Thursday, October 31, 2013

Has the sun set on societies?

My mum asked me to write a post on how society publishers could keep young scientists involved, as this is something that many scholarly publishers, libraries, and societies are thinking about. Her comments were something along the lines of "We oldies, who are the ones making decisions about the future of our organizations, are worried about keeping early career scientists involved. For example, most societies are run by the older generation, and although some (eg. AGU, ESA) do have a good group of early career scientists, these appear to be exceptions to the rule. How can we get more of you involved?"

One factor could be the cliqueyness of conferences. The primary incentive of society memberships I can see are 1. access to jobs boards/listservs and 2. going to conferences (for societies that require membership to attend conferences). But how do you break into a group of scientists who are talking to one another if they are all friends? Would you rather not stick with your own kind? It is kind of like the first day of school all over again, only you probably don't have quite as much courage to ask to join someone else's game (conversation), or the brazen spirit to get over rejection. Then again, later career scientists may feel the same way about talking to earlier career scientists. People are just awkward.

Perhaps the best way to get all age groups is to create intergenerational labs. While as a grad student I may be able to relate to my pre-tenure advisor, I look at many later stage professors and they seem a world away. And since many of them got tenure in a different era, they really are. There are certain full professors I can relate to, but the initial interactions and courage to talk to one another is contingent upon our daily bumping into each other rather than any intellectual exchanges. Of course, deciding who shares which lab space isn’t really within the powers of societies, but holding workshops specifically designed to bridge the generational gap is (so offering miniseminars or discussion groups at conferences where the organizers put together a small group of scientists at different stages in their careers and from different institutions to talk).*

From a publishers perspective, keeping early career scientists involved with the societies they work with is seen as vital for maintaining readership. I can’t really say how to keep up readership in the early career sector, but I know what I want. I want those pesky career services adverts to go away – or at least to not compromise job post quality and relevance in the name of money (do I really seem like the kind to want a job in pharmaceuticals if I am reading a paper on theoretical ecology?).  I don’t need a society’s calculator tools; labs have already developed plenty enough of those, which are high quality so don't waste your resources trying to compete with them. A publisher’s website does not need to be a one-stop shop, and should stop wasting its energy trying to be. Remove that banner stuff and those sidebar links and fill as much of the page as possible with actual content– the screen on my laptop is quite small and I want to see the figures as I read.  Just give me the papers I want to read, please. This isn’t the superbowl.

But perhaps ultimately what societies and publishers can do to involve a younger audience is to stop assuming everyone is going into academia (and in a few instances, perhaps industry). Develop resources that don't immediately exclude the majority of young scientists that aren't in or aspire to be in tenure track positions. 

What do you want from societies and publishers (besides free access to all the journals in the world)? Is there something you think that societies could provide to entice you to participate more, or are societies a lost cause in your mind?

* I would like to point out that there are of course numerous exceptions to my sweeping generalizations about societies, publishers, and conferences and/or organizations doing the things I suggest are good here. The purpose of these statements are to demonstrate instances of where I think these organizations are headed in the right direction.

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