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Thinking Critically About "A Vision for the Society for Ornithology"

By John Marzluff


Are you aware of the consequences to governance and editorial boards for American ornithology that would occur if our current societies merged into a single Society for Ornithology? Are corporate leaders appropriate board members for a scientific society? Do you think our financial situations warrant an immediate action toward the new society? Please take the time to think critically about what our pending decisions may mean for American ornithology by reading the following thought piece.
Some members of the various ornithological societies in the United States have written and circulated a document that proposes the replacement of the six existing ornithological societies with a single successor, the "Society for Ornithology." The purported benefits of this proposed restructuring include increased Western Hemisphere collaboration between ornithologists, a transformed journal publishing system, a new governance system, an altered funding model that targets additional funding sources (including corporations and foundations), and a range of conservation and education initiatives.

The proposal is written with a sense of urgency, which appears based on the assertion that the six ornithological societies are on unsustainable financial trajectories and have shrinking memberships and duplication of effort in the form of journal publication, volunteer staffing of committees, annual meetings, student mentoring, and conservation outreach. As the solution to these perceived problems, the framers of the document envision collapsing these organizations into one.

In recent months a variety of perspectives on the Society for Ornithology proposal have been put forth from the governors of the ornithological societies. While formal polling of all memberships has not been completed, Raptor Research Foundation and Wilson Ornithological Society have stated their opposition to the proposal while Cooper Ornithological Society and The American Ornithologists' Union appear generally in favor of the proposal.

[Editor's note: You can follow the ongoing Society for Ornithology discussions, including responses from societies and individuals, right here on the Ornithology Exchange.]

With upcoming joint meetings where the proposal will be discussed more thoroughly and society opinions crystallized, all members of United States ornithological societies might be interested in the following discussion of elements of the Society for Ornithology proposal before they may be called on to vote to disband their organizations in favor of a new unified society1. The issues reviewed here might stimulate useful discussion in the best interest of U.S. ornithology.

Executive Summary

The proposed Society for Ornithology would represent a dramatic reduction in the diversity of professional societies and a concentration of power in far fewer people. Rather than building on the strength of the U.S. ornithological societies, the proposal would reduce the number of societies from 6 to 1, the number of board members by 80%, and the number of journals by 40% in response to a 30% decrease in overall membership.

The number of directors of U.S. professional ornithological societies would be reduced from greater than 89 to 16, only nine of whom would be guaranteed to be professional ornithologists and the rest from industry and foundations. Prior membership in and service to the society would not be a prerequisite for these new Board members recruited from industry and/or philanthropy. They would be allowed to join the new society solely for the purpose of seeking election to the Board. Board members would also be selected for their "political access" and "philanthropic potential" rather than expertise and past service to the discipline. In the current societies, the Bylaws can only be amended by a vote of the membership. Under the new proposal, the Board would be able to amend its own bylaws without putting their desired changes to a vote of the membership.

The number of ornithological journals would be cut from eight to five with all of the new journal editors being selected by the same Board of Directors, a structure preadapted to reduce diversity of thought. The new journals would abandon the reputations and influence of names up to and over a century old to enter a crowded publication space. The purported lag in journal quality of U.S. journals behind their European counterparts bemoaned by the authors of the Society for Ornithology vision proves not to be accurate: the average pooled impact factor of the top three U.S. and European ornithology journals over the past 10 years is not significantly different. In fact, U.S. ornithology journals generate more total citations and per journal citations than European ornithology journals as of 2010. Finally, certain kinds of ornithology (e.g., applied or conservation) would be limited to a single journal, thereby relegating conservation and applied ornithology in the U.S. journals to second-tier outlets.

Taken together, these changes represent a dramatic concentration of power and dramatic deviation from longstanding practices of the existing ornithological societies.

Diversity and Equity

As ornithologists, we recognize the principles that structure natural communities and the benefits of species diversity within those communities that allow coexistence of multiple species. The Society for Ornithology vision responds to perceived problems in the ecosystem of professional societies by proposing a dramatic reduction in diversity. The current configuration has a generalist (The American Ornithologists' Union), two historically geographically segregated generalists (Wilson Ornithological Society and Cooper Ornithological Society), one technique specialist (Association of Field Ornithologists), and two taxonomic specialists (Raptor Research Foundation and Waterbird Society). This type of niche segregation is exactly what one would expect to find in a set of species in an ecological space and it is what has allowed these societies to co-exist over an extremely long period of time. Ornithologists should recognize, however, that strength in a system derives from diversity rather than from reduction to a monoculture.

