How will I know if it’s a learned society?

For a while I’ve been thinking about academic publishing and the problems faced by learned societies as a transition is being made away from libraries buying journal subscriptions. And this has started me off down lines of thinking about the activities carried out by learned societies (which will be the subject of later blog posts), accountability and the role or function of learned societies in a broader research landscape. But I’ve come up against a very fundamental question:

What actually is a learned society?

I’ve been doing some research into these organisations, and I’ve spent a few days staring at at various websites and documents.

But one thing I still don’t know is what a learned society actually *is*.

Organisations which either claim, or which others claim, to be learned societies vary wildly in many attributes.

Many are charities, but others are not. I’ve found several which have fewer than 100 members in total, many which provide you with no information about membership size, and one which claims to be over 80,000 in size – which seems to be the result of adding of the total size of each of their member organisations together, while not in any way accounting for the fact that people may be members of multiple organisations (In fairness I should add that this number seems to only exist now in past consultation responses they’ve written, and they seem to have removed it from their website).

And membership models also vary significantly. In some instances, you may only become a member after being nominated (which must be an *excellent* way to develop diversity in your organisation, and I’m sure organisations like this are the societies least filled with white, middle class, university educated, grey haired men), and in one case I’ve seen, your nomination is then put up to a membership vote in which you must achieve a 4:1 ratio of yes to no votes.

The research I’ve done seems to suggest that in the sciences, seconding by multiple existing members is fairly typical – which seems another great way to specifically exclude the ‘wrong sort’ from your group. Many societies specifically state they welcome anyone with an interest but require you to state your institution (which is not something many people outside of students/academia will have) or have membership options specifically defining job roles/experience which are only found within academia.

There are surprisingly few societies who seem to have fully thought through the idea of opening membership to even all those with a professional interest, let alone those with an amateur interest – despite the fact that almost every learned society I’ve looked at specifically talking about ‘educating the public’ somewhere in their charter or aims. There are some who clearly have thought this through, for instance the British Society of Soil Science, and I was also really impressed with their commitment to reduced fees for those in countries considered low-income by the World Bank. It’s not perfect – but much better than many societies I’ve looked at, where membership costs often increase for all countries outside the UK or EU.

Some learned societies are large, professional organisations with slick and shiny websites (like this one), with professional staff, amazing looking libraries and venues which may be rented out. Others are run by a group of volunteers, often academics working in their ‘spare time’, and are decidedly less professional in their appearance (I love this website – you can just imagine someone saying “we need a background image that will make people think of the cold”), and have no physical facilities. And there seems to be almost everything in between.

There are organisations which randomly have pictures of Harrison Ford on their front page (leading me to ask if there are perhaps no glycobiologists they are willing to show off), and others which are incredibly succinct in the history of their organisation.

I’ve seen societies which are focused on very specific sub disciplines (eg. the Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism), and societies that are much more umbrella organisations (the Institute of Physics or Royal Society spring to mind here). There are even societies which focus on specific counties, such as the Devonshire Association dedicated to “the study and appreciation of all matters relating to Devon” – although I am slightly surprised to have not found an equivalent for Cornwall.

The sheer number of learned societies and scholarly societies is mind-numbing. My current list (which I’ll publish when I’ve done a bit more tidying up) consists of about 500 associations and organisations. And this is in no way complete, and mostly focuses *just* on organisations based in the UK. And the societies are not in any way obviously distinct organisations. For some reason, people feel the existence of both a British Mycological Society and a British Society for Medical Mycology to be necessary. And for there to be a British Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics and a British Society for Immunology. And there are many, many other examples of overlapping societies with very similar remits and only slightly different names – reminding me of the People’s Front of Judea.

And for almost every UK based learned society, there is an equivalent in most other European countries and in the US (I’ve not yet looked at countries outside of this, although I intended to). And then there are also organisations covering the same or similar disciplines which operate at both the European and international levels. And all of these organisations fund and help support each others in a a really fascinating and intricate fashion.

One thing I can say for certain about learned and scholarly societies is quite how varied they are. But despite a few days exploring various UK based learned societies, I’m still no closer to what a ‘learned society’ or ‘scholarly society’ actually is. Wikipedia states that a learned society is “an organization that exists to promote an academic discipline or profession”, but it is incredibly easy to justify almost any activity as ‘promotion’ of a discipline – especially if organisations don’t step back to evaluate the effectiveness of these activities.

