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Communications of the ACM

From the editor's desk

The Battle Behind the Scenes

Robert L. Ashenhurst
EIC Years April 1973–January 1983

Stuart has chosen to call his reminiscence "The Battle of the Covers." Mine is appropriately titled "The Battle Behind the Scenes" (I eschew the expression "Under the Covers," used by Ted Codd to describe relational database infrastructure, since CACM is a family publication, sort of). Researchers in programming languages and other disciplines liked CACM as it was—a vehicle for presenting their research results, one that was appropriately refereed but also widely read (or at least widely circulated), as the publication was distributed to all ACM members. At the same time, practitioners in computing felt its articles were arcane and basically unreadable; they resented having to receive it.

During that time, several Transactions were created as spin-offs for researchers in specific domains—first Transactions on Mathematical Software (TOMS), then Transactions on Database Systems (TODS), Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems (TOPLAS), Transactions on Computer Systems (TOCS), and many others. These publications attracted papers in some of the central research areas in computing, even without the wide circulation of CACM, and it was felt the departments that remained would not be sufficiently focused to support the less-central research topics. Thus, the ACM Publications Board proceeded apace with a plan for a "new" CACM as described briefly by Stuart (to avoid stepping on any toes, let me call this the "old new" CACM to contrast it with the various "newer new" versions generated subsequently).

While this long-range solution was being formulated, however, we mounted a number of short-range efforts to address some of the discontent among ACM's practitioner members. We added a specially edited "Computing Practices" section, with contributions reviewed, but not refereed, by research standards. As noted by my fellow editors, we used the acronym JAM—Journal for All Members—in discussing these matters. I wrote a couple of pieces (in the July 1977 and Feb. 1982 issues) counting how many pages of "nonresearch" material actually appeared between the covers of CACM. In addition to the existing "Reports and Articles" sections, these included the calendar, position notices, and other materials of general member interest. I even suggested (facetiously) that those who could not bear the sight of the academic content physically tear out the offending pages, traditionally grouped together in the middle of the issue. Left would be virtual JAM (or vJAM).

Eventually, of course, the last of the "black-and-blue" covers appeared with a colorful hint of what was to come peeping out of the bottom right-hand corner of the cover of the 25th Anniversary issue in January 1983. This edition, my swan song as EIC, reprinted 21 notable papers of the past, including Dijkstra's previously mentioned piece, as well as E.F. Codd's milestone "A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks" (June 1970), and the seminal "A Method for Obtaining Digital Signatures and Public-Key Cryptosystems," by R.L. Rivest, A. Shamir, and L. Adleman (Feb. 1978). Also in that issue was a page on CACM's contributions to computing education, as well as a summary of its history entitled "The First Quarter Century," complete with timeline.

The "Forum" section, consisting of letters to the editor contributed by readers, began before my editorship, but grew and flourished mightily during my years. We spun off "Technical Correspondence" as a separate section, so that Forum could be a source of lively opinion on all things related to computing, however remotely. When I took the helm, being Forum Editor was an implied adjunct to being EIC. When I left the latter post in 1983, I remained as Forum Editor until 1991. Editing Forum was definitely one of the most stimulating and fun parts of the job, and I tried conscientiously to print everything that came in, no matter how scurrilous it appeared to many. I also endeavored to get responses appearing in the same issue from those criticized (or maligned). The only letters "suppressed," by order of the ACM Council, were those supposedly of general technical interest but submitted by members who were currently candidates for ACM elected office (thus branded "electioneering"). I particularly remember a letter from Herb Grosch, perennial gadfly, accompanied by a second letter—of protest—in case we declined to print the first one.

From these roots grew the galaxy of ACM publications we have today, covering all aspects of computing for all manner of professionals. One might think, of course, that this was inevitable, given the pervasive growth of the computing field. But it certainly owes a good deal to the vision and foresight of all those involved in ACM publications in the earlier years.

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Robert L. Ashenhurst ( is Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, IL.

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UF1Figure. The 25th Anniversary issue of Communications, published in January 1983, celebrated past editorial achievements by reprinting 21 seminal papers from its first quarter-century.

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