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Communications of the ACM

From the editor's desk

From Academia to the Editorship

Jacques Cohen
EIC Years October 1992–December 1996

The experience with the Illiac-I changed my life. After undergoing the exhilaration of having my programmed instructions executed at lightning speed—it was milliseconds in those days!—I was convinced that computers would profoundly affect science and engineering. To me, it seemed mandatory to take part in helping propagate the use of computers.

I became a member of the ACM in the early 1960s, and read the monthly issues of Communications avidly. At the time, the term "Association for Computing Machinery" was appropriate, and the articles published in CACM reflected developments in mechanical, analog, and digital computations.

In 1967, when I was doing research at the University of Grenoble, France, I had my first paper published in CACM. It was actually the cover article, which contained what is now known as execution profiles. The impact of this first article in the computing community was immediate; many of the outstanding computer experts bombarded me with questions about details of the techniques I had used. It was obvious then that CACM was already the premier publication of computer specialists.

In 1968, after a stint at MIT, I became assistant professor at Brandeis University. Undoubtedly, having several articles published in CACM and other ACM publications counted significantly toward my promotions to higher echelons in academia. Some of these articles were co-authored with my talented undergraduate students who gained invaluable experience in participating in my research; they also witnessed first-hand the efforts needed to have a paper published in a top academic journal.

I recall that during the 1970s one could hope to understand the material in CACM from cover to cover, even though the corpus of knowledge in computers was growing fast. Throughout both that decade and the next, CACM continued publishing major research articles that detailed the gems of achievements in computer science. Since then, the field has mushroomed, and specialization has become a must. The establishment of ACM Journals and Transactions dealing with specialized topics followed this trend. It was then essential to screen out the articles submitted to CACM that were more appropriate to other journals so as to achieve a balance that promoted the work done in many areas of computer science. This was no easy task and I am sure that many worthy articles did not make it to the pages of CACM.

In the early years ACM depended heavily on volunteer work to select, referee, revise, and publish papers. The momentous increase in the volume of publications eventually led ACM headquarters to recruit the help of specialists in publishing, as is done in most professional societies.

It was in this environment that Peter Denning, a recognized and experienced colleague, was appointed EIC of Communications, and James Maurer, a seasoned scientific publisher, was hired as Executive Editor (EE). It was Jim who, in the mid-1980s, invited me to join Communications' Editorial Board as one of its Associate Editors (AE).

The experience I gained during my five years as an AE was invaluable. I firmly believe this position is the best training ground for potential EICs. Since the choice of referees for a submitted paper is one of the important tasks delegated to an AE, he or she obviously plays a hand in the acceptance or rejection of the paper. For an AE, tricky choices abound; for example, in selecting the referees for a paper authored by a well-known researcher, the AE's role was more like a judge than a researcher!

Remember this was pre-Web, pre-Google. Indeed, there was not even a well-designed database in the late 1980s where an AE could check for related articles, record the names of authors and paper titles, list the referees, or note mailing dates. There was no automatic means of prompting reviewers to get their job done on time! Everything was done manually.

Often, after a paper is finally reviewed, an AE is confronted with conflicting advice from the referees, and a decision had to be made as rapidly as possible about acceptance, revision, or rejection. Editors, like judges, are human beings and subject to controversial decisions. My approach as an AE has always been to reply to an author of a rejected paper with constructive criticism and, whenever appropriate, suggest submission to related journals that cater to the topic at hand.

In 1992, Jim Maurer and Peter Denning invited me to become the EIC for CACM. As with any candidate for a position of high responsibility and visibility, I wondered if I would be up to the task. After reflection, I decided to accept the challenge. The acceptance was followed by a steep learning curve. Diane Crawford, the present EE, had just been appointed as the editor replacing Jim Maurer. My main goal was to join her as a partner in carrying on the task of keeping CACM as the leading ACM publication. At that time, the Association had over 80,000 members who received the monthly issues of CACM; the editors were responsible for ensuring a constant and timely stream of high-quality articles catering to readers with diverse backgrounds.

As EIC, I was also asked to join the ACM Publication Board, chaired by Peter Denning. I have seldom participated in such focused and active board meetings. Under Peter's leadership the board accomplished one of the ACM's grandest plans: the establishment of its now unreservedly successful Digital Library. Great credit should be given to the board members at that critical time, including Hal Berghel, John Clippinger, Bill Gruener, Marvin Israel, Wendy MacKay, Christine Montgomery, Peter Wegner, and Gio Wiederhold, who were joined later by Bill Arms, Peter Polson, David Wise, and Ron Boisvert.

My four-year tenure as EIC of CACM can be best described as a transition period after which the EE would have global control over the material published in the CACM. This seemed to me inevitable, since the task of keeping a steady flow of articles representing the efforts of an entire community was beyond the scope of a single volunteer EIC.

Decisions and actions are always taken within certain contexts and an organization must be flexible and dynamic to cope with new environments. As such, the decision to have Moshe Vardi assume the re-created position of EIC will likely open new horizons for CACM. Moshe is a dynamic and well-recognized member of our community. We wish him success in carrying out his new responsibilities.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the experience I gained as a decision maker in non-profit organizations like Brandeis and the ACM. I find it extremely important to understand the duality between idealism and pragmatism. One of these components cannot survive without the other. As an academician and researcher my initial inclination was toward idealism. When I assumed administrative and managerial positions, such as department chair or the editorship of CACM, I immediately recognized the need to be among pragmatists. I believe that successful organizations balance idealism with pragmatism and maintain a healthy tension between the two.

At this stage of its development, computer science risks fragmentation if we do not stress the basic concepts that bind its practitioners. At the same time we cannot ignore the complexity of the world that surrounds us and drives us toward interdisciplinary pursuits. Tomorrow's computer scientists will have to navigate wisely around the extreme of hyper-specialization while pursuing new frontiers in computer science. As we go forward CACM will continue to be the ideal venue to help our community develop new ideas and stay rooted in the basic tenets of computer science.

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Jacques Cohen ( is the TJX/Feldberg Professor of Computer Science at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.

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UF1Figure. The July 1993 issue of Communications was honored with the Best Single Issue award by the Association of American Publishers.

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©2008 ACM  0001-0782/08/0100  $5.00

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