Sunday, September 17, 2023

ACM to go paper-free! Good? Bad?

The ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) will soon stop having print versions of most its publications. Rather than list which ones are going paper free, I list all those that are not going paper free:
Communications of the ACM
ACM Inroads
XRDS: Crossroads

What are the PROS and CONS of this? What are the PROS and CONS of any publication or book being paper free?

1) I like getting SIGACT News on paper since 
a) It reminds me to read it
b) Reading on the screen is either on my phone which is awkward (especially for math) or my desktop (so I have to be AT my desktop). 
I DO NOT think this is my inner-Luddite talking. 
2) QUESTION:  Will SIGACT News and JACM and other ACM publications continue to have  page limit for articles? When I was SIGACT News Book Rev Col editor, and now as Open Problems Col editor, I have often had to ask the editor Can I have X pages this time? The answer was always yes,  so perhaps there never really was a page limit. But is having no page limit good? Not necessarily. Having a limit may force you to only write down the important parts.

3)  PRO: Its good for the ecology to not make so much paper.  While this is certainly true, I think the world  needs to rethink our entire consumer society to really make a difference for the ecology. In fact, I wonder if e-cars, carbon-offsets,  and paper free products make us feel good without really helping much.

4) CON but good timing: I recently had an open problems column with two co-authors. One of them is not in the ACM and is not in the community, but wanted to see a copy of the article. I have arranged to have a paper copy of that one issue sent to him.  If I had published this column in 2024, I could not do this. And saying Just go to link BLAH' does not have the same impact as PAPER. I could have printed it out for him, but that just does not seem like the same as having an official copy. 
I DO think this is my inner-Luddite talking. Or his.

5) For quite some time computer science  conference proceedings have not been on paper (there have been a variety of ways this is done). Before that time the following happened a lot: I am in Dave Mounts office talking about something (e.g., who should teach what). He gets a phone call but motions that it will be short so I should still hang out. While hanging out I pick up a RANDOM proceedings of the conference RANDOM  and find the one or two article in it about Ramsey Theory and read them, or at least note them and read them later. That kind of RANDOM knowledge SEEMS less common  in a paper-free age. But maybe not.  I HAVE clicked around the web and accidentally learned things. Like the facts I learned for my post on simulation theory here.

6) Similar to point 5- I used to go to the math library and RANDOMLY look at a volume of the American Math Monthly or some other similar journal and look at some articles in it.  But now that's harder since they have stopped getting journals on papers and only get them electronically. To be fair, paper versions of the journals are EXPENSIVE. 

7) In the year 1999 my grad student Evan Golub got his PhD and he had to bring a PAPER copy of it to some office where they measured margins and stuff of EVERY PAGE to make sure it was within university specs.  Why? Because in an earlier era this was important for when the thesis was put on microfilm.  Were they doing that in 1999? I doubt it.  Some of my younger readers are thinking OH, they didn't have LaTeX packages that take care of marginfor you.  Actually they DID have such packages but, to be fair, the requirement that the university literally measures margins on EVERY PAGE was completely idiotic. I am  happy to say that in 2007 when my student Carl Anderson  got his PhD nobody needed a paper version. I do not know when the rules changed but I am glad they did. 

8) The ACM should promote this paper free change by doing a rap song like Progressive Insurance did here

9) Recently I had a paper with 3 co-authors that all three of us, and some others, proofread (I thought) very carefully. The referee accepted it but with a somewhat nebulous this paper needs a better proofreading. I then PRINTED IT OUT and read it AWAY FROM MY COMPUTER (the paper is on overleaf) with a RED PEN and I found LOTS of stuff to fix that we all missed before. So there are some advantages to getting OFF of the computer, though that may require PRINTING. (I also blogged about this topic here.) 


  1. You wrote: "I like getting SIGACT News on paper since It reminds me to read it"

    This is why I like getting Science on paper.

    But the cell phone vs. desktop bit means you don't have a Kindle. Kindles are far better for reading than either desktops or cell phones. The screen is really nice: since it's only for reading, it doesn't do color or have the high contrast of modern LCDs, which means it's way easier on your eyes.

