year, give a small donation, if FOCS might otherwise run a deficit.

    So in principle, that option should be open to SOCG as well. Right??


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