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There is a recurring pattern I see in conferences organized by several professional associations. Two different conference fees are offered, X for members and Y for non-members, with Y>X. Often, the annual membership fee for said professional associations is less than Y-X, so becoming member is cheaper than paying the non-member fee. For example, for different reasons today I have stumbled upon the pages of this, this and this conference.

I can only see two possible reasons for this practice, both ethically dubious:

  • to force people to become members, increasing artificially the dimension of the professional association.
  • to "move" funds from the conference treasure to the association treasure, leaving them available for a larger number of activities.

Often conference fees are paid by research funds, while membership fees are paid personally by the researchers, so this practice also has unpleasant side-effects on their personal finances.

Questions:

  1. Am I overlooking more plausible justifications for this practice? Do you agree with my analysis?
  2. How ethical do you find this practice?
  3. Should I raise the issue with the professional societies I am a member* of?

*: You can probably guess the reason why I am a member. :(

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    To be clear, are you asking about the practice of member discounts in general, or the specific case where the member discount exceeds the membership dues? – Nate Eldredge Apr 29 '14 at 18:35
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    Some of this seems to be a matter of perspective. For example, your #1 could be restated as "Let's provide an incentive for people to become members, in hopes that this will inspire them to become active participants in the association's work, and ultimately benefit the professional community!" – Nate Eldredge Apr 29 '14 at 18:38
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    Lots of them. For instance, the American Mathematical Society (of which I am a member) offers a 50% discount in dues for those who have been members less than 5 years. Students, who are probably the largest pool of new members, pay dues which are even lower. – Nate Eldredge Apr 29 '14 at 19:27
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    Let's provide an incentive for people to become members...inspire them to become active participants...and ultimately benefit the professional community! — But why should a professional society require me to pay to participate in activities that benefit my research community? To be clear: I understand the psychology; it's the ethics I'm less clear about. – JeffE Apr 29 '14 at 21:35
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    What ethical principle is being violated here? Why is it bad to create financial incentives to be part of a group? – David Ketcheson Apr 30 '14 at 14:59
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Typically the organizations that do this are professional societies. And, as you mentioned, they have many more activities than just running the conference, so having membership fees separate from conference attendance fees allow them greater flexibility to manage their accounts.

Some places allow membership fees to be paid out of institute funds (this depends on the country and the situation, of course). However, many countries also make such professional expenses tax-deductible (after a certain threshold). Obviously it doesn't recoup the full cost of the membership, but it's better than nothing.

However, one additional point to consider is that most such conferences require that at least one of the authors of a presentation to be a member of the society. (Sometimes, this requirement falls on the presenter herself.)

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  • In an organization I was involved in, we dropped the membership fee entirely (it was low, and you didn't get much for it) and just had a conference fee. If you attended the conference, you were a member for the year. – Jeremy Miles Apr 29 '14 at 17:47
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    @JeremyMiles: This is what organizations such as MRS, but it is definitely a rarity among larger professional organizations. – aeismail Apr 29 '14 at 17:53
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    at least one of the authors of a presentation to be a member of the society — What?? To repeat my earlier comment: How is this in any way justifiable? – JeffE Apr 29 '14 at 21:37
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    @JeffE: As a control measure, actually—the APS and ACS already have roughly 10,000 talks per year at each of their annual meetings. – aeismail Apr 30 '14 at 4:36
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    @OswaldVeblen Because the charge of any professional society is to advance the profession, not the society. (I gave given talks at the annual joint meetings of the AMS and MAA. I am not a member of either society, and nobody asked.) – JeffE Jun 6 '14 at 1:55
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I find this practice 100% ethical. I don't see any argument to the contrary in your question.

Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You don't have to attend any conferences. But conferences cost money, so if you attend then you do have to pay something. Even then, you don't have to become a member. The non-member registration fee is generally not so high as to be prohibitive.

This is no less ethical than your local supermarket distributing coupons. You don't have to shop there and you don't have to use the coupons even if you do. In fact, in the US many supermarket chains offer memberships that give you discounts -- that's not unethical!

