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To Join or Not to Join

By Steven Wiley To Join or Not to Join The benefits of membership to a scientific society are decreasing every year. Lately, I’m asking: Why bother? At about this time every year, I renew my memberships to several scientific societies, and every year I ask myself the same question: “Should I bother?” In years past, the answer was easy because being a member came with tangible benefits, such as inexpensive journals and the ability to sub

By | March 1, 2010

To Join or Not to Join

The benefits of membership to a scientific society are decreasing every year. Lately, I’m asking: Why bother?

At about this time every year, I renew my memberships to several scientific societies, and every year I ask myself the same question: “Should I bother?” 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.

Most scientific societies were established to promote the development and acceptance of a particular field of research. More recently, the larger societies have expanded their roles to include lobbying for increases in research funding and providing career advice. Although these are worthwhile activities, I don’t need to belong to multiple scientific societies to support them.

I almost always renew my society memberships, but I think that it is more out of a sense of tradition than need. 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.

Scientific societies generally cater to the status quo, not to the new and emerging elements of a field.

There has always been a tension between traditional and new approaches within scientific societies. For example, the American Society of Biological Chemists (ASBC) was formed in 1906 when members of the American Physiology Society felt that the new, chemical approach for investigating physiological processes was not being sufficiently promoted. Following its formation, the ASBC created the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) to help drive the success of their new field.

My graduate training was in biochemistry, and some of my first papers appeared in the JBC. However, I had a healthy exposure to molecular biology in graduate school, and saw its potential for understanding protein function. Very few of these molecular biology papers appeared in the JBC. I also noticed that the relationships between traditional biochemists and the new generation of molecular biologists were not always cordial. I remember some of my traditional biochemist friends grumbling that they did “molecular biology” as well. After all, proteins were molecules.

After a period of increasing tension between the old and new guards, the ASBC became the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in 1987 after its molecular biologist members threatened to split and form a new society.

The ASBMB has continued to accommodate new technical advances, often through the establishment of new journals, such as the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Proteomics. This speaks well for its prospect of remaining relevant to young scientists.

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.

Perhaps the only way to promote a significantly new approach to biology is to create a new society. But this step also creates new barriers between scientists, just when we should be trying to find ways to integrate biological knowledge.

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.

Steven Wiley is Lead Biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 3, 2010

My biggest problem is annual dues. Especially for those of us just starting out, the cost can be prohibitive. The last one I just paid was $300 for the year. Under a tight budget, that was hard to fit in.\n
Avatar of: KEVIN KARPLUS

KEVIN KARPLUS

Posts: 2

March 9, 2010

Steven Wiley said "Perhaps the only way ... is to create a new society."\n\nThere is exactly that new society for the change he is seeing: The International Society for Computational Biology, which has been in existence since 1997 and runs the leading conference in bioinformatics (ISMB) every summer.\n\nIt is hard for new societies to survive financially, as the journal revenue streams are not readily available, and scientists tend to keep paying dues to the same old societies, even when they no longer fit the scientists' needs. (I'm still a member of IEEE, though I've not had anything useful from them but term life insurance for the past decade or two.)\n\nI think that ISCB has done a good job of finding useful things for a society to do that has brought in young members. Ideas for new ventures (that don't cost too much) are always welcome!\n\nDisclaimer: I'm on the Board of Directors for ISCB, but am speaking here only as an individual, not representing the board or ISCB.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 7

March 10, 2010

My spouse and I used to belong to major societies like ACS, IEEE, and a couple of others. They in my opinion became large, bureaucratic, hierarchical, more like a large government agency or academic institution. The ever increasing costs of membership and meeting registration vs. the shrinking benefits and growing dissatisfaction made me stop paying dues. I joined smaller, more member-oriented societies and still spend a lot of time at smaller meetings and keeping up with groups in my field of interest via email lists, blogs, and social media.
Avatar of: BRADLEY ANDRESEN