It is indeed true that membership in these societies has declined from 1999 to 2011. Assuming that this is a secular and not cyclical pattern, it might conceivably result in the merger of societies if they perceive that they would achieve benefits from an economy of scale. But despite the membership numbers, five of the six societies appear to have a positive net cash flow as recently as 2010, with only Cooper Ornithological Society (COS) showing a $286 loss, according to the vision document. These numbers do not suggest a financial crisis anywhere near the magnitude claimed by the proposal for the Society for Ornithology. What they suggest is that ornithological niche space is successfully partitioned by a large generalist AOU and several focused geographic and taxonomic specialist groups. Where friction exists it is primarily between the large generalist and a once focused regional society (COS) that has expanded to duplicate much of what the AOU does exceedingly well. COS may well face significant challenges if it does not adapt or hybridize. The Society for Ornithology is essentially a proposal to hybridize, but adaptation by COS to serve its historic niche better has not been critically evaluated. By using the COS to bring an international, professional focus on western ecosystems that celebrates their great diversity and addresses their unique conservation issues, COS could survive and thrive. A similar argument has been made for the smaller taxonomic specialist organizations whose larger geographic focus would not be met by a national Society for Ornithology. Sharpening focus and distinction among existing societies promotes diversity and overall system stability, even if budgets must be updated.

The resources available within the various societies are significant. For example, the current investment funds of Cooper Ornithological Society are in the range of $1.3 million. Prudently managed, these funds could yield a 4% return in perpetuity ($52,000 per year) to subsidize journal publication and other activities. The Waterbird Society had over $500,000 in investments at the end of 2011, and other societies also have substantial resources. The proposed Society for Ornithology structure would presumably take over these resources (probably in violation of the intentions of many of the donors who built these endowments) and a single board of directors would control these resources.

In sum, the vision document for the Society for Ornithology does not make a convincing argument that dramatically less diversity in professional ornithological societies is financially needed or that it would result in a stronger profession. It is equally or more likely that the strongest professional environment would result from organic changes in the societies themselves in response to changing membership numbers without throwing out the structures themselves. The United States is a large country and certainly can support more than one professional society. Should the membership be available to only support fewer professional societies, allowing this to happen through initiatives from within those societies would allow for adaptation to a changing environment without homogenization of the field and concentration of power in the hands of very few.


There are major differences between the proposed governance structure of Society for Ornithology and those of the six existing professional societies that should be troubling for their members.

First, the total number of board members who would make decisions about matters of interest to professional ornithologists would be shrunk from at least 89 board members of the existing six societies to 16 total board members (or up to 24 as mentioned in other places in the proposal). This is a massive reduction (likely 80%) in number of people responsible for the professional conduct of the discipline, far greater than the 30% reduction in membership observed across the societies. Who would be these 16 ornithologists?

Second, the Society for Ornithology mandates that a portion of the Board members not be professional ornithologists, but rather interested people from industry and foundations who would be able to join the society for the purpose of being elected to the Board. The proposal indicates that a person with no prior service to ornithology could be approached to serve on the Board and then join the organization for that purpose. The new Board structure would reduce the number of professional ornithologists represented on the board to nine, according to the proposal. This is an extremely narrow funnel through which the business of all American ornithology is to flow. What will be the influence of corporate Board members? How would having an executive from the wind energy industry on the Board of the Society for Ornithology influence positions taken by the only professional society representing ornithologists in the United States? How could the diversity of the six existing societies possibly be represented in nine individuals, who must hold their own against the pressures and priorities expressed by foundations and corporations on their own Board? This is a recipe for disaster.

Third, the corporate and foundation members of the Board of Directors would be nominated by the existing Board, giving the Board extraordinary power.

Fourth, Board members are to be screened in some unspecified manner for their ability to have "political access," "philanthropic potential," and other characteristics. This is highly unusual for a professional society, and signals a dramatic move away from the professional society model and more toward that of an advocacy organization. Advocacy sounds great until you consider what the positions of Board members selected for their wealth or political ties might want to advocate. In addition, including Board members that have political agendas greatly compromises the society when developing position statements. The qualifications for a professional society Board membership should be expertise in and service to the discipline, not wealth or political access.

Finally, the proposed Society for Ornithology breaks dramatically with all of the six existing ornithological societies in that it would allow amendment of the Bylaws by a 75% vote of the Board of Directors without going to the membership. All existing U.S. professional ornithological societies require that amendments to their bylaws be approved by between half and two-thirds of its membership. The Society for Ornithology Board would have the power to fundamentally change any aspects of the organization on their own. This power would be given to a Board with almost half of its members coming from outside professional ornithology.

The proposed Bylaws are obviously a work in progress, but it is evident that they have not been reviewed by an attorney in the state where the incorporation would be done and in their current form would be legally insufficient most if not all states because of their lack of precision.


The desire to develop a new set of ornithological publications appears to be a key motivating force in the proposal to eliminate the six existing ornithological societies and their journals. The goal is articulated as remedying the citation gap between European and American ornithology journals, which is attributed, at least in part, to switching publishers to a large house such as Wiley-Blackwell. Several aspects of this proposal deserve discussion.

