Societies for the future

October 1, 1999

Learned societies that unite enthusiasts for subjects as diverse as botany and politics fear for the future (pages 8-9). Many are 19th-century foundations whose financial mainstay has been journal publishing. They look with alarm at the changes in scholarly communications brought by the worldwide web.

But new technology could increase demand for the service learned societies provide. They do not exist to make a profit, and they are adept at getting top people to act for nothing as journal editors and referees. The simplicity of online publishing means that guarantees of quality are more vital than ever. Learned societies are better placed than commercial journal publishers to provide them.

In a world of lifelong learning and increased leisure, learned societies are well placed to expand their influence. Some are open to anyone with an interest in a subject, from amateurs to professors. They can afford to be informal and inclusive. Many have chartered membership for professionals and lesser grades for amateurs.

But there are problems, starting with money and management. A typical learned society has too little of either. Lessons might be learned from the charity sector, where professional managers have replaced most of the ex-forces types who saw running a charity as a suitable retirement billet. There are entry costs to cyber-publishing and lifelong learning, but there are revenue-generating opportunities too. Many learned societies have archives running back a century or more. Online publishing deals can turn these into money and bring them to a wider public without the need to sell.

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