Why many programmers don’t bother joining the ACM

In response to a query from Vint Cerf, professional developers explain why they don’t feel a membership in the Association for Computing Machinery is worth the cost

Photo of Vint CerfImage credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Programmers haven't been shy about sharing their opinions about the ACM with former president Vint Cerf

Earlier this month Vint Cerf, co-creator of the TCP/IP protocol and current Google vice president, openly asked professional programmers for feedback regarding the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a professional organization that Cerf recently served as president. Specifically, Cerf wondered in both the Communications of the ACM and the ACM Queue, why the membership in the ACM has not grown commensurately with the increase in professional, non-academic programmers? What is it, he asked, that may be preventing programmers from joining and what could the ACM do to make itself more relevant to them going forward? 

While Cerf invited feedback to his Gmail account, many programmers openly shared their thoughts in comments on ACM Queue and in various online discussions. While some feedback about the ACM was positive, much of it indicated that developers have some strong negative feelings about the way the ACM operates. Before reviewing their feedback, though, let’s take a quick look at what the ACM is and what it offers to programmers. 

The ACM, created in 1947, is dedicated to advancing computing as a science and profession and currently has more than 100,000 members. It puts out a wide variety of magazines, journals and online publications, including many academic papers. It also organizes conferences, gives out awards and hosts a jobs site. Annual membership in the ACM, including unlimited access to all ACM publications via their Digital Library, costs $198 per year. 

So, what is it that’s keeping the growing number of professional programmers from feeling that membership in the ACM is a worthy investment? Based on the comments I’ve seen, here are three of the biggest issues programmers have with the ACM.

Putting its content behind a paywall

Many developers don’t like the fact that the ACM puts its content behind a paywall in the first place, particularly research that has been funded by taxpayers. They feel they have plenty of free alternatives for interesting, relevant information, such as Google Scholar, Stack Exchange and GitHub. In fact, last year an online petition was launched to tear down the ACM paywall, which currently has a little over 400 signatures. “I see the ACM primarily as a racket, acting like a self-interested, for-profit corporation - not an one that represents the true ethos of the scientific community, which involves openly sharing the results of research,” wrote commenter Peter Kelly on ACM Queue.

Lack of content relevant to non-academic programmers

Many don’t view the content that ACM does offer as worth the cost of membership. Regular coders often find the research published by the ACM not approachable or applicable to their daily work. As one Reddit commenter put it, “... it's cool to read articles about the latest development in fast database storage techniques, but I rarely find myself in a position of implementing database storage engines.”

Not making software code freely available

Developers complain that software used in published research is often either not published at all by the ACM or, when it is, is only made available under a restrictive, non-open license. Since April 2013, the rights to code published by the ACM remains with the author, but the copyright for any software published prior to that belongs to the ACM; use of the latter code is governed by the ACM Software License Agreement, which allows for free non-commercial use only. Simon Byrne commenting on ACM Queue wrote, “... the ACM causes significant headaches with its software policy…. The difficulties of defining ‘noncommercial use’ aside, its incompatibility with standard open source licenses (MIT, GPL, etc.) effectively prohibits this research from being incorporated into any useful products, commercial or open source.” 

Based on all of this feedback, it seems that the ACM would have to significantly change the way it operates in order to win over many professional coders. We’ll see how, and if, Cerf and the ACM address these critiques.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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