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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the editor

Pay for Editorial Independence

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Though Moshe Y. Vardi's Editor's Letter "Open, Closed, or Clopen Access?" (July 2009) addressed the question of who pays the bills, we must also address the price of quality.

By 1424, Cambridge University library had only 122 books; the number today is more than seven million. At the beginning of the 15th century, any of those 122 books would have cost as much as a farm. Following the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, the price of books decreased dramatically due to the reduced cost of manufacturing. With the arrival of the Internet in the late 20th century, the dissemination of information reached unprecedented low cost through the elimination of paper and shipping. So, despite accessing information online at almost no cost, why do we still pay for scientific articles? The answer is we pay for high-quality articles. Ensuring their publication is never free, and the price must account for copy editing, reviewing, and indexing, as well as for something more important, editorial independence.

What differentiates regular journals from excellent journals is their editors' ability to know when to reject mediocre submissions and accept only those that are very good or groundbreaking. Editors must be fully independent to make decisions based on quality, not on financial considerations alone. Readers paying for high-quality articles means editors are free to decide without prohibitive financial pressure.

Answering who pays the bills is important, but determining how much to pay for quality regardless of publishing model is the overriding issue. I hope the market struggle between open and closed publishing models will put prices in their rightful place.

Agusti Solanas, Catalonia, Spain

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Abolish Conference Proceedings

As program chair of an ACM conference (Hypertext 2009, I agree with both Lance Fortnow's Viewpoint "Time for Computer Science to Grow Up" (Aug. 2009) and Moshe Vardi's Editor's Letter "Conferences vs. Journals in Computing Research" (May 2009). Moreover, as an interdisciplinary researcher, I experience firsthand how conference-driven publication practices hurt CS in terms of potential interdisciplinary collaboration, reach, and visibility.

That's why I propose the abolition of conference proceedings altogether. Submissions should instead go to journals, which would receive more and better ones, with refereeing resources shifting naturally from conferences to journals. As a result, journals would improve their quality and speed up their processes. With the CS community's full attention, the review process would be more rigorous and timely. Deadlines would no longer be so concentrated, and scientists would submit better work, revise as needed, and profit immediately from reviewer feedback; the same referee would judge improvements to a particular submission.

In many cases where conferences and journals are aligned, presentations could be invited from among the best papers published in the previous year. For newer areas and groundbreaking work, a conference or workshop could still accept submissions but would not publish proceedings. Publishing would be the job of journals.

ACM should shepherd such a transition as publisher of both the proceedings of most top computing conferences and of many top computing journals.

Filippo Menczer, Bloomington, IN

As a young researcher, I was intrigued by Lance Fortnow's explanation (Aug. 2009) of why the CS community is dominated by conference proceedings. However, I was less excited by his proposed solution, that "...leaders of major conferences must make the first move, holding their conferences less frequently and accepting every reasonable paper for presentation without proceedings." I fear such a move would not have the intended effect of a more journal-focused community.

Fortnow only touched on the reason he thinks it wouldn't work, that CS journals have a reputation for slow turnaround, with most taking at least a year to make a publish/reject decision and some taking much longer before publishing. These end-to-end times are unheard of in other fields where journal editors make decisions in weeks, sometimes days.

Combine this with the trend toward fewer post-doc positions to begin with and young researchers trying to launch their careers by proving their ability to publish their research. Conference publications provide the quick turnaround they need, whereas journals can sometimes represent too great a risk early in a career.

For CS to grow up, CS journals must grow up first.

Jano van Hemert, Edinburgh, U.K.

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Inspire CS Passion in All

If someone were to ask me to name the top-four "formidable challenges" facing computer science, I would not have come up with the ones listed by Bob Violino in his news story "Time to Reboot" (Apr. 2009):

  • Declining enrollment in degree programs since 2001;
  • Underrepresentation of women and minorities;
  • Negative perception of CS among K–12 students; and
  • Reports saying the rate of innovation in the field has decreased.

With the possible exception of the last one, all are "soft" issues that have little to do with science. Encouraging students to pursue a career, or at least an interest, in CS is worthwhile and part of the ambassadorial role everyone in the field should play anyway. It also makes sense for some in the field to focus on these areas. However, it should in no way crowd out its core scientific pursuits. Emphasize instead challenges in parallel programming, image processing, language development, data mining, social computing, robotics, and bioengineering.

