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Some academics remain skeptical of Academia.edu

They warn scholars to “think twice” before sharing their work on the popular social network.

By SHAWNA WAGMAN | April 12, 2016

By any measure, the popularity of Academia.edu, the online platform that allows academics to upload and share their research papers, is impressive. Launched in 2008, this vast virtual network currently counts more than 35 million academics, independent scholars and graduate students as users, who collectively have uploaded some eight million texts.

However, despite its .edu domain name – granted prior to regulations restricting use of that domain to accredited postsecondary educational institutions – Academia.edu has no educational affiliation. Rather, it is a venture-capital funded private company with an undisclosed business model, which doesn’t sit well with some academics.

“I don’t trust academia.edu,” writes McGill University media scholar Jonathan Sterne on the Academia.edu profile page he was obliged to set up in order to access other people’s research papers. In an interview, Dr. Sterne, who holds the James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology at McGill, says the basic idea for the site is good. “It’s a way to have things that you are interested in pop up on your radar with little effort from you. I think it provides a useful service,” he says. “The question is whether Academia.edu is the company we should trust to provide that service.”

Dr. Sterne, who refuses to upload his research to the site, urges colleagues to consider the possible ramifications of having a private company collecting and using all this information for unknown purposes. On his profile page, he puts it this way: “The process of knowledge sharing is being monetized by parasitic third parties that have very different commitments and obligations from those of academics.”

It’s this same skepticism that led the Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University in the U.K. to organize a conference last December entitled “Why are we not boycotting Academia.edu?” Other scholars have turned to the blogosphere to share their concerns, among them Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate executive director for the Modern Language Association. Her widely circulated column, entitled “Academia, Not Edu,” posted last October, urges scholars to build not-for-profit repositories and social networks like the MLA Commons that are controlled by its members. Dr. Fitzpatrick asks her colleagues to “think twice before committing our professional lives to [Academia.edu].” She compares it to Facebook in the sense that, in exchange for engagement, scholars sign up for the kind of tracking, data mining and manipulation that gives other social networking platforms a bad name.

Wolfgang Schwarz, a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, penned a post in 2015 with a simple plea: “Please, don’t put your papers on Academia.edu.” He argues that the platform essentially bans access for academics who, for whatever reason, don’t have an Academia.edu account. It also shuts out non-academics.

Among the long list of commenters to the post was Academia.edu founder and CEO Richard Price, an entrepreneur with a doctorate in philosophy from University of Oxford. He defends the benefits of his platform for scholars by pointing to research which, he says, shows that uploading a paper to Academia.edu generates significantly more citations than uploading to a personal homepage. “We believe this is because of the increased exposure the paper gets by being on a network, and because of the 35 million people who visit the site each month looking for papers,” writes Dr. Price.

The debates around Academia.edu are different in the social sciences and humanities than they are in sciences and medicine, says Mark Hayward, a media historian who teaches in the communication studies department at York University. In “high-capital areas of research” he says, the stakes are higher. “I think what they are really looking for is trend analysis for venture capital companies who are looking at which way the wind is blowing so that they can speculatively buy batteries of patents or research programs around particular areas.” He admits it is all speculation since the Academia.edu business model hasn’t been shared with its users.

Regardless of what its plans are, Dr. Hayward says Academia.edu has “first mover advantage” and its success seems to be tied to getting and keeping people engaged as a way of distributing the information. “Registrants receive continuous feedback. You get pinged every time someone finds your work or accesses it,” he says. “It continually solicits your engagement by telling you that people are doing things in relationship to your online profile.”

McGill’s Dr. Sterne calls it “the gamification of research,” referring to the ways that some scholars like to keep score – for instance, by tracking how often a particular research paper was downloaded or cited, in the same way others focus on getting more Twitter followers or retweets. He says it’s a media scholar’s job not to trust platforms that track our online activity.

