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Communications of the ACM

From the editor's desk

The Battle of the Covers

M. Stuart Lynn
EIC Years January 1969–March 1973

Gerry Salton was my predecessor as EIC but had moved over to edit Journal of the ACM (JACM). He had suggested me as his replacement (I had been editor of CACM's then "Scientific Applications" department). I felt it was my duty—following in Gerry's distinguished footsteps—to protect the prerogatives of the volunteer EIC as El Supremo and that I, not Don, should be making the decisions about CACM covers. After all, CACM was primarily a prestigious research journal (with ACM news thrown in), not some fly-by-night computer magazine.

Kelly Gottlieb chaired the Editorial Board, at the time the governing body for publications. He and the Board tried to referee this mother of all publications battles. Both Don and I were adamant in our positions.

Kelly and the Editorial Board found the right solution. They settled on the notion (later endorsed by Council) that there should be an oversight Publications Board composed of broader representation—not just editors—who would bring both the business and the editorial perspective into consideration. That was the beginning of a process that eventually transformed ACM's publications.

As a small palliative step, we did change CACM's covers a bit during my editorship, attempting to bring some cohesion into the look and feel. The covers were attractively (but not garishly) designed, all in black and blue colors (see the accompanying examples). They were certainly more pleasing, but surely not as much as Don would have wanted.

In spite of the introduction of some materials of broader interest such as Forum (edited by Bob Ashenhurst), the essence of CACM did not change that much under my editorship. It was still predominantly a refereed research publication—a tradition that was significant to the research community who strongly resisted any change to widen the appeal of CACM.

The growing and broader membership of ACM was, however, not happy. They did not see why they should receive each month for their dues a publication that many could barely understand if at all. The Publications Board (by then I had taken over as Chair; while Bob Ashenhurst ably took over as CACM EIC) felt that a more strategic approach was needed to set the future direction for ACM's publications.

We formed a committee, the refuge of all desperate chairs—the Publications Planning Committee (PPC) with representation from many different constituencies.1 The PPC took a top-down approach. First step: obtain broad agreement on the strategic purposes of ACM's publications. Second step: fill in the details. Covers were not the issue!

After months of tortuous deliberation, the PPC produced the Long-Range Conceptual Framework for ACM Publications (quite a mouthful!), or LRCF, as a broad policy document. Fundamental to the policy vision was the recognition that ACM needed to create a framework in which many research publications could flourish to reflect the burgeoning of computer science (Transactions on Mathematical Software and Transactions on Database Systems had already been launched), and that more flexibility was needed if this was to happen. In fact, CACM as a purely research publication was ironically inhibiting this growth, sapping some of the best papers that could instead be used as a critical mass to launch new research publications. At the same time there was a growing backlog in CACM and the ensuing publication delays understandably upset many authors. We proposed a structure that we believed would lead to the birth of many more research Transactions and also shorten publication lead times.

"[W]ith this issue we are initiating several approaches that represent new directions. This is so that we may better serve the needs of the Association both in terms of the requirements of our profession and in terms of the diverse interests of our readers." —M. Stuart Lynn, CACM EIC, February 1971.

To complete this picture, conversely, CACM had to change radically. Research articles would be moved to JACM and to existing and new Transactions. In their stead, CACM would publish articles of broader appeal that would nevertheless be authoritative and definitive. The revised CACM was, as Peter Denning writes in his essay, conceptually called "JAM"—the Journal for All Members. We also developed a somewhat pedantic taxonomy for the Transactions that, correctly, has long since been abandoned.

After considerable debate, head scratching, and socialization, the Publications Board and Council adopted this new "Conceptual Framework." There was much opposition, of course, from many researchers who (at least initially) felt they were being shortchanged, losing the opportunity for their published papers to reach an audience of tens of thousands, regardless of whether the majority of those "readers" would ever look at those papers. Others felt that some of the best papers would escape ACM's publications altogether and be published elsewhere—a legitimate concern at the time, even though it did not in fact happen. Yet others felt that the proposed directions for CACM did not reach far enough into transforming it into a competitive commercial product. Undoubtedly, there are still many today who do not accept the "CACM decision."

We went forward. Peter Denning took the helm of the `new' CACM and did a brilliant job of transforming concept into reality. CACM did not descend into the throwaway rag that many feared. The contents became much more readable by the broader membership, but the articles were still important and definitive, providing deeper understanding of trends and issues in the field. We launched many new Transactions, significantly increasing opportunities for the publication of research material. Each new publication stood on its own feet financially.

I am long retired and out of touch with the field—and with ACM. My association with ACM's publications and Council ended in the early 1980s. I now see computing from the perspective of an avid user who benefits every day from concepts, ideas, and developments that were first nurtured in ACM's publications. I feel a sense of pride that I in my own small way—along with so many great colleagues and a terrific staff—was involved as a catalyst in making some of this possible.

I recently browsed ACM's publications list. It is extraordinary! The changes, of course, have been enormous even looking beyond the transition to so much material available online—a direction not anticipated in the LRCF. There are now over 30 Transactions, six journals, and numerous other publications far extending the early four publications of JACM (the very first), CACM, Computing Reviews and Computing Surveys all of which still flourish. Most of this explosive growth occurred long after my years of association with ACM.

But it all began with the battle of the covers!

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M. Stuart Lynn ( is retired and living in Palm Springs, CA.

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1I served as Chair of the committee, which included Bob Ashenhurst, Dick Canning, Ray Miller, Christine Montgomery, Joel Moses, Tom Murray, Jean Sammet, and Evelyn Swan.

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UF1Figure. (a) January 1971 (before); (B) February 1971 (after)

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