Scholarly Societies: Why Bother?

An interesting and provocative article in The Scientist by Steven Wiley iof the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, To Join or Not to Join.

The thrust of the article is that scholarly societies are having trouble offering true value to their members in the Internet age, that their business models and even their raisons d’etre are being disrupted.

In years past, the answer was easy because being a member came with tangible benefits, such as inexpensive journals and the ability to submit abstracts to annual meetings. Nowadays, these perks don’t seem very important. Most society journals are freely available online [1], and the proliferation of scientific meetings has made it easier to find venues to present my current research. Thus, the frequency with which I ask that question–“should I bother?”–has steadily increased.

*snip*

Clearly, I am not the only scientist who is ambivalent about societies. Judging from their newsletters, many of the larger societies are struggling with stagnant or declining memberships, especially among young scientists. Although it is the youngest scientists who potentially have the most to gain from a scientific society because of networking opportunities, they are the ones who usually are most poorly served by those societies. This is because scientific societies generally cater to the status quo, not to the new and emerging elements of a field.

*snip*

Currently, many different fields in biology are undergoing a revolution in approach, driven by genomics, computationally intensive data analysis, and mathematical modeling. Once again, these new trends are being driven mostly by young scientists, who likely see the potential to make new discoveries and avoid competing with their elders. Not all scientific societies are embracing these changes, as evidenced by the relative absence of talks highlighting new approaches at their annual meetings and the dominance of their editorial boards by traditional scientists.

*snip*

If scientific societies truly want to promote their field of research and the careers of their members, then they should embrace new perspectives and approaches. If a society were helping me deal with the rapidly increasing rate of innovation and discovery in biology, then it would give me a great reason to bother remaining a member.

We live in interesting times. A lot of the posts I’ve done recently on scholarly publishing in computer science have really been about the role of scholarly and professional societies in a changing publishing and social networking landscape.

Here are some examples of those posts:

I don’t have any answers about the future of scholarly and professional societies nor do I have any special insights on how they will change and evolve or perhaps even disappear.

But, not surprisingly, I do have some questions.

Questions for all of you library and science people:

  • What societies do you belong to?(Me: Ontario Library Association & American Society for Engineering Education.)

  • What value do you get from your membership? (Me: I do appreciate the print magazines I get. I also attend their conferences with some regularity and I really appreciate those.)
  • Is how you’re thinking about your membership and the society’s role in your professional life changing? (Me: Not yet, but I can see it coming, especially if conference attendance becomes significantly more expensive.)
  • Do you think societies should be in the scholarly publishing business? (Yes, I do. Most societies are more-or-less on the side of the angels — they want to promote scholarship and add value to their fields and treat their authors, members and subscribers fairly. We all just have to figure out the best way into the future.)

Questions for scholarly societies:

  • Does your society subsidize member programs with profits from it’s publications program

  • What kind of outreach do you do to the next generation of scholars?
  • What do you tell them is the “value proposition” for joining your society?
  • Do you facilitate your members online networking and professional development?
  • What are your thoughts on an Open Access business model for scholarly society publishing?
  • Do your members often mumble your name under their breath with the words to the effect of “just don’t get it” or “waste of money?”
  • Do librarians often mention your name in the same sentence as Elsevier?
  • Do you have a librarian advisory group to work on issues of mutual interest?
  • What’s your biggest competition?

Better yet, if you are an administrator or officer at a society and want to answer some of these questions (and more) at greater length, drop me a line and we can set up an interview.

(Via Frank Norman.)

[1] I assume here the author really means that the societies’ publications are available online without additional payment to members and people at subscribing institutions. Few societies have all their publications truly Open Access.

Comments

  1. #1 Chuck
    March 17, 2010

    I belong to the American Chemical Society—their Division of Chemical Information generally has good programs for chemistry librarians (both in industry and in academia) at ACS’s semiannual national meetings. I don’t participate in local chapter events, though.

    I also belong to the Special Libraries Association. Their magazine sometimes has interesting articles, but every year when it comes around to renewing I find myself questioning its value and just barely saying yes. The ability of LinkedIn to promote discussion among similar professionals may be devaluing this even further.

    I dropped my membership to the American Library Association several years ago–I didn’t find much value in it for a corporate science librarian.

    One interesting point is that working in a fairly large corporate library with several other staff members, we tend to “split up” professional memberships. If it were just me alone doing what I do, the Patent Information Users Group would definitely be worth belonging to, but because there are other people in my department who belong to PIUG and attend their conferences, read their publications, and share their learnings, I don’t feel the need to.

  2. #2 John Dupuis
    March 17, 2010

    Thanks, Chuck. We do some of the same splitting here too. I’m not a member of SLA or CHLA but other people here are, but I’m the only one in ASEE.

  3. #3 Mr. Gunn
    March 17, 2010

    For all their apparent cluelessness in some areas, there are some smart people at AAAS. I spoke to Jose Fernandez and his colleagues at the recent annual meeting and they have some good ideas, but I really don’t think large existing institutions are where we need to look for the next big thing. I’m really more excited about the smaller, adhoc meetings like barcamps and DIY science meetings.

  4. #4 John Dupuis
    March 17, 2010

    Good point, Mr. Gunn.

    I also prefer small conferences to large, faceless ones. The best conferences I’ve been to have been ones like SciBarCamp and Science Online.

  5. #5 Christina Pikas
    March 18, 2010

    * What societies do you belong to?
    SLA, ASIST, and 4S (this year only bcs of local conference)

    * What value do you get from your membership?
    I throw out the SLA magazines without reading them – the quality of writing in Outlook has really declined. I haven’t recovered my opinion of SLA after the re-naming debacle but the PAM division is really important to me. I read all of the ASIST stuff (it’s online only for student members, but that’s fine). I like the ASIST conference – i just wish the deadlines were closer to the conference date.

