Just as social media has become ubiquitous in academia, its established formats and dynamics have been brought into doubt. Björn Brembs argues that learned societies concerned with their core mission as societies should engage and lead developments on federated social media platforms, such as Mastodon.
Maybe scholarly societies have taken the instruction to follow the money too literally? There now are societies that make 83% of their nearly $700 million in revenue from publishing (American Chemical Society). Or 88% of $130 million (American Psychological Association). Or 91% of $5 million (Biochemical Society). In essence, societies like these (there are hundreds predominantly in STEM subjects) are publishers first and societies second. One could be forgiven if one imagined their business meetings involved intoning, “Publish or perish”.
But, there’s more. Some of these organizations have sided with corporate publishers against scholarship, e.g., when litigating against organisations or individuals striving to make research more accessible, or begging nationalist leaders to protect their dated business models. Can it still be considered ethical to charge multiples of the publication costs of an article in order to finance executive salaries, subsidise member dues, sponsor prizes, host all-you-can-drink receptions at annual meetings, or pay lawyers to ensure nobody can read the works of your scholars?
There is a reason these organisations were called “societies” before they became publishers.
This single-minded focus becomes more absurd if one considers the role societies have played in pursuing their primary mission as ‘societies’: supporting scholars in making connections to like-minded individuals, exchanging ideas and promoting their respective fields of scholarly interest – in short ‘socialising’. There is a reason these organisations were called “societies” before they became publishers. The root of their names contains their essential function, as described in 1660 for one of the first such societies, the Royal Society:
“Their first purpose was no more, then onely the satisfaction of breathing a freer air, and of conversing in quiet one with another, without being ingag’d in the passions, and madness of that dismal Age”.
It is ironic that these very societies, born in an era of intellectual enlightenment, seem to have missed the memo about social media’s advent some 15 years ago. A technology that has not only transformed their mission, but even shares the root of their names. These organisations could have embraced FriendFeed or Facebook. Yet, maybe many felt the threat such #icanhazpdf-technology may pose to their bottom line so acutely, they failed to envisage the opportunities it offered? Each scholarly society is different and many have belatedly embraced social technologies. However, it appears as if this engagement has only rarely exceeded the use of corporate platforms as broadcasting tools, rather than as a social technology that encourages, promotes and protects social interactions among scholars and with the general public.
the ‘Fediverse’ provides tools and technologies that are ideally suited to bring scholarly societies out of their digital caves and into the 21st century.
Today, we have technology that allows scholarly societies to make good on past mistakes and show their true colours: the ‘Fediverse’ provides tools and technologies that are ideally suited to bring scholarly societies out of their digital caves and into the 21st century. One of these is Mastodon. While some scholarly institutions, including some societies, have started to implement their own Mastodon instances, the large majority remain locked into their favourite corporate broadcasting platform formerly known as Twitter. A platform that is rapidly devolving and losing many of its academic members.
Where scholarly societies have seriously engaged with social technologies, they are using them not just for broadcasting, but for scholarly exchange and to facilitate social interactions, such as debate, discussion and critique among all persons interested in their research, not just their members. The different local and federated timelines in Mastodon allow seamless interactions both within the society and outside of it. Federation choices enable societies to choose which content matches their instance and they become the moderators of their own social media presence, rather than having to rely on the whims of billionaires.
Due to the open source nature of the Fediverse and the widespread digital competence in the scholarly community, there is ample potential for societies to take a central role in developing a new scholarly commons
Where are the societies that see this opportunity that could give marginalised groups within scholarship a voice in a town square protected by scholarly rules? Rather than being another content provider for AdTech-based surveillance platforms, societies now have the opportunity (again!) to become the designers of a new kind of digital scholarship, while at the same time contributing to protecting the privacy of scholars. Due to the open source nature of the Fediverse and the widespread digital competence in the scholarly community, there is ample potential for societies to take a central role in developing a new scholarly commons and integrate this social layer into the more formal literature as part of the “open, interoperable, not-for-profit infrastructures” the Council of the EU science ministers has recently called for.
Of course, their handling of social technology is just a litmus test for how seriously a learned society is taking its role in our modern world and what perspective it has taken with regard to scholarship more generally. It doesn’t seem like too many societies are passing that test these days and maybe for some their predilection for excessive executive pay is to blame?
So, to the scholarly societies out there, here’s a challenge: step up, embrace Mastodon, and give faux-societies a run for their money. Show scholars you’re for scholarship and not just the bottom line.
This post draws on the author’s perspective article, Mastodon over Mammon: towards publicly owned scholarly knowledge, published in Royal Society Open Science.
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