What is the role of today’s academic society?

29 04 2022

This is not a rhetorical question. I really do want to solicit responses to the aspects I will raise in this post, because I have to admit that I’m a little unclear on the subject.

Preamble — While I do not intend to deflate the value of any particular academic society, I’m sure some might take offence to the mere notion that someone would dare challenge the existence of academic societies. I confess to have belonged to several academic societies in my career, but haven’t bothered for some time given the uncertainties I describe below.

A Subjective History

In my view, the academic society represented an important evolutionary step in the organisation of thematic collegiality. As disciplines became ever more specialised, it was an opportunity to unite like-minded colleagues and support new generations of academics in the field.

In the pre-internet days, academic societies provided the necessary fora to interact directly with one’s peers and advance. They also published thematic journals, organised field trips, garnered funds for scholarships, recognised prowess via awards, and crafted and promulgated constitutions on issues as varied as academic behaviour, societal warnings, governance, and politics.

Face-to-face meetings were indeed the primary vehicle for these interactions, and are a mainstay even in today’s pandemic world (but more discussion on the modern implications of these below).

Peer-reviewed disciplinary journals were arguably one of the most important products of the academic society. Back before academic publishing became the massive, profit-churning, mega-machine rort that it is today, such journals were integral to the development of different academic fields.

As the internet matured and penetrated all aspects of academic life, societies also adopted more of an online role, although they largely kept all the previously described ones and changed little regarding day-to-day business.

Later, many academic societies shifted their culture with the times, especially with respect to unethical behaviour of their members (e.g., bullying, sexual misconduct) and addressing inequalities, biases, and other unjust policies (unconscious gender biases, recognition of racial and sexual discrimination, etc.).

Ultimately, many societies embraced some advocacy — a position that would likely have made the foremothers and forefathers of these societies moan in their coffins for the perceived foray from the objective to the subjective. Eventually coming to grips with the fact that knowledge generation needed to feed back into society to address problems and improve life, societies began to produce more evidence-based treatises on issues of societal importance.

Bad Behaviour

As I alluded to above, academic societies have been both vehicles for, and powerful forces against, unacceptable behaviour. Conferences alone — fuelled by alcohol and the perceived freedom from quotidian responsibility — have often been exploited by many to maltreat their peers. I’m sure anyone who has ever attended a conference knows at least second hand about behaviours that would fit into this category. I recall particular episodes where senior academics would publicly abuse more junior colleagues in ‘question time’, apparently only to flatter their own fragile egos. Other incidents bordered, and often exceeded, the threshold of criminality, or at least very poor taste.

Of course, these days most societies are thankfully intolerant of such behaviours, even if they persist. In terms of acceptable conduct, the question is whether societies today do more to promote passively or eradicate actively such behaviour.

The Country Club

There’s often a vibe of exclusivity manifested by society members, whether they realise it or not. Such behaviour is most apparent in societies with the narrowest focus. As something of a generalist researcher, I have experienced such exclusivity many times in the various specialist conferences I’ve attended, mainly because I was not a regular member and didn’t fit the expected mould. At one particular society conference I attended many years ago , I was excluded from entering an inward-facing circle of society members during a social event — literally banned from the inner circle.

While I understand how such xenophobia evolves — that very human trait of banding together those of like mind into the club to support a particular world view — it is counter to the entire concept of collegiality, and more importantly, to multidisciplinarity (more on that aspect in the next section). My question is whether the Country Club mentality of many societies benefits members, or ultimately hinders their careers.

Navel-gazing

An emergent property of a field-specific society is the hyper-specialisation it promotes. Related to the Country Club mentality outlined above, mixing only with the people that share your particular world view is decidedly bad for your ability to think outside the disciplinary box. While many societies have tried to change this, there is more than enough evidence of members vetoing change to become more inclusive.

I remember the saga within another biological society where the debate about whether they should add to their focus an element of practicality (in this case, adding a ‘conservation’ angle into their otherwise ecologically focused remit) went on for years. There were even factions that formed, and it all got very messy.

My question therefore is whether modern academic societies hinder the advancement of knowledge by both passively and actively discouraging multidisciplinarity necessary for solving some of the big problems in the world.

Journal Club

As I described, the journal was once the cornerstone of many societies. Like conferences, it was a formal mechanism to collect the scholarly outputs of the society in a manner best-suited to current and future members. Often edited, refereed, and even published by the society itself, these were (and for many societies, still are) the jewel in crown, as well as the principal source of income.

Today, however, most societies outsource all of this to academic publishing companies, even if the subject material remains largely society-specific.

My question is given the vast array of available publication venues today, the push to full open-access (the profiteering of academic publishing notwithstanding), and the problem of discipline insularity, is there still a place today for the society journal?

Promoting a ghastly future

Nothing has brought home more the fact that many academics are massive hypocrites when it comes to global responsibility (full disclosure: me included) than the global pandemic. Flying around the world several times a year to sit in a stuffy room listening to colleagues talk about work you could have read about in their papers is a massive contribution to environmental destruction. The online conference, while it has drawbacks, has shown us that a new way is more than just possible.

I have certainly smelt the coffee and will now carefully consider any invitation to a conference. I haven’t travelled overseas since 2019, and I predict that my wasteful history of excessive globe-trotting has hopefully come to an end.

My question is, given the environmental damage that all our travelling does, do society conferences have to continue to promote face-to-face meetings, especially every year?

Impotent Advocacy

As I mentioned, many societies have, often reluctantly, dipped their collective toes into the waters of advocacy. This is good, in my view, but I do wonder if these are the most effective vehicles to promote change.

Given the limited membership of most societies compared to, say, non-government organisations, grass-roots groups, and international panels, are the advocacy machinations of academic societies really doing anything positive? Who listens to us? Do we have to go farther into the advocacy swamp to be able to effect any real change, or should we abandon the attempt altogether and stick to the academic?

The Future of Societies

Of course, I’ve been deliberately provocative in this post because I want to engender some discussion around these issues. All of the above notwithstanding, society conferences are often fun, they promote collaboration, and they provide early career researchers with opportunities they would otherwise never have.

I’m certainly not suggesting we abandon academic societies completely, but I think each one of us should think long and hard about the cost-benefit ratio that membership and interaction imply.

Keen to hear your thoughts.

CJA Bradshaw


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