“I think most scholars don’t think about their media use and, when they do, they think about it purely in terms of self-promotion. But there are broader ethical and institutional issues that need to be attended to,” he says, “I am just not really excited about a world in which Academia.edu is the primary intermediary for the way in which academics share ideas with one another. If they want me to be excited, they can tell me what their business model is and why it supports what I’m doing and what I want to do.”

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  1. Chris Aldrich / April 12, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    “35 million academics, independent scholars and graduate students as users, who collectively have uploaded some eight million texts”
    35 million users is an okay number, but their engagement must be spectacularly bad if only 8 million texts are available. How many researchers do you know who’ve published only a quarter of an article anywhere, much less gotten tenure?

    “the platform essentially bans access for academics who, for whatever reason, don’t have an Academia.edu account. It also shuts out non-academics.”
    They must have changed this, as pretty much anyone with an email address (including non-academics) can create a free account and use the system. I’m fairly certain that the platform was always open to the public from the start, but the article doesn’t seem to question the statement at all. If we want to argue about shutting out non-academics or even academics in poorer countries, let’s instead take a look at “big publishing” and their $30+/paper paywalls and publishing models, shall we?

    “I don’t trust academia.edu”
    Given his following discussion, I can only imagine what he thinks of big publishers in academia and that debate.

    “McGill’s Dr. Sterne calls it “the gamification of research,”
    Most research is too expensive to really gamify in such a simple manner. Many researchers are publishing to either get or keep their jobs and don’t have much time, information, or knowledge to try to game their reach in these ways. And if anything, the institutionalization of “publish or perish” has already accomplished far more “gamification”, Academia.edu is just helping to increase the reach of the publication. Given that research shows that most published research isn’t even read, much less cited [http://ils.indiana.edu/media/paper/PWJan07meho.pdf], how bad can Academia.edu really be? [Cross reference: Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age http://boffosocko.com/2014/04/22/reframing-what-academic-freedom-means-in-the-ditigal-age/%5D

    If we look at Twitter and the blogging world as an analogy with Academia.edu and researchers, Twitter had a huge ramp up starting in 2008 and helped bloggers obtain eyeballs/readers, but where is it now? Twitter, even with a reasonable business plan is stagnant with growing grumblings that it may be failing. I suspect that without significant changes that Academia.edu (which is a much smaller niche audience than Twitter) will also eventually fall by the wayside.

    The article rails against not knowing what the business model is or what’s happening with the data. I suspect that the platform itself doesn’t have a very solid business plan and they don’t know what to do with the data themselves except tout the numbers. I’d suspect they’re trying to build “critical mass” so that they can cash out by selling to one of the big publishers like Elsevier, who might actually be able to use such data. But this presupposes that they’re generating enough data; my guess is that they’re not. And on that subject, from a journalistic viewpoint, where’s the comparison to the rest of the competition including ResearchGate.net or Mendeley.com, which in fact was purchased by Elsevier? As it stands, this simply looks like a “hit piece” on Academia.edu, and sadly not a very well researched or reasoned one.

    In sum, the article sounds to me like a bunch of Luddites running around yelling “fire”, particularly when I’d imagine that most referred to in the piece feed into the more corporate side of publishing in major journals rather than publishing it themselves on their own websites. I’d further suspect they’re probably not even practicing academic samizdat. It feels to me like the author and some of those quoted aren’t actively participating in the social media space to be able to comment on it intelligently. If the paper wants to pick at the academy in this manner, why don’t they write an exposé on the fact that most academics still have websites that look like they’re from 1995 (if, in fact, they have anything beyond their University’s mandated business card placeholder) when there are a wealth of free and simple tools they could use? Let’s at least build a cart before we start whipping the horse.

    For academics who really want to spend some time and thought on a potential solution to all of this, I’ll suggest that they start out by owning their own domain and own their own data and work. The #IndieWeb movement certainly has an interesting philosophy that’s a great start in fixing the problem; it can be found at http://www.indiewebcamp.com.