Many learned societies I’ve explored provide grants and bursaries, especially to early career researchers, in their specific sub-discipline, and many (although by no means all) seem to run some form of regular conference or have an ‘official journal’. But again how the journal is produced varies significantly: it may be published by the society or external/commercial publishers. It may be produced online only, or may be published in hard copy as well.

And the reason why I want to think about these activities and learned societies is that they have often been used to justify the retention of subscription based journal models or to justify a very slow progression away from them, with advocates from these societies and publishers making clearly stated, but often untested, beliefs about the value these organisations provide to the academic community. And I believe it’s important that we start to think about that.

So at present, I’ve been using a definition of a learned society/scholarly society as ‘any organisation that has been defined as being a learned society by either themselves or another organisation’, but that’s not very robust. Especially as anyone can define their own organisation or another organisation as one.

One possibility is to only include learned societies which make money from publishing – but as I want to explore business models that don’t necessarily rely upon this, that seems to negate part of the point. How do I separate a ‘learned society’ away from an amateur society, which may also have a published, peer reviewed journal? (For instance does the Amateur Entomologists Society count as a learned society or not?).

I don’t want to focus on whether or not an organisation is only open to academic members, as I’m the type of open minded individual who would like to see these societies open up to include non professional researchers and interested individuals.

And similarly, I don’t want to define a society by a specific section of activities, as that again seems to make some assumptions about what such a body ‘should’ do.

So many people say learned societies and scholarly societies are incredibly valued by academics, and a crucial part of the research landscape. But does anyone know what one actually is? Any thoughts below the line please!(*)

(*) This is not a rhetorical device – please do put any ideas you have below in the comments section below. I would love to know what I should be using as a working definition for learned societies as I continue exploring this area.

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11 thoughts on “How will I know if it’s a learned society?

  1. The early learned societies, such as the Royal Society, welcomed people with just a passing interest – the interested layman if you like – but in practice, this welcome was confined to men of means.

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    1. There are lots of ways organisations can be exclusionary, even without meaning to, simply by setting specific entry criteria (seconding of members, fees, specific years experience in certain jobs, locations etc). One of the big things I want to think about is what these organisations should look like in a world where research and education may no longer take place to the same degree within formal institutions – where online access and hackspaces may provide opportunity for the casual researcher or where online education tools allow a greater number of people to become ‘expert’ in certain domains of knowledge.

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  2. It is a great question to ask. What do they offer their members apart from a journal or two? An opportunity to get together for a hobnob? Speaking truth to power? Lobbying in the interests of their members? How far are these roles necessary to the functioning of science? How far are they necessary more widely? Were they ever?

    I sense a second question that is left unsaid here: ‘And would we miss it if it were gone?’

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    1. You correctly pick up on a number of the points I want to explore in the future, such as ‘how necessary are the roles carried out by these organisations necessary to the functioning of science/research’ and ‘would we miss learned societies if they were gone’. There is also another unstated question that I hope to think about at some stage: ‘for whom are these activities carried out?’. From experience and anecdotal evidence, there are some really interesting interplays of power and elitism within these institutions.

      In fact I originally started from a question of ‘would we miss learned societies if they all collapsed?’ but quickly realised before that I needed to explore what functions they carry out, and before that I needed to explore how they might be defined. And this post was the starting point for that process of thinking, and wondering if there was anything really obvious I was missing…

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  3. I think a learned society should be defined as “any group of individuals who come together in a common cause of science”. This is quite all-encompassing however and might require some refinement – one could maybe argue that a graduate society of postdoc association is a ‘learned society’ using this criterion? But also rather than getting bogged down into who does what or provides which, it allows for us to define a society as a group of people interested in, say, mycology. So a group of mycologists gets together and forms a ‘learned society’ of mycologists, that is they form a group with a defined structure and some sense of common purpose(s). For example, some may wish to provide a framework for a journal of mycology; some might wish to support mycologists through particular grants, or information on how to get grants; some might wish to be involved in education; some in policy.