BRADLEY ANDRESEN

Posts: 34

March 10, 2010

As a young scientist I can firmly say that my career is greatly aided by one society, ASBMB?s sister society ASPET. However, I too look at the cost and ask why. For ASPET the answer is obvious, but the others? what do they do for me? The answer is not ?nothing? (although I do think that at times) because they help to place you in social circles. As Dr. Wiley points out science is generally run by the old guard, and the young guard is relatively powerless, or as it sometimes feels nameless faces in the crowd. However, staying in the crowd, making contacts, and showing your scientific grit will get you noticed and over time doors will open, or to maintain my previous analogy, your face will now have a name! Every society I am involved with strives to involve young scientists, a member of the society cannot believe that if they are a member good things will happen; they need to work towards whatever goals they have. The society provides a framework for that activity, and I strongly urge young scientists to join the society that most represents their interests, meet people, and get involved. This will help your career in many ways, but it will not be easy and will not come automatically.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

March 10, 2010

It is true that some scientific societies can become large and overwhelming to some, but the fruits of cross pollination can often be much greater than any incovienence. I'd hate to be stuck at a meeting with the same old "boys and girls club" every year. That's what happens when you only have small organizations. Some group tends to dominate and their narrow views become "dogma". I think this merely points to the fact that we need to become more efficient at organizing ourselves and focusing on what we want to obtain from a society. You can't do everything, but in a big society you're likely to find someone who can do something well that you can't. My "huge" society, SFN, does a great job of helping me keep organized. I also belong to several smaller ones that help me to keep in touch with those in my geographic locale, and specialized research interests. I think we have a need for all types of societies. Isn't this supposed to be an age of diversity?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

March 10, 2010

With tight finances & high membership fees, I personally dropped my membership in two large professional societies this year, but retained membership in a smaller society (whose conference I am currently attending). \n\n At the price of attending meetings, it just didn't make sense to retain membership in societies where I couldn't be comfortable presenting unpublished research. \n\n Cross-fertilization of ideas can only happen when the "no photography whatsoever" signs are both observed and enforced. So if the bigger societies are struggling, maybe they're doing something wrong.
Avatar of: David Osterbur

David Osterbur

Posts: 1

March 11, 2010

Though they may seem free it is your library that pays for your access to those society journals. As the societies grow larger so too does the self-sustaining bureaucracy and libraries end up shouldering more of the burden. As societies look for more ways to support themselves they turn to for-profit publishers, resulting in single-year institutional subscription increases of 200 - 400%. This is not a sustainable model.
Avatar of: Ralph Bradshaw

Ralph Bradshaw

Posts: 1

March 11, 2010

As Historian of the ASBMB, I would like to point out two errors in Wiley's article. First, contrary to a commonly held view, the Journal of Biological Chemistry was not started by the ASBC; in fact it was formed and began publishing the year before (1905) the ASBC was formed. While there was substantial overlap in the scientists that formed both entities, they were operated entirely separately until 1919. Therefore, the contention that the society felt the need to start the JBC to further interest in the chemistry of biological systems is not correct. Second, the Society's newest entry in science publishing is entitled simply "Molecular and Cellular Proteomics", not "The Journal" thereof.
Avatar of: H Steven Wiley

H Steven Wiley

Posts: 4

March 15, 2010

Ralph,\n\nThanks for catching the errors. I tried to be as accurate as possible to avoid the perception that I was trying to rewrite history.\n\nThe section about the JBC was taken from a historical note about the society from the \nAlbin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery site (http://aok.lib.umbc.edu/specoll/ASBMB/note.php). Although the ASBC as a society did not start the JBC, it is clear that its members did and that the society took it over to further the aims of the society members (see below).\n\n"The Journal of Biological Chemistry was incorporated in 1905 by Christian A. Herter, Edward K. Dunham, Alfred N. Richards, John J. Abel, and Reid Hunt, all of whom were charter members of the ASBC. In 1919, ASBC members met to discuss the incorporation of the Society in order to take control of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Inc. ... ASBC was incorporated on September 12, 1919. On October 24, 1919, all of the capital stock of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the securities of the Herter Memorial Fund were transferred to American Society of Biological Chemists, Inc."
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

March 15, 2010

It used to serve a very important function to schedule a meeting where the prominent experts could present their latest research to their peers and exchange knowledge and ideas together, before the digital age. But, now, with tele-conferencing even availble, the need for the societies have become redundant. It would still be important if a scientific society could provide a political clout necessary to advance its interest, but, as it is, scientists seem to be unconfortable with politics, as much as the politicians are also uncomfortable with science. So, what critical functions do the scientific societies serve these days, any more, except holding annual meetings or conferences to hear the live presentations which can just as well be done instantly and more conveniently through internet.

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