Today’s post continues the discussion with Executive Directors/CEOs of scholarly societies across a range of disciplines posing the following topics (Part 1 of this discussion is also available):
- Remote/hybrid office working, the effects on staff and productivity and culture, consolidation of owned/rented building space.
- Revenue generation: meetings and conferences, publishing – possible strategies for diversification of revenues suitable for your communities.
- Membership and how to attract members under a changing definition of what it means to belong to a scholarly society, including notions of increasing interdisciplinarity – if relevant.
- Response of your society to open access publishing pressures, bearing in mind the many models available, and differences in approach around the world.
Today, you will hear from Antonia Seymour (Chief Executive, Institute of Physics Publishing – IOPP), Paula Krebs (Executive Director of the Modern Language Association – MLA), and Tracey DePellegrin (Executive Director of the Genetics Society of America – GSA).
As the new normal starts to unfold, we have an opportunity to create a future that combines the best of both virtual and in-person collaboration. Technology helped to level the playing field for many and kept us connected, but it’s important not to lose sight of just how important face-to-face time is to maintain culture and community.
I can unequivocally say that the resilience and adaptability of my colleagues at IOP Publishing has seen us through the pandemic as an organization. We were quick to ensure that everyone could work safely and effectively from home, which in turn ensured that we were able to maintain our services to authors, reviewers, librarians, conference organizers, and society publishing partners. We’re now ready to introduce a progressive new way of working. Yes, the future of work is about giving colleagues the flexibility to work where they can be most productive. But it is far more than just a choice between home or office. Our approach centers on trust and autonomy, guided by a new set of Ways of Being that give a clear expression of what we stand for as an organization. We’re re-imagining our global offices to provide spaces where people want to come together and connect. And we’re supporting this with the right technology, devices and tools so colleagues can stay productive and engaged no matter where they are working.
We believe the ‘best of both worlds’ mantra will also ring true when it comes to how our global scientific communities connect. We continue to see article and revenue growth from our conference proceedings publications and in 2021 we relaunched our conference publishing services with a brand-new suite of tools that offer seamless management of each stage of the process as well as the option to host the conference online. Many conference organizers adapted well at the start of the pandemic, pivoting swiftly to hold successful virtual meetings including our own very well attended virtual conferences ‘Quantum 2020’ and ‘Environmental Research 2021’. In the future though, we expect a hybrid approach will prevail, with conferences consisting of a live, in-person event and a virtual online component to provide equal value for both physical and virtual attendees.
Making research accessible to as many people as possible who might benefit from it is a priority for the industry and COVID-19 has seen increased pressure on the traditional journal publishing model. IOP Publishing’s path towards universal access to physics research sees us accelerating open access uptake through transformative agreements — taking a progressive, inclusive, and equitable approach to making these agreements to ensure maximum opportunities exist for participation across our regional customers and consortia partners. We are also introducing new open access journals and encouraging the sharing of open data with data availability statements now a requirement across all of our journals. As a community-focused, society-owned publisher, IOP Publishing has always placed a strong emphasis on the author experience. In an author-pays model of Gold open access, the experience that an author has with us becomes even more important. If we’re to navigate this transition to open effectively, our emphasis needs to be on developing even deeper relationships with the scientific community, enabling broad access to scientific research and creating opportunities that progress science through the exchange of ideas. That’s why we’re investing heavily in data, marketing and analytics that supports decision making and enables us to enhance our communications, helping us to know our community as well as we possibly can. This data-enabled strategy will create a virtuous circle of high-quality services, a deep understanding of our communities and increased loyalty from readers, reviewers and authors.
Of course, understanding and managing the environmental and social impacts of all our activities will always be a consideration. We factor in how we can minimize the impact of our operations on the environment, and manage our resources effectively at the local, national, and global level to deliver a measurable contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
As a learned society publisher, maximizing our positive impact on society runs through all of our activities and initiatives. When we think about our future, we think about how we can stay strong and vibrant so that we can continue to deliver impact, recognition and value to the scientific community. Ultimately, everything we do is focused on expanding the world of physics.
We are working on new ways of meeting the needs of our members who have been adversely affected by the pandemic, while at the same time meeting the needs of our staff who have been just as affected. We’ve found that online resources, including teaching materials, webinars, and opportunities to get together in virtual spaces have been useful not just as substitutes for in-person gathering but as supplements to it as well. Those online resources are not going away now that we can bring members together in person. We’re devoting more staff time to professional development opportunities for members, acknowledging that working conditions for language and literature faculty members and doctoral students are difficult and that many need help both navigating their departments and understanding how to leverage their degrees and experience for a range of kinds of careers. Professional development also includes helping departments meet the needs of students in an increasingly anti-humanities climate, and we’re focusing on ways to make clear the value of humanities degrees for first-generation college students, students of color, and Pell Grant recipients – showing faculty members that helping students see pathways to careers is essential if we are to prevent our degrees from being seen as degrees only for students from backgrounds of privilege.
New offerings for members, of course, means that staff members are called on to deliver what they have always provided plus new online offerings as well – all while working in very challenging conditions. So, first up for us is to try to adjust working conditions for staff, acknowledging that not having to commute into the office five days a week frees up time and pressure and at the same time can constrain creativity by limiting interactions with teammates. We’re working on new plans for making the best use of in-office time together while reducing that in-office time by half, leaving staff members free to choose where they work best when they are not in the office working collaboratively.