    The bad news is that there's a lot of stuff that doesn't display right on a Kindle. Sigh. Such as LaTex documents. Ouch.

    But in general, I think paper is largely a waste: if it's on paper and you need to read it just once (or only for the period you need it for work on the current project) you have to either buy it (or equivalently print it out yourself) or find it in the library. With the amount of stuff out there, every institution having a library that has everything it's community needs is getting more and more unreasonable.

  2. I think paper-less equates to approximately use-less.

    Even 21st century born mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists, will almost surely, want to
    make use of pen/pencil and paper -- though the main diff will be using
    pen rather than old fashioned pencil. The question is why? The answers remain obvious -- there's just no obvious* replacement, and also, we have been educated by 20th century born mathematicians who in turn had the habit of scribbling things on pen and paper. They say bad habits are hard to break, but it's the contrary to bad.

    [*] The only obvious replacement as David from Tokyo would agree is the Sony Digital Paper DPT RP-1 which is unfortunately no longer available -- but those who have it know the truth. And any kindle is kindly inferior to a Sony DPT RP-1. (Even though the interface of the Sony is far inferior to that feeling you get from pen and paper.)

    1. They can have my pens when the pry it from my cold dead inky hands.

    2. Kindle has a scribleable version, but it's pricey and I doubt it's anywhere as good as paper.

      The thing about paperless is that if you need to scribble, you can just print it out. If it's "paper only", then it may not be your copy to scribble on, if you can even find it.

      Speaking of pens, Japanese authors, both popular and literary, (in pretty much the whole of the 20th century) did their work with fountain pens, and there's a bit of a fountain pen boom going on over here amongst folks who are into caligraphy as an art form (for Japanese). So I bought a few ultra-cheap fountain pens, and they're waaaaaaaaaaaaaay better for writing than ballpoints or pencils. I was surprised. (But my handwriting in any language is criminal, so I quickly gave up. (My handwriting was so bad, I went through a period (around 1970) of doing Italic with an edged nib, and it wasn't fun or easy since you have to keep the nib on the paper at exactly the right angle in all three spacial directions plus twist. But regular fountain pens work really well.))

    3. Forget Kindle … Sony Digital Paper DPT RP-1 (even though these puppies were manufactured in Shenzhen), they are as Japanese quality as your kind kindle can never reach.

    4. The best ereaders for scientists belong to the Onyx Boox Line of 13.3 inch readers (the latest model is called Boox Tab X). Yes, they are pricy. No they aren't a replacement for paper yet (color 13 inch ereaders don't exist). But using such devices is game changing. I am a theoretical computer scientist as well, and nothing beats working on a long-distance train travel (Europe :-)) with a laptop (for writing) and a large ereader full of papers (for, well, reading+some scribbling).

  3. The saddest part is the CACM intends to go paperless.
    I'd like to file some form of petition towards this move, Bill Lance can sign it too i hope.

  4. The true, supposed-to-be, or best-to-be, meaning of paper-free is
    paper-free for delivery to receivers under the condition that receivers can produce hard copies easily and conveniently upon needs.

    If this ideal situation has not been fully realized yet, I bet many efforts are toward realizing it.

    In this sense paper-free is a necessary and desired tendency to go.

  5. Anon, u missed the point. The paper quality of CACM is not trivially reproducible. Printing on cheap paper that attracts paper bugs two weeks down the road is nonsense and not a singularity. I want my CACM printed
    Version to arrive by mail or FEDEx.
    There’s no alternative to this.

  6. One con is that paper doesn't get obsolete. I can take a book which was published a few hundred years ago, and read it. The spelling and word use may take some getting used to, but paper remains paper. But electronic formats change. What is being published now, will that be readable one hundred years from now?

  7. Going paper-free may be nice for the environment. That said, the most famous publication venues that ACM runs are international conferences with mandatory in-person attendance, whose contribution to climate change is (I suspect) many orders of magnitude greater...