Rejection letter from the Communications of the ACM

Ben Shneiderman, June 12, 2003

Our submission of the structured flowcharts to the Communications of the ACM was quickly rejected, on October 4, 1972, by the Programming Languages Editor David Gries of Cornell University. He included a single anonymous reference letter which is on paper that has a Cornell University watermark. I assume Gries gave our paper to one of his colleagues (you can play the guessing game too), who wrote the most brutal rejection letter I have ever gotten.

The reviewer wrote: "I feel that the best thing the authors could do is collect all copies of this technical report and burn them, before anybody reads them." As graduate students, this stinging rejection shocked us, but we kept getting enthusiastic responses from people around us. We sent the paper to the unrefereed ACM SIGPLAN Notices, where it was published in August 1973. It didn't take long for others to produce extensions, software tools, and applications of structured flowcharts.

The next problem was theft of the idea. I had sent a draft to respected colleagues, and soon others published slight variations. One of these respected colleagues was Ned Chapin, who greatly troubled us by publishing what he called 'Chapin Charts.' A friend of mine sent me his published paper with a note encouraging me to sue. For several years I feared that Chapin's reputation and his frequent professional seminars would wind up leaving the idea tied to his name, but as the decades passed, the ending has proved to be a happy one. We called the idea 'structured flowcharts, but they are widely known as Nassi-Shneiderman Diagrams.

Another problem was the appearances of patents for variations on our idea, but these have not limited the widespread recognition we have gotten over the years.

I wish every graduate student or young inventor would have the pleasure of seeing his/her ideas spread so far and influence the work of so many people. I also hope that the story of the bold rejection of our novel idea and its eventual international success, is an inspiration for anyone whose new ideas are rejected by some respected authorities.