- In the before-times, we had core offices with about 40% of our employees in Pittsburgh, 40% in Rockville, and the rest in several other cities. Our former Communications Director consults from New Zealand! Many of us worked remotely at least two days each week. Each year we gathered for in-person staff meetings, Board Meetings, multiple GSA conferences, plus strategic meetings. When the pandemic landed, because GSA staff were already quite skilled at effectively communicating with one another and with our communities, we didn’t have much of an adjustment period. GSA staff are creative, dedicated, and tenacious, focused on our scientist-community and ways to build and foster connections. But like most folks, we have for nearly two years dealt with childcare issues, health and safety concerns, isolation and burnout, and the general stress of uncertain times. Just as in 2020, we’ve made it a priority to be flexible and supportive. We foster an environment where, as long as the work gets done, people have significant latitude to choose where, when, and how they work. At the same time, we miss seeing one another. We had a blissful farewell lunch in Pittsburgh last summer when our former Communications Director moved to New Zealand.In 2020, we ended our leased workspace in Pittsburgh and have been remote ever since. This vibrant, shared, open office space was far from an ideal environment for having a room of one’s own and avoiding an airborne pathogen. This summer, we’ll look for a dedicated space in Pittsburgh, even if it’s a place for people to gather a few times each week. Most other GSA staff continue to work remotely the majority of the time, although the Rockville group goes into the office one or two days each week.
- Our revenue streams change at a rapid clip. We’re focusing on sustainability and balance within the entire portfolio. Rather than discuss the evergreen topic of generating and diversifying revenues, I’ll underscore the financial challenges we as scholarly societies face in offering hybrid conferences. Of course, for GSA and other scholarly societies experimenting with hybrid meetings, the revenue in dollars (likely low) may differ from the myriad benefits to our attendees (likely high). In a later response, I touch upon why hybrid conferences remain an important offering to the community, despite the costs to GSA. After two years of online meetings, we are eager to return to in-person conferences. This year, our four conferences are hybrid, with an in-person and a virtual component, including recorded sessions. Despite increased abstract submissions and registrations, our conference net revenues are forecasted at breakeven or modest losses. Why? This new format has higher staff, labor, contractor, equipment, and technology costs than an in-person or an online-only meeting. In addition, we’ve invested in measures to keep attendees safe: we provide free N95 or KN95 masks to attendees, we’ve made rapid test kits available at no charge, we’ve held single room accommodations in case an individual tests positive and needs to isolate, we’ve made allowances for more space during sessions and at posters, and we’ve arranged for onsite PCR testing for international travelers who need a negative test result to return home.
- Increasing the number of GSA members is on the priority list of nearly every Executive Director and Society President. In 2021, we had nearly 5,400 members, of which 43% were undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs. But making gains in numbers is harder than it might seem, especially for societies like GSA that do not have a large annual meeting (where attendees join for registration discounts), dozens of journals with high publishing volumes (where authors join for discounts on article processing charges), or continuing medical education credits. Year-on-year automatic renewals and loyalty to a particular society are less commonplace now than in the past. Rightly so, members today want to know what we as societies can do for them. It’s not enough to be “mission-driven” or create strategic plans with lofty goals. To attract and retain members in 2022 and beyond, GSA must make a tangible difference to an individual researcher. GSA is dedicated to strengthening and connecting our global community, fostering the next generation, and safeguarding science. We’re working to underscore the value of basic science to legislators, the public, funding agencies, and others in the scientific enterprise. We’re having hard but critical conversations and building a framework for how GSA can confront racism in science and usher in a fair, equitable, and inclusive environment for researchers. Our responsibility as a scholarly society means increasing access to our programs and connecting scientists across a range of genetic disciplines, countries, career stages, institutions, socioeconomics, and more. The pandemic gave rise to refining the way we operate in a virtual environment; our foray into virtual conferences began with taking The Allied Genetics Conference (TAGC) online in April 2020 and created a framework for engaging scientists who otherwise would not have been part of our programs, whether for costs, schedules, childcare, or other reasons. Once TAGC went virtual and provided no-cost access, we went from around 4,000 to over 14,000 registrants. We gained attendees from 39 countries, including ones like Iran, where visa issues prohibited attendance. Before and after attendance was striking for countries like Argentina (0 attendees to 74), Brazil (4->898), China (37->388), India (9->159), among others. I previously noted that hybrid meetings are a pricey but necessary undertaking for GSA. Still, the benefits outweigh the costs. Hybrid meetings increase access for scientists who otherwise would not be able to travel for whatever reason (affordability, family responsibilities, childcare, schedules, travel time or restrictions, pandemic concerns).
- Sustainable open access (OA) publishing is important to GSA, and its publishing partner, Oxford University Press (OUP). GSA does see diversification of revenues and sustainable OA options as being inextricably linked. These are the kinds of conversations and negotiations a society must have with its publishing partner in a way that makes sense for all the stakeholders. As we go forward, our partnership will help us navigate the complexity of the OA landscape and allow us to provide options that support our community and ensure that GSA is able to thrive and continue its good work.
These are striking insights from scholarly society leadership. For me, it is clear that scholarly societies face quite similar pressures, thinking hard about sustainability, be it as we plan conferences in a virtual landscape, defining why membership is important for a community of scholars, educators, and professionals, how to build a sustainable publishing portfolio, and how to foster an inclusive and diverse scholarly community. There are significant cultural differences across scholarly communities, revolving around the nature of scholarship in the field, and whether a field receives direct funding. There is no question that in mathematics and the humanities, it is neither feasible, nor equitable to place the burden on publishing open access on unfunded authors. In funded fields the story is different. Common threads emerge centering on the need for a flexible approach to working practices, defining the mechanisms for sustainable society operation in support of its communities, and how scholarly societies may collaborate with stakeholders across the research ecosystem
In the end, scholarly societies exist to support their communities of scholars, educators and professionals.