    The original version of these comments appears at: http://boffosocko.com/2016/04/12/thoughts-on-some-academics-remain-skeptical-of-academia-edu-university-affairs/

  2. SC / April 12, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    As a biomedical scientists, I have found Researchgate to be a far better service. It is a combination of Linkedin, PubMed and Online discussion forum !
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ResearchGate

  3. Gavin Moodie / April 13, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    What a weak argument for boycotting Academia! I presume academics are also urged to boycott Nature and the majority of journals published by commercial publishers which are not only for profit but also charge exorbitantly, unlike Academia.

  4. Scott R. McMaster / April 15, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    I myself have been a user of their platform for a few years now and also use their competitor Research Gate’s platform, which differs in that it has a pretty good Q&A function and active community compared with Academia.edu.

    As far as the arguments against this platform such as its parasitic nature and lack of access I would argue that this no different from the corporate academic publishing entities that currently hold our collective published works hostage and restrict access to a far greater extent. At least here we can get our work out without relinquishing our copyrights and submitting to an inefficient system that can sometimes take as long as a year or more to publish content.

    In terms of what it does for its users, it’s uncertain. While my profile has gotten over 7,300 visits, gained 240 followers and my papers have been viewed or read dozens, hundreds and thousands of times respectively I don’t think it has led to citations of my work. Still I do think with those numbers there must be some impact (at least I hope my work is helpful to some), but it is difficult to measure.

    Regarding their business model, I believe I can shed some light on it. I was contacted by one of their ‘product managers’ in December who wanted to chat on the phone stating:

    “I am a community manager at academia.edu. I came across your paper, “The Postman Always Rings Thrice: Visual Culture, Disney and Technology in Society” and thought you might be interested in a new development over at academia.edu.

    We found that 7.2 million users visit our site from a mobile device every month, and 21.6 million users visit from outside of the English speaking world.

    So we are working on a solution to make papers web-mobile friendly to improve the global impact of researchers on the site. I’d love to tell you more about what we are working on and get some feedback from you on the new project.

    Do you have a few minutes to chat by phone or skype this week? ”

    -To which I responded that I was too busy but could answer a few simple questions. Here is what he asked:

    “We have built a tool to help researchers optimize papers for Google. 75% of people who visit papers on Academia come from a Google search. However, Google has started applying a ranking penalty to content that is not mobile-ready, e.g. pdfs.

    The tool we are building would allow you to convert your papers into a mobile-ready format, and optimize it for Google. We have seen on Academia that a higher ranking on Google has a significant impact on paper views and downloads.

    Does this tool sound interesting to you? If so, how much might you be willing to pay for such a service? Many thanks in advance.”

    I responded that even with my 5″ phone screen I found reading long articles cumbersome on small devices and that students and tenured or well-known faculty would probably not pay for such a service, then I reminded them that academics already give away a lot of their intellectual property to publishing and that fees would likely drive them elsewhere. After answering his question I got no reply, probably incensed at my lukewarm reception to their plan for exploiting struggling academics.

    Whether or not this service is good or bad is moot in light of the alternatives but I think we are missing the larger picture. What Academia and Research Gate have shown us is an excellent model for replacing the current paradigm of fee based, copyright holding academic publishing. They’ve shown us that there is a large international community of academics and dedicated learners who are enthusiastic to review, ask, answer, promote and share each other’s work.

    What we need to do is build off of these types of models and create opensource, creative commons publishing for and by academics and learners on a global scale. We have the means but do we have the will?

  5. Wayne Burnett / April 17, 2016 at 8:57 am

    I would much rather publish my papers on Academia.edu or ResearchGate than on peer-reviewed, big publisher-owned journals. Accessing papers on the latter costs money, either personal or institutional. Accessing papers on the two platforms is free (at this point) and only requires an email address.

    Honestly, the arguments made by the “scholars” in this article seem to benefit the publishers only. Certainly they haven’t made any cogent arguments regarding access by those without institutional ibrary support or reducing the costs of subscriptions to university libraries.

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