I admit I find the second item largely irrelevant. What is the optimal percentage in CS of men, women, and racial/ethnic groups? Is it a problem to be overrepresented in certain countries by men, whites, Indian, or Chinese CS professionals? Why not inspire a passion for the profession among all people, and let whoever is interested join the ranks? Anything else, like somehow encouraging or targeting certain groups while downplaying others, is racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination.

Ron Pyke, Bellevue, WA

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Who Speaks for Books?

By objecting to the proposed Google book-search settlement without offering alternatives, Pamela Samuelson in "The Dead Souls of the Google Book Search Settlement" (July 2009) seemed to be allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good, addressing policy issues beyond the immediate legal issues in the lawsuit. Each of her concerns could, however, be ameliorated without rejecting the basic framework.

Among the issues before the court is whether the Authors Guild is an appropriate representative of the plaintiff class. If the court decides the Authors Guild is an inappropriate class representative, the details of the settlement are irrelevant. However, this would also mean that the litigation will be prolonged and the ultimate results uncertain. In the meantime, everyone, including many scholars, will be without the benefit of Google Book Search. It may thus be prudent to allow the Authors Guild to represent a class, regardless of its limited and perhaps specialized membership, and focus on the merits of the settlement.

Orphan works by definition have no rights holders to speak for them. Presumably, some rights holders would like to have their works made freely available, while others would require compensation for and/or limits to access, and still others would refuse any access at all. A judicious approach might be to exclude orphan works from the settlement. Ideally, the U.S. Congress would establish a policy toward orphan works that would reflect policy choices beyond the interests of the parties to a lawsuit.

That two de facto monopolies would be created by a settlement is a concern but can be addressed while still maintaining the basic settlement. First, the Registry would be the only general source of rights to digitize non-orphan, non-public domain books published before January 2009, but there is the possibility that another rights group could be organized in competition with the Registry, as BMI was founded to compete with ASCAP in music performing rights. Second, unless others are likely to receive terms comparable to Google's under the settlement, they could hesitate to seek a license from the Registry and undertake a comparable project without a license. As a result, Google may be the only licensee with rights to scan the non-orphan, non-public domain books. But even if that happens, others could develop business models analogous to those of Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw.

Google will also have the authority to develop pricing algorithms for the books. For that to happen, the court can clarify that any approval of the settlement would not preclude future antitrust review, and Google would then be bound by the law, just like any other company.

As Samuelson wrote, the settlement would achieve a substantial restructuring of the landscape of access to books. While there may be understandable concern about such far-reaching results from the settlement of a single lawsuit, it alone is insufficient to require the parties to continue litigating. By resolving this case with relatively modest adjustments, we would have the substantial benefit of greater access than ever to books.

Yee Wah Chin, New York

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Author's Response:

Orphan-works legislation would be desirable and, in my judgment, more likely if the settlement is not approved than if it is.

The idea of excluding orphan works from the settlement is interesting, but one that would cause the settlement agreement to fall apart, since getting a license to orphan works is one of Google's main objectives in the class-action settlement. The Authors Guild and AAP also care about this because their authors and publishers will benefit if Google pays BRR royalties for its exploitations of the orphans that, under the settlement agreement, are to be paid out to registered publishers and authors, after BRR's costs are deducted.

I am familiar with the "perfect is the enemy of the good" argument and think it has some relevance here. But part of what concerns me is what will happen in 10 years, 20 years, and beyond and that monopolies tend to engage in exclusionary conduct and excessive pricing. That is a reason to be very careful about approval of this settlement.

Pamela Samuelson, Berkeley, CA

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Meeting Maurice

I was fortunate to have Professor Maurice Wilkes (interviewed by David P. Anderson, Sept. 2009) as my academic advisor 1953–1954 when I programmed for the EDSAC while earning a post-graduate diploma in "Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing" that included writing a thesis on programming for the EDSAC. To the best of my knowledge, that was the first year a post-graduate computer science degree was ever awarded.

I have since had the pleasure of meeting Maurice many times, during both his association with Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard, MA, in the 1980s and more recently in Cambridge, U.K., where I visited him around the time of his 95th birthday. Despite his advanced age, he drove me from his office to his home to have tea with him and his wife Nina, and later from his home to the station to catch a train back to London.

I am 20 years younger than Maurice but hope I will match his sprightliness when I reach his age.

Peter Wegner, Providence, RI

The interview with Maurice Wilkes by David P. Anderson (Sept. 2009) was of great interest, in spite of the unkind remarks regarding Alan Turing. If not for a few greats of World War II like Turing and Robert Watson-Watt [radar pioneer], the interview would have been carried out in German.

George T. Jacobi, Milwaukee, WI

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