First, the number of journals would be cut by ~40% under this scheme. The current eight journals (The Auk, The Condor, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, The Journal of Field Ornithology, The Journal of Raptor Research, Waterbirds, Ornithological Monographs, and Studies in Avian Biology) would be replaced by five (Ornithology Letters, Advances in Ornithology, Conservation and Applied Ornithology, Discoveries in Ornithology, and a new Ornithological Monographs). This means that work that may be out of favor in the leading journals (e.g., descriptive, natural history notes) would have fewer potential outlets in the domestic ornithological literature.

Second, the proposed journals lack imagination. Essentially they create an ornithological analogue of existing, highly respected, interdisciplinary journals. Ornithology Letters would compete with Science, Nature, Conservation Letters, Ecology Letters, and the like for high impact, short articles. The new Conservation and Applied Ornithology would compete with Journal of Wildlife Management, Conservation Biology, Biological Conservation, and Ecological Applications for the top conservation and management articles. The current journals distinguish themselves in being widely focused on bird biology and the application of this biology to solve real-world problems. This distinction would be lost in the proposed new journal structure. If the journals are to be revamped, they should provide unique outlets rather than duplicate and compete with existing venues and certainly should take advantage of the hundreds of years of combined history and reputation that the existing journals represent.

Third, it is not so obvious that American journals are lagging behind their European counterparts or that creating entirely new journals would be the solution. The ISI impact factors for the top three American and top three European journals are remarkably similar (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. ISI impact factors 2001–2010 for top three ornithology journals from the United States and Europe.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Pooled distribution of impact factors, 2001–2010, for top three ornithological journals from the United States and Europe.

All of the journals show an upward trend during this period with the European journals increasing at a greater rate. But the average pooled impact factor for 2001–2010 was not significantly different by continent of origin (Figure 2). The three European journals do show significant increases in citations in the last 2–4 years, but a significant overall disparity in average impact factor simply does not exist (1.46 vs. 1.31). Notably, these increases were achieved without changing the format of the journal, nor has any new journal broken out in ornithology in the last decade (with the exceptions of Avian Conservation and Ecology, which is not yet ISI-listed, and the transition from Wilson Bulletin to Wilson Journal of Ornithology).

Going beyond the top three journals shows that American journals are on the whole not performing worse than European journals. In 2010 there were 7 ISI-listed U.S. ornithology journals and 10 European ornithology journals. The U.S. journals were cited 13,726 times while the European journals were cited 11,284 times. The mean number of citations was therefore greater (1,961 per U.S. journal vs. 1,128 per European journal). The mean impact factor was greater for the European journals but not significantly so (1.17 vs. 0.86).

It would seem that notwithstanding the recent increases of a few of the European journals on the metric of impact factor (however limited that metric may be), American journals still generate more citations total and per journal as of 2010. This results in part from the number and diversity of journals housed in U.S. professional societies. No other ISI-listed journals provide a dedicated outlet for raptor or waterbird research, and the only ISI-listed journal emphasizing the neotropics (Ornitologia Neotropical) is a U.S journal.

This review of actual citation statistics might lead to the conclusion that some U.S. journals would indeed benefit from better distribution as suggested was the explanation for increased citation of some European journals. But this does not require new journals or a new society and could be pursued by any of the existing professional societies for their products.

Fourth, the number of professional ornithologists voting to elect the editors of the four new journals (ignoring the monographs outlet for the moment) would be cut from more than 89 to nine or fewer. This means that the four editors of the proposed four ornithology journals in the U.S. would be picked with input from the same nine ornithologists plus their fellow Board members from industry and foundations. This Board would have unprecedented powers to select editors for all of the U.S. ornithology journals who might share similar philosophical positions that could be reflected in their editorial decisions. This would have the effect, whether intended or not, of limiting debate and points of view within the scientific literature.

Fifth, the proposed journal structure suggests that all conservation and "applied" work would go in a single journal, as if conservation relevant work were not "science" that belonged in the top journals. The current journal structure gives those working on conservation and applied issues several options for outlets for manuscripts that are high quality and respected. The proposed "conservation only" journal threatens to narrow these options, even as the vision for the new Society is advertised as promoting conservation throughout its operations. Many ornithologists would continue to seek non-specialty journals for conservation work with broad implications (e.g., Biological Conservation, Conservation Biology) and the new conservation-only journal would likely face considerable headwinds. Part of the benefit of the current system is the ability to publish a conservation or applied article in the top-ranked U.S. ornithology journals based on the quality of the research. This incentive would be removed if the conservation/applied journal were explicitly conceived of as being less selective than the top two journals, as is proposed in the vision for the Society for Ornithology.

