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...

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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