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Why Scholarly Societies Are Vitally Important to the Academic Ecosystem

Let’s look at a “life-in-the-day” of an independent scholarly society

We live in a world where bigger is better, scale matters and those with the largest coffers and most profitable businesses have an out-sized influence on policy. Take, for example, the publishing trade organization, STM. STM presents itself as the leading global trade association for academic and professional publishers. In the STM 2018 Report, we learn that The Europa World of Learning has identified over 5000 scholarly societies globally. However, although STM’s members include learned societies, university presses and for-profit publishers, there is relatively sparse representation in leadership, especially from smaller society members.The problem here is that STM is a commercial trade organization, and its activities are largely funded by the big commercial publishers who have the money to pay for initiatives – they get to call the shots. I will be attending the upcoming STM conference in Frankfurt, Germany in October – the wind-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was somewhat dismayed this year to see that the program, while diverse in many ways, does not include a single speaker from a scholarly society, large or small – though I am sure it will be an enjoyable conference. It always is. Although I may be a wee-bit biased (having worked for such societies for the past 10 years), I feel that this is a serious omission.

In this article, I attempt to explain the critical role of scholarly societies, bearing in mind these societies vary enormously — in terms of the culture of the discipline and scale. I will argue that independent scholarly societies are vital to the academic ecosystem, and are the only community organizations whose sole reason for existence is to provide for the scholars in their academic community. The sad reality in publishing circles is that even with laudable initiatives such as the funder-driven Plan S, which ostensibly aim for an open world of research and content, it is the big corporate publishers who win.

Let’s look at a “life-in-the-day” of an independent scholarly society. The American Mathematical Society (AMS) is a fiercely independent society since 1888, with a mission to advance research and connect the diverse global mathematical community through publications, meetings and conferences, the discovery database MathSciNet, professional services, advocacy, and awareness programs. The AMS has 30,000 individual members in addition to 570 academic institutional members. The business reality is that sales of AMS publishing products account for 70 percent of the society’s annual operating revenues. There is an annual financial surplus, but it depends where you look as books, journals, and the MathSciNet database do not all contribute equally, and the AMS goes out of its way to be reasonably priced, frequently publishing content that perhaps would not be viable to publish if AMS were, like corporate publishers, purely serving the needs of shareholders. In fact, critics of publisher prices and unreasonable profit margins often lump societies and corporate publishers in the same pot. I am not going to share our financial details, but in essence, I find it remarkable that gross profit is almost always mistaken for net profit, and yet in reality the net is small and always reinvested by societies back into the academic community – indeed, that is their raison d’etre.

Please select this link to read the complete article from The Scholarly Kitchen.

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