Thursday, August 21, 2014

Should I join this professional scientific society?

Why are they important?
Why should you join? not join?
Why are the membership numbers of some societies declining (some dramatically)?

It seems every month the American Chemical Society (ACS) sends me a letter asking me to join. I am not sure who recommended me for membership. I find it ironic because I once tried to join the Royal Australian Chemical Institute but was rejected because they did not seem to think I was a real chemist. [ouch!] Over the years I have belonged to several societies. But, some of these memberships have lapsed. Recently, I was personally asked by one, "What do we have to do to get you to rejoin?"
I did not have an answer, stimulating this post.

First, let me say why these societies can be incredibly important. They can
  • Publish good journals that are owned and run by scientists. These can avoid the problems of commercial outfits such as Nature [sensationalism over substance] and Elsevier [quantity over quality, dubious business practises].
  • Organise useful conferences.
  • Give prizes and awards to recognise excellence.
  • Provide career services, particularly for younger members.
  • Represent science and scientists to government, industry, and the community. This is not just lobbying for more funding but making important public statements on issues such as climate change.
If we don't join, we end up with the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby our long-term collective interests suffer because we prioritise our individual self-interest.

So, why not join?
  • Membership is expensive, particularly if you belong to several.
  • Your mail box (both hard and soft) will be clogged with magazines, newsletters, fund-raising appeals, announcements, elections, ...
  • You may be asked to serve on committees.
  • There are many societies to choose from, particularly if you live outside the USA and you work  at the interface of two or more disciplines [physics, chemistry, biophysics, materials science, ...]. APS, ACS, RACI, AIP, IoP, MRS, ...
  • Smaller national societies are struggling for viability in an era of internationalisation. It is not clear why some still publish journals.
  • Society conferences compete with a multitude of other conferences. Some national society conferences may not have a critical mass of people or seem a magnet for mediocrity.
  • If you don't go to the society conferences and can read their magazine online via a library subscription there is less personal incentive to join.
So, how do you decide who to join? or not join? or let your membership lapse?
What would a society have to do to convince you to join?


  1. I join a society if I go to their conference, simply because it pays for itself generally.
    If the conference was good enough in subject and quality, I will likely go again, and it pays to renew membership.
    If the conference was not good enough, the society apparently does not provide a match to my interests, and I'll let membership lapse.

    The assumption here is that conferences organized by the society are representative of the subject matter they are associated with and the quality they want to adhere to.

    Using this (subject and quality has to be enough for me to go to their conferences) is a fairly simple guideline to the membership question.

    I find your remark about the negative of being asked to be on a committee hypocritical: if the society does enough work in your field (subject) and having enough quality to satisfy you, and this it is important enough to be a member to reinforce this, then their committee work is by implication also important enough to put effort in.
    I recognize you can't say yes to all requests, but your stated disadvantage suggests you like a free ride (the produced benefits recognized to be important, but not wanting to put effort in to aid in producing those benefits).
    Yes you pay membership dues that help towards that. But in the end it is the "society" that generates the benefits, and you choose to be part of the society.
    I could imagine though that a committee memberships could generate a discount in membership dues to offset your contribution to the production of benefits (i.e. you pay, or you act).

  2. The biggest reason I maintain membership in scientific societies is for the employment ads in their magazine. For this reason, I maintain my ACS membership even though I am less American every day. I also have RACI membership (I think, still), because I am physically here. However, I really think the RACI magazine is much less useful than the ACS magazine, only because there are basically no job ads!

  3. "Publish good journals that are owned and run by scientists. These can avoid the problems of commercial outfits such as Nature [sensationalism over substance] and Elsevier [quantity over quality, dubious business practises]."

    ACS may be not for profit, but their publication division certainly isn't and acts every bit as bad as commercial publishers. I have written more about it here:

    1. Hi Jan,

      Thanks for the helpful comment.
      I agree that ACS can be as bad as Elsevier. I should have linked to this earlier post

      I like your post and recommend it to others.