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.