    * Is how you’re thinking about your membership and the society’s role in your professional life changing?
    not really

    * Do you think societies should be in the scholarly publishing business?
    I think preparing scholarly journals is exactly what a society should do – but they don’t know the IT of the systems in many cases so they should outsource production and focus on content.

  6. #6 John Dupuis
    March 18, 2010

    Thanks, Christina.

    A question: Does the cost of attending the SLA conference as a non-member exceed the member cost plus annual membership fees?

  7. #7 Kevin Marvel
    April 15, 2010

    I’m the Executive Officer for the American Astronomical Society and will answer your questions for Scholarly Societies:

    – Does your society subsidize member programs with profits from it’s publications program?

    No. Our journals have always been budgeted to cover the cost of peer review, production, dissemination, preservation and administration. We view our journals as a key component of the scholarly process in astronomy, not as a money-maker for the Society.

    – What kind of outreach do you do to the next generation of scholars?

    We work hard to draw astronomy students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to our meetings and to become members. Primarily this is done through communication with their professors and advisors. We provide substantial career enhancing opportunities at our annual meetings as well as discounted membership rates for early-career members.

    – What do you tell them is the “value proposition” for joining your society?

    The value proposition centers around community and communication. Being a member provides access to colleagues, especially through meetings, working in similar fields. We also have an active public policy program that works to enhance astronomy funding in the US. Recognition of accomplishments, through prizes and awards, also play an important role.

    – Do you facilitate your members online networking and professional development?

    We certainly facilitate professional development through workshops at our meetings, especially of note are sessions on project management and negotiation. We are exploring the best way to efficiently (read cheaply) facilitate online networking.

    – What are your thoughts on an Open Access business model for scholarly society publishing?

    We are not opposed to open access, in fact, our journals have a delayed open access of 24 months right now. We have urged the government to proceed carefully as they develop any policies or rules in this area. Our journals business model includes both author charges and subscriptions. Author charges cover the expenses of peer review, copyediting, production and so on, items directly tied to dealing with manuscripts, while the subscriptions cover the costs of online hosting, printing, indexing, cross-linking (and other similar expenses) and preservation. Both share the administrative expense. The subscriptions (and author charges) are set as low as possible to cover the costs involved. A sudden open access mandate would mean our authors would have to shoulder all costs, increasing our author fees somewhat. A sudden shift could have negative ramifications for scholarship in our field. It has taken many decades for our system to develop and it serves our community very well at low cost to authors and subscribers.

    – Do your members often mumble your name under their breath with the words to the effect of “just don’t get it” or “waste of money?”

    No. We work very hard to ensure our members are happy, including a substantial investment in answering their questions via phone and email as they arise.

    – Do librarians often mention your name in the same sentence as Elsevier?

    No. The AAS is well-liked by librarians. Our pricing increases are moderate and only when necessary (we had 3 years of flat subscription rates from 2007-2010). We involve librarian representatives in our publications board.

    Do you have a librarian advisory group to work on issues of mutual interest?

    Yes. See previous answer. The SLA has an astronomy-focused roundtable that we regularly reach out and communicate with.

    – What’s your biggest competition?

    We operate the worlds leading scholarly journals in astronomy and astrophysics. We organize the world’s largest astronomy meetings (our most recent DC meeting had 3500 attendees…we have 7500 members). Our biggest competition is clearly the growing power of the Internet to connect and enable our members to build their own communities. We will continue to work with and for astronomers in North America to enhance enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the Universe.

  8. #8 Sofiane Kerboub
    April 21, 2010

    Hey John,

    I felt enticed to build on your post, as I have been a member of CILIP — the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, based in the U.K. — for a semester merely and can thus offer comments as a rookie in the field.

    Do I find my £ 50 or so subscription to CILIP worth every penny? Absolutely. I keep scratching my head over how cheap it is, actually.

    In addition to providing access to ProQuest/Sage databases and circulating CILIP signature trade publications, my CILIP membership also gives me a sense of identity and of belonging to a real trade, which I find of utmost importance when you first start off in a profession.

    Finally, I see social networking and membership as complementary.

    Will I renew membership? Absolutely.

  9. #9 Chavah White
    April 20, 2011

    I stumbled across this article and felt I should put my two cents worth into the mix.

    In my field (costume/textiles/fashion) most of the academic conferences are for the purpose of CV enhancement, socializing, and escaping one’s duties for a few days. It is nearly all women and a great many of them (especially those who are tenured) are out shopping, socializing, and having fun – unless they are officers or hosts of the conference. The junior members dutifully attend every session because they know they are being watched and/or among the presentors, have friends among the presentors, or don’t realize they don’t necessarily have to be there.

    I found these conferences great for the first few years, but over time began to realize that I rarely gained anything useful professionally. And that many of the professors saved their best stuff for publication, or the more prestigious conferences, with the crap (that’s what it was frankly) being presented at the lesser conferences or at the more general ones where for example the scientists could not so easily discern the quality of the work done by someone in the humanities.

    If you must pay for these conferences out of your own pocket they can become prohibitive when airfares,registrations, hotels and meals are added up. Those on expense accounts are delighted – but someone must pay and it is the poor students and/or taxpayer who foots the bill. As a taxpayer I resent paying for this kind of foolishness because that is in fact what it often is. I have seen in the last 30 years numerous new societies, conferences, seminars, etc. In fact there are probably far more than necessary.

    The publishing side of the societies seems a valid use of membership fees but the conferences are a waste of time and money IMHO.

    Chavah White

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