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What's Around the Corner?

July 01, 2013

Julie Winkler

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as president of the Association of American Geographers. This is an unexpected, but much appreciated, honor and responsibility, and I am excited to represent the AAG and its membership during the upcoming year. Throughout this year, please feel free to contact me with your thoughts regarding the AAG … I look forward to the conversation.  

The focus of this inaugural column is the AAG’s new long-range planning effort. At their Fall 2012 meeting, the AAG Council voted that an eight-member committee be appointed for a one-year period to review and update the AAG’s long range plan, approved in 2002. The committee is now in place, and will meet for the first time in September.

“We live in interesting times” is an apt descriptor for the challenges currently facing scholarly societies, whatever the discipline they represent. The environment in which scholarly societies operate is undergoing rapid and dramatic changes that have significant implications for their future missions, and even their viability. Consequently, many scholarly societies have either recently undertaken, or are currently undergoing, long-range planning efforts. For the AAG, this is an opportunity for us to reflect on recent successes, identify new opportunities, address vulnerabilities, and enhance the AAG’s agility to respond to both anticipated and unanticipated change as we turn the corner into a new era for scholarly societies.

A central theme in the current long-range planning of scholarly societies is the viability of their business model. For most scholarly societies, including the AAG, income generated from publications and meetings is used to help support other activities, such as career services and educational outreach. Recent and anticipated future changes in the demand and delivery of publications challenge this business model. The recent and ongoing campaign by some for open access to scholarly publications is perhaps the most visible of the drivers of this challenge, but the increasing resistance of libraries to pay large subscription fees at a time of reduced budgets is also a concern. Additionally, the online availability of academic journals has potential consequences for society membership that may also impact the current business model. Scholarly publications are now more widely accessible, making the receipt of a society’s journals a less important membership benefit than in the past. Thus, the future contribution of publication income to a society’s bottom line is highly uncertain, which places greater emphasis on other revenue generating activities, such as professional meetings. And of course, any challenge to membership may also impact attendance at professional meetings. Other challenges that scholarly societies face include competition for membership from popular generalist (e.g., AAAS) or “quasi-generalist” (e.g., AGU) organizations, and changes in the expectations of members in terms of the services that scholarly societies should provide. For example, my perception, based on experience with three different scholarly societies over the past few years, is that members expect their professional society to play an ever greater role in shaping policy and advocacy. Not that long ago, scholarly societies rarely served as a broker between different sectors (i.e., academia, government, private) of a discipline, nor did they actively lobby for resources of general benefit to the discipline or the public. Yet, these types of activities are becoming increasingly common.

An encouraging trend for the future viability of scholarly societies is the continued interest by scholars and practitioners in these organizations. A survey conducted by The Scientist found that over 80 percent of the respondents belonged to a professional society, and most had memberships in multiple societies. This commitment to scholarly societies appears to be held by young and old alike. For example, over 50 percent of the early career biologists surveyed by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) belonged to at least one professional society. Also, almost all respondents of a recent survey by Wiley of their young scientist’s advisory group felt that scholarly societies will continue to be relevant into the next decade and beyond. According to the AIBS survey, a sense of community, particularly through attendance at professional meetings and the opportunity to interact face-to-face with other attendees, is a motivating factor for society membership across all career stages, whereas access to journals is no longer considered by many, including older members, to be an essential membership privilege.

These and other surveys suggest that scholarly societies will remain an important component of our professional lives, but that societies will need to adjust to changing membership expectations and potential alterations in their revenue stream. Traditionally, the AAG and other professional societies have served to disseminate scholarly research through their journals and conferences, facilitating the peer-review process by volunteer editors and reviewers. But the AAG and other scholarly societies also play an important role in articulating the significance of a discipline, as well as its past and potential future contributions to society at large. This is a particularly important role for a relatively small discipline like Geography; where the collective voice as represented by the AAG can be heard more loudly than our individual voices. The AAG’s career services and professional development activities are important functions for younger members. Education outreach is another common society function, and the K-12 and university outreach offered by the AAG is exemplary. The AAG, like other professional societies, engages in public policy activities, recognizes excellence through society awards, and disseminates small travel and research grants. The AAG’s long-range planning effort is an opportunity for both recent and long-term members to reflect on the AAG’s functions and ask: Which functions need to be strengthened? Which are no longer relevant or can be weighted less heavily? What new activities will enhance the AAG’s relevance for younger members and/or for the decades to come?  

The AAG enters this planning process in a very strong position. Through the efforts of its executive directors, volunteer governance, and membership, the AAG has established and maintained a reputation of professionalism and respect. Current Executive Director Doug Richardson has put the Association on a strong financial foundation, including the development of a substantial endowment. These resources provide flexibility and the opportunity for experimentation, and also provide us with a window of opportunity to observe and learn from the successes and failures of other societies.  

The deliberations of the long-range planning committee will greatly benefit from the input of AAG members. Please take the time to contribute to the long-range planning process by sharing your thoughts, concerns, and recommendations. Let’s collectively work to ensure that around the corner lies an even stronger and more relevant AAG.

Julie Winkler

[For more information on the surveys mentioned above, please see: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/14599/title/Why-Do-Scientists-Join-Societies-/ (The Scientist survey), http://www.access.aibs.org/page/Index/ (American Institute of Biological Sciences Biology in the 21st Century Survey), and http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/02/27/are-scholarly-societies-still-relevant-to-young-researchers-perhaps-surprisingly-yes-they-are/ (Wiley Survey).] 

Winkler, Julie. "What's Around the Corner?." AAG Newsletter: n. pag. Web. 1 July 2013.

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