Societies and science

John Dupuis asks some provocative questions; I thought I'd take a stab at answering them, and I encourage fellow SciBlings to do likewise.

I quite agree with John when he says that the ferment over publishing models disguises a larger question, "the role of scholarly and professional societies in a changing publishing and social networking landscape." My own history with professional societies, I think, bears this out nicely.

John asks first: What societies do you belong to?

I belong to the American Society for Information Science and Technology. I was a member of the American Library Association for a time as a library-school student, until unchallenged racist statements from its then-president Michael Gorman made me reconsider ALA's value proposition; I wound up dropping the membership.

I am also a member/supporter of the Creative Commons and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which reminds me that it's about time I kicked another donation over to the latter). These aren't scholarly or professional societies in the sense John means, but I invite you to consider two things. One is, of course, that professional societies are competing with advocacy groups like CC and EFF for my money, attention, and time. The second: an often-rehearsed refrain justifying joining ALA in particular is the lobbyists that ALA sponsors in Washington, and the other advocacy and education work that ALA does.

I'm not knocking that work. In fact, if I could donate to ALA's Office of Information Technology Policy (makers of the highly useful Copyright Slider, among other things) and be assured that every penny of my donation would go to OITP's work, I would gladly do that. I'm happy to support advocacy I believe in. I just want to do it without having to support ALA per se, which I don't particularly believe in as presently constituted.

Next question: What value do you get from your membership?

For a while, I had a pretty good streak going of one ASIST-sponsored conference per year. That streak ended last year, but it's as likely as not to pick up again; of the major library and info-sci organizations, the likeliest one to sponsor a conference I'm interested in (and thus cut me a break on conference fees) is ASIST. (ACM is competitive in this regard, but they lost any chance of hooking me when they played games with Harvard over its OA policy. You can stop sending me marketing materials now, ACM. You lose.)

There is also professional-identity value in an ASIST membership. It's a signifier; it signals not only that I'm serious about my profession, but what elements of the profession I'm serious about. Not a few librarians belong to ALA and some of its subsidiary organizations for similar reasons.

Value I don't get from ASIST includes professional-networking value; I do just fine for myself on the interwebs. Because I'm not tenure-track, I also don't have service obligations required of me. If I did, ASIST would unquestionably be the outlet for my labor. Again, the need to demonstrate national-level service is a motivation for many academic librarians who are tenure-track.

I'm also not particularly invested in ASIST's publications. JASIST contains eggheadery on a level I simply can't rise to, and the Bulletin isn't in my experience terribly interesting.

Third question: Is how you're thinking about your membership and the society's role in your professional life changing?

Not noticeably, but I haven't been in the profession all that long, so it hasn't had much time to change, has it? I will say that I expect personal value out of my ASIST membership that I don't expect from CC and EFF. All I expect CC and EFF to do is keep on keepin' on with their missions, without wasting money (which they don't) or creating huge mission-unrelated scandals (which they haven't). At such time as the signifier value of an ASIST membership drops significantly for me, that membership may be in trouble.

Does this mean that scholarly/professional societies need to think harder about what they do instead of what they are? Quite possibly. Instead of esse quam videri (yes, I grew up in North Carolina), facere quam esse. I'm happier to throw money at doing than at being.

John saves the best for last: Do you think societies should be in the scholarly publishing business?

Oof. That's a loaded question, because it's different from the question should scholarly societies publish journals? I am on record as saying that societies have no particular right to fund their non-publishing activities from their publishing activities at the expense of library budgets. I still believe that.

Still, scholarly societies are in a good place to mobilize much of the labor that underpins journal publishing. The authors, peer reviewers, and acquisitions editors pretty much come to them! (Per this just-out D-Lib editorial, that's 80% of the total labor cost of journal publishing anyway. Admittedly, that's a bit of a red herring, because all the shouting is really over the other 20%; there are other eyebrow-raisers in that editorial, but let that go for now.) It would be a shame to lose that, and my sense is that online networking cannot presently replace it because of the low participation in online networking by academia generally (with exceptions, of course).

However, I also believe that any journal-publishing operation needs to operate responsibly. In the present environment, it is irresponsible not to use the Internet to reach the widest possible audience. (There are exceptions, but they are vanishingly few.) It is irresponsible to withhold uncompensated knowledge from emerging nations, from non-profit organizations, from practitioners, from governments, from anyone who could benefit from it but cannot pay out-of-pocket for it and does not (for whatever reason) have a proxy such as a library available. It is irresponsible to operate exclusively in the digital world without strong preservation plans in place. It is irresponsible to charge fees or to allow one's publishing partners to charge fees (no matter the business model; this goes for author-side fees as well as subscription charges) that wildly exceed the true out-of-pocket costs of publication.

A whacking lot of society publishers are flagrantly irresponsible by the above criteria. Should they be publishing? I'll say "no." Not until they can get their heads back on straight. If that means they fold, because they put all their revenue eggs in the subscription-journal basket—I'm not unhappy with that outcome. Whatever they did that is still necessary will resurface; that I believe.

Hope these are the kinds of answers you're interested in, John.


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Thanks, Dorothea. This is exactly what I was hoping for. I'm also really hoping for some society people to drop by somewhere and give their perspective too.

One point worth noting, I tend to use "scholarly publishing" versus "publishing journals" because the societies I'm most familiar with are in the CS field -- IEEE & ACM -- and they publish peer reviewed journals and conferences. In CS at least, you can't just say journals because it's actually the conferences that are more important. So I always keep that in mind.

So perhaps the more precise wording of my question would be, "Do you think societies should be in the business of publishing peer reviewed conference and/or journal literature?"