    But this should be separate from the suggestion I gave, such as a postdoctoral association, by having a particular scientific rather than workforce/employment-based goal, and also should be separate from the concept of a scientific community. For example, I am an active member of the Xenopus community, which lacks a formalized structure, and so is not a learned society.

    Perhaps someone can formalize my ideas better and come up with a better definition?

    Great post. I’d be interested in the methodology of collecting the data on what are learned societies and what the overlap/differences with the US, and other countries, are.

    Also, for my own part, the membership part is hard to decide. I’m a member of the Genetics Society of America, who just recently opened up membership to be available to community college and K-12 (i.e. primary and secondary school) teachers, to further their cause of education. To me a learned society, to be considered to have truly earned the title, should really be active in the areas of education, policy, support for members (travel funds and perhaps small pots of money for grants) and dissemination of research (be it through formal journals or other publications), ultimately to further the cause of that area of science in the greater science enterprise as a whole.

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    1. I would start by expanding on the term ‘science’. Humanities, social sciences etc. also have learned societies. But then a question arises as to whether that is only formal science within unis/labs etc or whether citizen science/casual research that can take place outside of the academy might also count.

      Very happy to discuss methodology sometime 🙂

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  4. I wonder whether part of the problem might be that you’re talking about a ‘learned’ society which implies an endpoint or state that has been achieved. I would prefer talk of a ‘learning’ society to imply ongoing investigation, critique and reflection as valid social mores. That could (and would likely need to) be supported by well funded formal education institutions but could be used to describe informal learning cultures too.

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    1. I talk of a ‘learned society’ as this is a well accepted term around and inside academia and research, and many groups identify as a learned society. A quick search of the term shows you quite how accepted this term is. And yet it’s hard to find much work or thought done about what should be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of such a definition.

      However you touch on a really important point – I’m very pro informal learning and research, and part of what I want to think about is what the existing institutions of ‘learned/scholarly’ societies look like in a world where research or education is not just taking place within ‘the academy’.

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  5. I’m not sure what should qualify – but I know the only ones I’ve ever joined I have joined in order to use their libraries and go to their conferences (which is extra-annoying, because you then also have to pay not-cheap conference fees).

    The conferences *do* – or have the potential to – enhance and increase scholarship, and do outreach beyond the immediate circle of those already engaged, but I’m not sure that they need a society attached for that to happen.

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  6. As far as I know, there’s no legal definition of ‘learned society’ (at least not in the UK), so an organization calling itself a learned society is no guarantee of anything. It will be whatever its existing membership thinks will attract the kind of people they want or will give them the kind of lobbying power they want.

    Historically, learned societies have been important in fostering the recognition of a group of like-minded people as representing a ‘field’ or ‘discipline’ of learning. Early-stage societies would, one might expect, be concerned mainly with convincing the rest of the world that their members’ common interest is something serious – worthy of funding in its own right. Long-established societies you might expect to be more concerned with preserving the professionalized differentiation of their members – the enhanced job security or earning power of they enjoy by being professionals working in the established ‘field’ or ‘discipline’ the society represents.

    Either way, they have far more to do with the endless negotiation and renegotiation of relationships within human society than they do with the structure of nature.

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  7. This is a very interesting read for someone who works for just such a ‘learned society’.

    Just to put in my perspective; we spend much of our time trying to work out which, of the activities we do, would either not happen/be worse/be more difficult to attend/etc. for our members, and then for those within the field as a whole, if we didn’t exist.

    We essentially try to carry out activities which will benefit those within the field. The focus is on clinicians and academic researchers, although we ultimately aim to improve the patient outcome.

    I would be happy to discuss the role of learned societies further with you if you are interested, partly to offer a defence of our existence as I believe we play an important role, and partly as I believe that if I cannot offer a suitable justification for any of our activities then we should probably stop doing them…

    note: I do appreciate you aren’t actually claiming we shouldn’t exist, but I feel that ‘what we do’ should be more apparent and definable.

    Further note: Having considered further, what I think a learned society should do is simple:

    Anything

    (as long as it further improves learning within the field it exists to benefit, adheres to a morally justifiable code of conduct, is financially viable and most importantly (although heavily linked to number two) maintain integrity throughout)

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