A typical computer science paper might represent the work of 2-4 authors over a year. Even though these authors don’t spend 100% of that year working on the paper, just counting their salaries, benefits, etc.. we see that the total cost to produce a paper can still easily amount to several tens of thousands of dollars or more. This cost is typically borne by a combination of their employers (often non-profit or public universities) and funding agencies such as the NSF.
When the paper is submitted to a conference, referees and the program committees typically spend some additional few hours reading it, debating its merits, writing reviews etc.. They are not paid for the effort, and so this additional cost, amounting to several hundreds of dollars, is also typically borne by their employers. Finally, the paper is published, which in these electronic-proceedings days amounts to placing it on the web (perhaps after asking the author to covert it into an ugly two-column format) . This costs about $10 per paper on the arXiv, or about $400 for the ACM (see here). Thus the publication cost is roughly somewhere between 0.1% to 1% of the total cost to produce the paper.
There has been much debate about who should spend this 1% of costs, and whether spending it entitles organizations such as Elsevier or ACM to collect royalties from readers of the paper. In this debate, ACM’s positions are mostly not supportive of open access (e.g., see here and here). Indeed in some sense ACM’s policies are more restrictive than Elsevier’s, who allows free access to mathematics papers after 4 years from publication. ACM also opposed the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which would have mandated open access to federally-funded research papers after 6 months of their publications. The ACM also initially refused to oppose (and even implicitly supported) the Research Works Act (RWA) which would have prohibited open-access mandate for federally funded research.
Since these days almost everyone puts their papers on electronic archives, perhaps these backward stances of ACM don’t have too much negative effect on actual access to papers. But they may have very negative effects on the ACM itself. First and foremost, by acting against the basic instincts of scientists, who want their works to be public and accessible, ACM is risking that conferences and perhaps eventually entire communities may just decide to leave. ACM is also risking its financial future by refusing to acknowledge that, whether it wants it or not, open access is the future, given that more authors are putting their papers on their web and more institutions and governments are considering open access mandates. But, at least to my knowledge, ACM is not taking the necessary cost-cutting steps to reduce their cost structures to levels more similar to the arXiv in order to prepare for a future in which publication revenue is drastically reduced. (For example, the process of uploading a camera-ready version still involves interactions with Sheridan printing.)
Given the above, I understand why some people are considering leaving the ACM. I think that’s a mistake. I believe ACM does a lot of good, and we all benefit from a professional association unifying computer scientists. Moreover, I think leaving the ACM is not necessary. After all, the ACM is ultimately a democratic association, and open access is almost universally supported among its “rank-and file” members. So, rather than leaving, we should make a concerted effort by computer scientists across all areas to come forward with a slate of “open access” candidates for the various ACM positions. The goal would be to make sure that every democratically elected officer of the ACM supports a path toward making the digital library open access, and restructuring the publication costs in order to prepare for this future. As Moshe Vardi says, “the ACM is us“- lets make sure it behaves this way.
Update: Henry Cohn has some very insightful comments below, including why you should not use “authorizer” links.