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.”