Back in February 2020, before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on our lives, I wrote a Scholarly Kitchen post on the importance of scholarly societies as, “…an indelible part of the research and support system for academics across many disciplines.” Indeed, I argued that, “…scholarly societies are essential to a thriving academic community. Rather than funders suggesting that societies need to seek alternative revenue streams, why not turn that argument on its head and more fully support society life? After all, in these political times, community and academic life are important paths to preserving a culture of fact and the community that is so important to intellectual growth and scientific discovery.”

So much has changed since mid-March, and operationally, the ability of societies to serve the needs of membership and academic, or professional communities has been brought into sharp relief. How are academic and professional societies coping as the global coronavirus pandemic continues to cast a shadow — certainly well into 2021 and very likely into 2022 and beyond?

Dog Working at Home on a Web Chat Meeting

The theme here is how we can cope with this ongoing uncertainty. On the one hand, it is almost impossible to predict with any precision what 2021 may look like for society publishing revenue streams. On the other hand, it is also unclear how society memberships may fundamentally change and require altered or new services from societies that aim to serve their memberships and wider communities. We also need to recognize cultural differences between societies. Some societies are directly involved in the fight against the coronavirus, some serve academic communities in fields where funding is already at risk, some societies self-publish, and many publish in partnership with a corporate publisher such as Wiley.

One interesting set of survey data has been compiled by the association consultancy company, McKinley Advisors.

McKinley launched what they termed their “Association Impact Tracker” (AIT) in April 2020. This involved a brief survey to better understand the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on associations. The survey was distributed to a panel of association leaders on a bi-weekly, repeated basis. The idea was to build an ongoing picture through waves of asking the same questions, with eight waves from April, through to August 2020. Questions focused on the economic impact of COVID-19, the health and well being of the association and its members, and associations’ expectations for their staff, conferences and operations – clearly this includes publishing. The survey had 709 respondents across all eight waves; 58% were professional societies with mostly individual members, 27% were Trade associations with mostly organizational members, and 15% were a hybrid of these two. The fields represented were generally healthcare and STM, although a small, but significant number of societies came from fields such as education, humanities as well as accounting, finance, real estate, and manufacturing. Also of interest was that about half of the respondents reported that their scope was international, and about a quarter of respondents’ annual budgets were in the $5m-9.9m range.

McKinley kindly granted me permission to reproduce their survey results for Scholarly Kitchen readers. Also of interest is their Covid Tracker for weekly trends.

McKinley Associatoin Impact Tracker

Expectations for Associations Data

These findings are fascinating. As readers, you will certainly come away with your own questions and interpretations of the data. My first response was that in times of uncertainty, it is quite natural to focus on what is happening in the moment, and it is hard to have the bandwidth to look ahead. Having said this, the data clearly show that there is substantial confidence that at least in the next 12 months, operations will remain fairly stable and that societies feel confident in their ability to serve their memberships. While budgets remain uncertain, it is encouraging to see that they continue to focus on priorities such as enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion, membership retention, and the potential for successful virtual meetings.

The survey tallies with some of our experience at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). On the one hand, AMS is focused on ensuring that our members are being served effectively, as mathematicians suffer across the world due to the effects of COVID-19. On the other hand, we worry deeply about the publishing landscape for 2021 and 2022. As academic institutions suffer, researchers and educators suffer – and so do their budgets and ability to buy our content. Indeed, like many societies, 2020 is relatively OK, as most renewal decisions were made before the pandemic hit. For 2021, we are just not sure what will happen. We are taking steps to be as efficient as possible – indeed this is a good thing, forcing our hand to act in some areas. We are holding our prices flat on subscription products. We have offered voluntary severance packages, and are identifying where we can make cuts so we are in a position to weather the possible stormy times to come. In many ways, this is a time to hunker down and be as operationally focused and efficient — and indeed transparent about these conditions — as possible.

The AMS recently joined a collective of societies large and small, called the Society Publishers’ Coalition. This has already been a huge success, with societies of all stripes sharing what is on their mind and exploring collective action on areas of agreement. Most societies in this group are worried about what will transpire over the next few years. Those partnered with corporate publishers are hearing little other than positive generalizations about what the future for their revenues may look like, and would really like to see a clearer set of predictions and more transparency. Several society publishers have embarked on ambitious transformative open access (OA) agreements, and yet there is discussion in the winds questioning how sustainable large deals may be when the ability of larger institutions to support other institutions through such deals may not continue. Perhaps a silver lining here is that for societies with reasonably priced essential content, this may be where institutions focus their spend. What does this mean for OA models? Will the pandemic push us towards green OA? Will article processing charges (APCs) become harder to sustain? At the AMS, our approach is to look to Diamond OA for a new broad-based math journal, Communications of the AMS, launching in 2021 and funded by an AMS donor, but we realize that this is not an option open to all society publishers.

Many societies are seeing steady article submissions, and indeed many are seeing a significant uptick in submissions. Some of this is due to increased work in COVID-19 related fields, but not all. One interesting perspective is that we may see an uptick in papers being submitted from China, as China’s researchers steer back to a more normal pattern of research and conference activity. At the AMS, we are steady in journal article submissions, but it is book authors who are hanging back, not delivering their books. In Math, we do see worrying signs. As I write, Columbia University’s Department of Mathematics has announced a pause in admissions to its Fall 2021 PhD program.

For the AMS, as for many societies, our conferences, be they sectional regional meetings or the annual conference, are being held virtually — an area ripe for innovation. While much has been said on this, not least Michael Clarke’s excellent recent article entitled “Scientific and Scholarly Meetings in time of Pandemic“,  we, like many other societies, are struggling with how to bring virtual conference attendees to our virtual book and journal exhibits, our membership booth, etc. We have not sorted this out yet, but it is critical that we understand how to incentivize over-Zoomed mathematicians to come and visit all that we have to offer – and to buy!

Last, but certainly not least, is considering the way that a society’s operations work. It is highly likely that as the pandemic continues, many societies will consider moving to more of their staff working remotely, and indeed to losing office space altogether in a bid to cut costs. This will be a fundamental change, and will require a shift in how staff work collaboratively and how they are supported, especially for those in home situations that are not conducive to remote working. Much of this has been discussed in previous Scholarly Kitchen posts. e.g., Alison Mudditt’s post entitled “Building your Remote Workforce: Tips and Tricks for Social Distancing“.

We would love to hear from you at your society, or as a member of a society about your sense of society life in 2020, and looking ahead to 2021. What are your views?

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


1 Thought on "The Global Pandemic and Scholarly Societies"

Great post, Robert – you articulate well the uncertainties to which everyone is seeking answers! The point about exhibitions vs events is well made. Lots of academic meetings have been / are being held online, relatively successfully – but for the societies and publishers who exhibit (and for societies whose event business model relies on exhibitors), you’re right that the question is not “will people attend?” but “will they go to the online exhibition?” – and thus, as you say, “how can we incentivise people to go to the exhibition?” I’m just kicking off a research project and this will be one of the areas we’ll explore, alongside other open questions about the effects of COVID-19 on funders’ policies, institutional processes and budgets, and researchers’ workload / workflow / publishing choices etc. (

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