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Submission Management
To Fee or Not to Fee
Charging for Abstract Submissions remains the great divide among STEMM associations, but one has crossed to the other side with surprising results

With Hamlet, William Shakespeare writes his most-quoted soliloquy, which begins: “To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles.” In these and the next few lines, the gloomy prince debates the pros and cons of inaction. He can suffer in silence about the consequences of his uncle’s plot to kill his father or fight back and get killed in the process. No matter how painful his life, he muses, it’s at least more certain than what he would experience in death.

In the STEMM meeting world, some associations could change Hamlet’s famous question with a few letters and contemplate the same dilemma: To Fee or Not to Fee. Should they stick with their policy about charging for abstract submissions or take action and risk the uncertainty of flipping to the other side? For those who charge a fee (often called a handling or processing fee), are they suppressing submissions from financially disadvantaged scientists? For those who don’t charge a fee, are they passing up a steady stream of revenue that could help meet rising conference costs? Executives from at least one association can answer these questions because they recently did make a switch, and the results were nothing like they expected.

There may be no better proof of the potential gold in abstract fees than to look at submissions for the last annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). In 2017, their Posters on display exceeded 13,000—which would have brought in $1.6 million with the association’s charge of $125 fee per submission (which has gone up to $135 for 2018). Apparently, these costs have not discouraged submitters. And their participation no doubt pumps up attendance at the annual meeting, which typically exceeds 30,000.

With membership at 36,000, SfN has a considerable base to help feed their submission pipeline. Smaller associations don’t have that luxury and many don’t want a fee to diminish the science presented at their meetings. “We’re always looking for revenue,” says Bradley Pine, Vice President for Education and Meetings at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC), “but I would rather not generate it on the back of our scientific attendees.” While the AACC has twenty-two thousand attend the annual meeting, it has 8,000 members, and of the nearly 1,000 abstracts and posters submitted, Pine says, “A lot come from students, fellows, and international folks who might find fees a barrier to submission.”

However, AACC’s abstract model is not entirely revenue-neutral. Submitters must still purchase registration if they want to participate in the meeting, and Pine thinks a significant portion attend to present their abstracts—even in the poster sessions.

The meeting manager of a smaller association, with fewer than 5,000 members, believes that no matter how enticing the extra revenue may be, her board would never consider charging fees. “It is very hard to change those traditions,” she says, “and for us the abstracts we receive help to drive the programming.”

Until 2017, the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT), which has 3,800 members, was firmly in the no-fee camp. But economics finally forced their hand, and they started charging $25 per submission.

“We were trying to figure out how to cover the increasing costs of our meeting without raising the registration fee,” ISHLT Executive Director Amanda Rowe explains. “Several other medical societies that our members belong to had implemented such a fee.”

As expected, Rowe says, the change did not go down smoothly for all the stakeholders. “We had some pushback. People were concerned about it causing a decline in submissions, especially in developing parts of the world and Europe, so we decided to test a fee for three years and then assess its impact.”

Two years later, the test shows no negative impact on the number of abstracts submitted to a meeting. On the contrary, submissions have trended upward to the point where their 2018 meeting has brought in more abstracts than ISHLT has ever seen. Given these results, Rowe predicts that her association will continue with the fee.

If ISHLT’s experience does not sway other no-fee associations, at least it can give some comfort to those association Hamlets unable to make a final decision either way. If positioned as a test and planned for properly, they can take action on new revenue initiatives and not only survive but thrive as well.