Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wherefore and what from scientific societies?

Do you contribute to a scientific society (as a member or otherwise), and why?  Many scientists don't bother maintaining memberships, thinking the only benefit is getting a journal to which their institution already subscribes.  Most people don't even think about what scientific societies do.  The best answers I have heard are "manage the journal", "organize meetings", and/ or "give out awards."  Many societies do some or all of these three things, but I think most academics are unaware of the backdrop, and the importance of the financial linkage to the journals and conferences.  Scientific societies are sometimes funded largely by profits from their journals and meetings, though some funds also come from membership dues, donations, and grants (the relative proportions vary greatly by society-- e.g., some take a yearly loss on their meetings).  The revenue funds are then used for maintenance of those same activities as well as distributing a variety of awards (most often for students but sometimes for workshops), outreach activities, and overhead/ staff.  Some societies also engage in activism, promoting the merits of their discipline to the public or politicians, including drafting statements about controversial topics (e.g., stem cell research, evolution education) and arguing why scientific research is a good public investment (see also this article, that's not by a scientist).

These societies are, and operate like, non-profit organizations.  However, the revenue source is a little different-- rather than relying exclusively on donations, the yearly conferences and journals provide potentially larger and more consistent funds to maintain these activities.

Now, let's think for a minute-- what would happen if we changed the model to one resembling most non-profit organizations?  What if society journals exactly "broke-even" to the publishers, making them cheaper in which to publish and subscribe but eliminating the revenue to societies?  What if we then asked PI's to donate to their societies to fund the grants, outreach, and activism efforts?  There's a fundamental problem-- "donations" cannot be billed to grants, so we'd have to donate out-of-pocket.  This problem is apparent in why people often refuse to pay memberships to get reduced publication charges, even when the reduction is greater than the cost of membership-- publication charges come "from the grant" and memberships come "from checkbooks."

So, societies with an associated journal get funds from journal publication and subscription charges (and sometimes from conference registrations), and use those funds in a "charitable" way to meet the goals of the group, including distributing extensive student research or achievement awards, maintaining communication among scientists via conferences, and providing outreach to schools and the broader public.  Yes, there's some overhead too, like funding the travel of the scientific officers to meetings, but these officers rarely receive any compensation beyond "expense reimbursement" for what ends up being days of work each summer.  There are typically minimal (and often overstretched) staff, too.

This should be food for thought in choice of publication venue, personal society memberships, personal journal subscriptions, recommendations to your university about journals in which to subscribe, and choice of conferences.  Memberships in societies (e.g., Sigma Xi) really do directly give back to your community, in addition to getting you a journal.  Subscribing to and publishing in SOCIETY journals (e.g., Evolution, Genetics, Journal of Heredity) brings money back to your students, colleagues, and community, whereas publishing in NON-SOCIETY journals often fails to do so.  Similarly, attending SOCIETY meetings potentially gives flexible funds back to an organized group with similar goals, whereas attending other meetings only does so indirectly, if at all.

Food for thought.  I'll note that I'm not unbiased, though, as I have served and currently serve in many societies myself.


  1. I agree with your characterization of the role of societies, but personally I do not support the current economic model of Learned Societies (and by implication societies themselves) since few Societies publish under an Open Access (CC-BY) model that permits text mining research. It is true that many Societies publish under a hybrid model that permit certain articles to be OA, but on these occasions the author pays above and beyond for this "privilege" and thus these payment are outwith the normal economic model of society publishing.

    It is my view that most Societies would not be able to survive without the profits of their journals, and that Society journals will be among the last to move to a full OA (CC-BY) model. If indeed Societies are not sustainable under an OA model, then I feel it is incumbent on academics to ask if they are comfortable with the devil's bargain of ceding away their rights as authors (copyright and the right to reuse of their work by the wider academic community) in order to subsidize the specialized activities of a subset of the academic community. Similar to the profiteering by Elsevier, etc. I feel that many will eventually see that Societies are likewise using journals as cash cows, and question whether we should be using publicly funded money to funnel (via journals) funds to activities that benefit the few over the many.

    I should clarify that in principal I support Learned Societies, and value their historical role in promoting science over the last 400+ years. If there were alternative ways to fund societies that didn't rely on skimming from the public purse and blocking the unrestricted access of information to support their activities, I would be right there with you in calling for their continuation. But I fear they are something of a thing of the past that evolved under financial and technological circumstances that may no longer be relevant in the 21st century, and we may have to accept their passing and embrace new forms of outreach and networking that are not connected to unfair/unsustainable economics (e.g. free social media).

  2. Casey raises good points-- I am definitely an advocate of open-access, but it's true that few society journals have gone this route YET (aside from pieces like "open access options" or free access after 12 months). I emphasize the word YET. The question is this-- are societies truly not sustainable with an OA model? This is a question that I urge societies to explore fully... perhaps we CAN sometime soon come up with a model wherein we have our cake and eat it too.

  3. The most fundamental question to my mind is this: do learned societies exist for the benefit of their academic discipline, or do academic disciplines exist for the benefit of their learned societies? If the former, than there is an absolute mandate to find a way to go open access -- that is the only way they can fully support their discipline.