Let me first put down a disclaimer: I work for a scholarly society, the American Mathematical Society (AMS), and I have a vested interest in its ability to fulfill its mission.
Ours is a society with history and a mission. The AMS has deep roots, having been founded in 1888 to further the interests of mathematical research and scholarship. Like many scholarly societies, it runs as a publisher of books, journals, and the comprehensive database of mathematical literature, MathSciNet. Like many societies, the AMS hosts meetings, engages in advocacy, supports mathematical education, provides support and prizes for career mathematicians, and attempts to foster an appreciation of mathematics in the general population – never an easy task.
That is what we do, and it is a familiar story for most academic societies to a greater or lesser extent. All scholarly societies are mission driven. Many rely upon publications for revenue to support these mission-driven activities, though a few large societies rely more on income from conferences (although these, in turn, may support their publications). All are there to serve their membership.
In this post, I wish to engage your thought process on scholarly society membership. In his recent post on The Scholarly Kitchen, Joe Esposito points out how difficult it is for societies to ignore the sheer size of the financial incentives that corporate publishers offer. Scale alone means they can offer a Big Deal to libraries, thus posing fierce competition to smaller-scale scholarly publishers — not only in terms of economies for libraries, but also in terms of competition for content. Content providers will gravitate toward publishers who are more effective in distribution.
Many scholarly societies are seeing gradual, but significant declines in their membership numbers. The emerging scholars we now see entering academia no longer view joining a society as key to their community role. There are many reasons that have led to this shift in priorities. Given tight funding conditions where does a society fit into the needs of a scholar? Many fields are increasingly interdisciplinary, and it may be hard for scholars to identify with any one society. Online social networking may provide an alternative means of connecting scholars, with societies not clearly playing a role. As Joe Esposito suggests, benefits of membership have traditionally been provided through publications, and yet with much content now accessible beyond the walls of a society, direct member benefits are hard to articulate, although it is still true that conferences remain an essential draw.
At AMS we have close to 30,000 members, yet are seeing some decline and an aging profile. As a society we do much for the community, but it is questionable whether this is recognized by up and coming scholars. We make much of our content available to non-members in addition to members, so where are the publication benefits? For small societies it is harder still to remain vital in face of economic and societal pressures.
My view is that there is hope for scholarly societies. Where once perhaps membership benefits from publications were key, now the emphasis will move to the character of academic life and independence from commercial forces. For example, as Joe Esposito hints, the Big Deal makes it hard for society publishers to find a foothold with subscriptions and consortia when library budgets are subsumed by the giants. It is up to societies to help shape an academic career, and up to an academic to partner with others in their society as mentors, reviewers, board members, educators and innovators.
There is a role for societies to partner with their members and find ways to build community values as an overt position statement. Academics as society members may become involved in their community’s future, shaping the direction of a field and related fields, and helping stimulate the next generation of academics. Academics may become involved in a society’s efforts to lobby government – both for research funding and policy related issues.
I, for example, see part of my role as using math books for children as a way to excite the young about mathematics – these children may be future members of the AMS. Scholars with their societies can help shape publications in a way that can be separated from shareholder value, and intimately linked to the welfare of the community. Yes, societies need to be electronically nimble, and represent diversity among all parts of their field. Societies also need to demonstrate their value to a scholar, and with the power of community perhaps the publishing innovation may turn to the real needs of the academics who in the end are the producers and consumers of published content.