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ACM for the Public Good

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CACM Senior Editor Moshe Y. Vardi

In February 2023, ACM President Yannis Ioannidis announceda an ambitious undertaking—the ACM 4.0 Initiative—to reshape its fourth-quarter century. Following the Q&A process that ran during the recent ACM General Election last year, ACM Council endorsed 10 presidential task forces (PTFs) to explore the core dimensions the ACM 4.0 strategic plan. This ambitious initiative to lay the foundations of ACM for the next 25 years addresses issues of service to society and to ACM members, ACM membership, ACM finances, and internal processes. I offer the comments here for consideration by the various PTFs.

A question I consider central to the ACM 4.0 Initiative is: What is ACM's core mission? As I pointed out in my March 2020 column,b ACM's view of its own core mission has evolved over the past 75 years. This is as it should be. The world changes and organizations must change too. Nevertheless, ACM's Constitution, which is the official document defining ACM's mission, has not changed since 1998, while the world of computing has changed dramatically. A newer document is ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which was adopted in 2018.

While the Constitution refers to "serving both professional and public interests," the Code make a less ambiguous statement: "Computing professionals' actions change the world. To act responsibly, they should reflect upon the wider impacts of their work, consistently supporting the public good." If the public good is the supreme value guiding the actions of computing professionals, it should also be the supreme value of ACM. Since one of the PTFs launched is focusing on ACM's code of ethics, it should consider also ACM's core mission in view of the code. What does a commitment to the public good mean for ACM? What is the social responsibilityc of computing professionals, in general, and of ACM, in particular?

Even if ACM's core value is the public good, its core activity, as described in the Constitution, is "advancing the art, science, engineering, and application of information technology … by fostering the open interchange of information." De facto, ACM is primarily a scientific publisher. We should question, however, if the current computing-research publication culture is serving the public or the professional good.

As I argued in January 2020,d in view of the worsening climate crisis, our discipline's practice that every publication requires travel, often trans-oceanic, is inconsistent with the public good. A report released in March 2023 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints an even bleaker picture of the worsening climate crisis. The world is on brink of catastrophic warming, the report warned. A dangerous climate threshold is near, but "it does not mean we are doomed" if swift action is taken, the scientists said. Going back to the pre-pandemic conference-travel culture is simply not morally acceptable, I believe. Yet many conferences have gone back to a full in-person model, and authors are required to present in person. This requirement is drawing criticism. A recent article by Theoretical Computer Scientists for Future (TCS4F) concluded, "Coupling formal publications with an in-person gathering no longer makes sense for everyone."e

Yet, even ignoring the travel issue, it is questionable whether our publication culture is serving the profession well. Edward Lee did not mince words last year when he wrote about the "The Toxic Culture of Rejection in Computer Science."f "We have come to value as a quality metric for conferences a low acceptance rate," he argued. Concluding that this "feeds a culture of shooting each other down rather than growing and nurturing a community. The goal of a program committee (PC) has become to destroy rather than to develop." Indeed, the purpose of in-person gatherings should be to create communities rather than archive a relatively small number of papers. Yet the constructive purpose seems to have been forgotten.

Indeed, I have been watching my students learn to view publishing as a brutal hazing ritual, where those who have been hazed feel morally justifiable to haze the next cohort of young authors. A paper is rejected because some references are missing, or more experiments are requested, or it is deemed "incremental." A revised paper is then submitted to another conference, where a new group of reviewers will take shots at it. The complaints about the temporal unpredictability of journal publication are not without merit, but conferences should at least adapt the more rational journal-review system.

My view of ACM 4.0? I would like to see a core commitment to the public good, which implies a commitment to the professional good.

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