Independent conferences: the second-worst solution

The steering committee of the Conference on Computational Complexity has decided to become independent of IEEE. The Symposium of Computational Geometry is considering leaving ACM for similar reasons.

I completely understand the reasons, and applaud the steering committees in both cases for having a thoughtful, deliberate, and transparent process. Indeed, I have signed the letter of support for CCC. But, I am not happy about this outcome. I think that having our conferences under an umbrella such as ACM or IEEE that unities much of Computer Science is a positive thing, regardless of practical issues such as bank accounts, insurance, hotel deals etc.. (that thankfully I understand very little about) or even issues such as “prestige” and library subscriptions. I am afraid that an administrative isolation of a sub-area might end up contributing to an intellectual isolation as well. For example, while the idea might sound appealing, I think it is good that we don’t typically have “department of theoretical computer science” (let alone a department of computational complexity or computational geometry). It is important for us to interact with other computer scientists, if only so that we can occasionally torture them with an equation-filled colloquium talk 🙂

As I said in the past, I wish that our professional societies would behave more like their mission statements and less like for-profit publishers, and so conferences would not feel compelled to leave them. Given the hundreds of votes in the CCC and SoCG elections, I can’t help but think that if steering committees and chairs of various SIGs across all Computer Science collaborated together, they could marshal thousands of votes in the ACM elections that would truly change how it operates.

 Update: Please see Paul Beame’s comment below for some of the significant differences between ACM and IEEE.

13 thoughts on “Independent conferences: the second-worst solution

  1. Interesting perspective. But don’t you think that these actions may help ACM and IEEE move in the right direction by offering a credible threat? I should also say that I feel somewhat differently about ACM and IEEE. I feel more at home at ACM and worry more to its survival.

  2. I have served as a volunteer in both IEEE and ACM and the difference is like night and day in terms of the amount of support for the community. On top of that, as Tal Rabin reported at the STOC business meeting last week, SIGACT gets far more dollars FROM ACM than the total of all the overheads that SIGACT and its associated conferences pay to ACM. In the last budget year it was a net amount from ACM of $39K. This was because SIGACT receives revenue based on the downloads of papers from the ACM Digital Library. ACM shares part of the revenue they receive from selling access to the ACM DL to companies and libraries based on which papers are downloaded which is how that share is calculated. IEEE returns absolutely nothing to the research community from their DLs and does not even allow them to keep excess funds year over year.

    1. I agree that, aside from the issue of open access (where they seem to have similar policies), IEEE and ACM shouldn’t be lumped together. Indeed, the reason I mentioned only ACM and not IEEE in the end of my post is because I am much more optimistic of the possibility of democratic change in ACM, (However I have to say that I was disappointed that, as far as I could see, not a single one of the candidates in the last election mentioned promoting open access as a goal.)

      1. Along this line, I was recently elected as a rep from the SIG board to the ACM council. Both from my comments in SIG board meetings as ACM chair and my statement, I couldn’t have been more clear about favoring moving toward more open access as an important goal. The fact that I got elected is a clear sign that there is support among SIG chairs.

    1. Paul: congratulations! This is definitely a very positive sign.

      I was referring to the statements of candidates for president/vice-president/treasurer/members-at-large ( ). While some of them mention open access, none are clearly supportive of it or set a concrete goal for ACM to move forward, and in some cases mentioned it as an issue to be confronted rather than a worthy goal to aspire to.

  3. Let me start by commenting that the letter of support for CCC in terms of the collection of people who signed it is very very impressive.

    I also share Boaz sentiment that having an umbrella of a professional society is by itself positive. And it goes without saying (to me) that having professional societies like ACM and IEEE is a positive thing. The thing we may have to understand better is why (and is it really true that) our professional non-profit-societies like ACM and IEEE do not “behave more like their mission statements and less like for-profit publishers.”

    Another simple question is: If being under the umbrella of a prestigous professional society means an overhead of say 15% for the cost. Does it worth it?

    1. The issues are not merely higher overhead, especially with IEEE, see for example

      As much as I value the umbrella of a professional society, given that have no desire to be a local organizer, if the people that are actually volunteering and doing these things feel that they cannot work with IEEE, then I would defer to their judgement. (In addition there is of course the whole issue of open access. Even though I strongly support open access, for me it is not reason enough to leave a society, but I understand those who feel otherwise.)

      1. Yes, IEEE’s “help” does not look good and the overhead is substantially higher than what I thought.

        For OA matters I think that the higher priority should be to have open access (electronically) for older conference proceedings. (For new “proceedings” people can and usually do arxive their paper.)

        I suppose that IEEE needs the (30% or so) overhead from conferences to survive financially. (Is it so?) So a main issue is if the community of a specilized area would like to continue this arrangement in return to a) the prestigious umbrela b) being part of the larger community and perhaps mainly c) supporting the “mother” professional society.

      2. I don’t know enough about these matters to answer with high confidence, but IEEE is a fairly huge organization which I have very little grasp of both its income and its expenditures, and suspect that these conferences and their overhead are a very minor part in both.

      3. Dear Boaz, I don’t suggest that CCC leaving IEEE will cause IEEE to collapse, just that the level of revenues/overhead IEEE collects is probably what the organization needs to stay even (given that it is non-profit). But I am not sure about this or about any details and it is also a well knowm phenomena that non-profit organizations behave often just as for-profit organizations.

        Since for-profir organizations give us trouble and non-profit organizations also give us trouble the only viable solution is to have for-loss-organizations which will support our academic activities at all costs not caring at all about accumulating large losses. 🙂

        In fact, this is not a new idea

        Alter Druyanov, in “The Book of Jokes and Wit” (1922) writes:

        “Why is it that rich people have open credit lines and poor people need to pay cash? The world would have been a much better place if the opposite was true.”

        It continues:

        “You can argue, that giving credit to poor people runs the risk of making the creditor himself poor. But this is all for the better, once the creditor is poor he will also have an open credit line!”

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