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 , 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Are Computing journals too slow?
- Time for computer science to grow up?
- ACM responds to the blogosphere
- The Association for Computing Machinery on Open Access.
- Conferences vs. journals in computing research
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.)
 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.