Scientific societies are an essential part of the research landscape. Almost all of us are members of one or more of them, and we have numerous reasons for joining.

When I was a PhD student, I joined the British Society for Immunology, in part for the sense of belonging. I was eager to consider myself an immunologist; getting the badge of membership was a small but pleasurable step. My more pragmatic next-door neighbor, Steve, is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Steve tells me that he enjoys getting his own copy of Science, but that his real reason for joining is to benefit from the massive savings he gets on car insurance, which more than covers the association's fees.

Steve and I are atypical. Neither the conferring of legitimacy nor the special offers rate among the top reasons for members' signing up. Instead (according...

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