1 Societies may or may not be required to call for a vote by members, depending on the law of the state where the society is incorporated.
  • Stephanie Jones likes this


John--It is important to understand that the title of the document was "Vision for the Society for Ornithology". Not all is set in stone by any means. The potentially interested societies (AOU, AFO, COS, and Waterbirds) are currently meeting to create a plan that is more refined and agreeable to their members. Thus, I will not spend the time discussing each aspect you raise as things are changing everyday with respect to SFO.

One issue we all need to understand, however, is that professional societies worldwide are declining financially and w/respect to members. Thus we are not alone but we need to get ahead of the curve. A good review can be found at:

What is Important to Biological Societies at the Start of the Twenty-First Century?
Author(s) :Susan Musante and Sheri Potter
Source: BioScience, 62(4):329-335. 2012.
Published By: American Institute of Biological Sciences
URL: http://www.bioone.or...bio.2012.62.4.3
John Marzluff
May 11 2012 08:54 AM
Sue, thanks for taking the time to read the report. I realize that SFO is rapidly evolving and that the ideas we responded to were a "vision." History has many examples where unchallenged visions become disastrous reality. My colleagues and I, who worked on the report, believe this to be the case with the SFO concept. I am also well aware of declining society memberships, but again have no reason to see why forming a new, or merging old, societies will fix that problem. The declining membership in professional (and I would add civic) groups worldwide indeed argues that a new society will not remedy this problem. We need to understand and address the root of the problem as to why membership declines. And we should not immediately think that smaller, but more engaged and focused societies might not even be most effective for ornithology. Our current society committees indeed work on this issue of membership decline and I believe progress can be made. A joint committee tackling this pressing issue for all ornithology societies could be very helpful. Instead, I see our leadership distracted from that aim by focusing on making a new society. It is a bit like a child who tires of an outdated toy. Rather than fix the old standard, they cast it aside and get the new shiny one. Our societies have a rich legacy that can also carry us far into the future; lets make sure we fix that before we cast it aside. John
Mercedes Foster
May 16 2012 01:47 PM
Sue--In your response to John Marzluff's commentary "Thinking Critically About 'A Vision for the Society for Ornithology'" you point out that the plan you and your committees are preparing for the SfO is not set in stone; rather, you note that the document and its elements are changing everyday as a result of efforts by representatives of the potentially interested societies (AOU, AFO, COS, and Waterbirds). Thus, you suggest that untiI a final draft is ready, it would be a waste of time to discuss the concerns John has raised. And, you have pointed out many times (elsewhere) that "all potentially interested societies will have ample opportunity to provide comment on the draft plan.”

While providing opportunities for comments is certainly a good idea, commenting after the fact on an already completed draft plan is not the same as contributing to or being involved in the creation of that plan. I realize that having a committee of limited size is necessary if any real work is to be accomplished. However, the members of the committees should welcome comments, suggestions, and expressions of concern from any and all individuals who are interested in contributing to the development of the plan. Such statements undoubtedly will raise issues that committee members have not considered; they will also challenge committee members to clarify their own thinking about the consequences of actions they may propose. Likewise, input from outside the committees could greatly enrich the discussions and broaden the perspectives of those attempting define the new society. Although considering outside input could slow the process a bit, I suspect that such input would strengthen the plan ultimately produced, make it more comprehensive, and perhaps enhance its palatability.

Consequently, I encourage any member of the ornithological community who has given serious thought to the issue of a new SfO to post his or her questions, concerns, and/or preferences on the Ornithological Exchange and/or to send them directly to committee members for consideration.-- Mercedes
    • Chris Merkord likes this
HI Mercedes--thanks for your note. I agree with you completely. I think I was more responding to John's comments about passing judgement on the "Vision" before the full Plan was developed.

Just to be clear--the original SFO committee disbanded. The three committees we now have (governance, publications, and finance) are made up of representatives from the 4 potentially interested societies--AFO, AOU, COS, and Waterbirds.

We would be more than interested to hear comments or concerns by anyone. Already this week, we are working on some changes as a result of John's message. That does not mean everything suggested will be changed but there are so many aspects and details to attend to that the more eyes we have reading and thinking about SFO, the better it will be.

As I have noted elsewhere, the committees are aiming for a draft plan to be ready for the NAOC. If the productivity gods smile on us, we will be able to email a draft to at least members of the interested societies before they leave for Vancouver. There will be numerous opportunities to hear about SFO and discuss it as a large group, by society, and one on one at the NAOC.

So....keep those cards and letters coming....

Chris Merkord
May 29 2012 10:28 AM

Consequently, I encourage any member of the ornithological community who has given serious thought to the issue of a new SfO to post his or her questions, concerns, and/or preferences on the Ornithological Exchange and/or to send them directly to committee members for consideration.-- Mercedes

Great idea Mercedes! To make it easier to provide feedback on the SFO planning process, we've created a new forum just for that purpose.