As for your second bullet point, in my professional society I know that conferences actually lose money and are subsidized by other sources of society income (mainly journals). I don't know if that is typical.

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  • It does not strike me as surprising that conferences lose money, in view of my analysis. Let's say that a conference is held each year, the member conference fee is X, the membership fee is Y, and the non-member conference fee is X+Y+Z, with X,Y,Z>0. For the organizing society not to lose money, the live costs should be lower than X+Y. But if you just look at the conference balance sheet, the revenue is X, and this may be lower than what is needed to cover the costs. So it looks like the society "graciously" supports a conference that is losing money. I see it as just an accounting trick. – Federico Poloni Apr 30 '14 at 8:10
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    The non-member registration fee is generally not so high as to be prohibitive. — [citation needed] – JeffE Apr 30 '14 at 12:02
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    @JeffE "prohibitive" is subjective, so no citation will suffice. – David Ketcheson Apr 30 '14 at 15:00
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    You don't have to attend any conferences. — True. You also don't have to get tenure. – JeffE Apr 30 '14 at 15:03
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    Whoa! So now I'm being forced to join a university just so I can get tenure? Geez, these people are really evil. – David Ketcheson Apr 30 '14 at 15:06
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I think that the question is written from the perspective that the conference is somehow an independent entity from the sponsoring organization. But that feels somewhat ahistorical to me. To have a concrete example, consider a society I am a member of: the Association for Symbolic Logic, founded in 1936. According to their web site,

The Association for Symbolic Logic is an international organization supporting research and critical studies in logic. Its primary function is to provide an effective forum for the presentation, publication, and critical discussion of scholarly work in this area of inquiry.

Of course there are societies much older, and much younger, but presumably each was founded by a group of individuals who agreed that a common organization would help their goals in some way.

The conferences organized by these societies are "meetings" in the genuine (non-academic) sense: they are an arranged time and location for members of the society to gather and confer, like a family reunion. The conferences are arranged by committees from the society, rather than by independent organizers, and the general expectation (and reality) is that the majority of attendees are members of the society.

These conferences are not like a car show where the goal is to draw in a large group of otherwise unknown people. The conferences are usually open to the public (with registration), but the general public is not the main audience - the members are.

This is where the bullet points in the question go astray, in my opinion: they assume that the main goal of the conference is to attract non-members to attend, when in reality the conferences were created to advance the purposes of the society and provide the society members an opportunity to confer and present their work. If an insufficient number of researchers thought that was worth the membership fee, the society and its conferences would disappear.

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    I think that the question is written from the perspective that the conference is somehow an independent entity from the sponsoring organization. — Speaking as the chair of the steering committee of a conference that is about to vote on whether to abandon professional society sponsorship, that perspective seems eminently sane. – JeffE Jun 6 '14 at 1:58
  • Such is the difference between different fields, and different conferences. For many societies, it would be bizarre that the meeting of the society would somehow vote to drop its affiliation with the society and become "independent". On the other hand, there are also many "independent" conferences that are not affiliated with any society, and which don't have any "member/nonmember" distinction in their fees. Perhaps some conferences like yours grow to transcend the organization that founded them. – Oswald Veblen Jun 6 '14 at 2:01
  • The organization didn't found my conference. A small set of volunteers from the research community founded the conference, and then approached the socuety about sponsorship, since at the time that was essentially the only way to publish proceedings. As far as I know, the same is true for every society-sponsored conference in computer science. – JeffE Jun 6 '14 at 2:54
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    These conferences are not like a car show where the goal is to draw in a large group of otherwise unknown people — Again, I find this characterization extremely bizarre. Surely every research area has notable researchers who, for whatever reason, are not society members, along with oodles of utterly mediocre researchers who are. Unless you're talking about one of the Academies, any schmuck off the street can join an academic professional society by paying dues. – JeffE Jun 6 '14 at 3:01

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