At the end of last year Times Higher Education invited me to provide an opinion piece on academic social networking sites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate, and to reflect on the ‘Why are we not boycotting Academia.edu?‘ event the Centre for Disruptive Media organised last December, featuring Pascal Aventurier, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, David Parry and Gary Hall, and myself as chair.
My piece is now available on the THE website, accompanying David Matthews overview article ‘Do academic social networks share academics’ interests?’. You can find both here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/do-academic-social-networks-share-academics-interests
Due to print constraints the article had to be shortened for publication. Underneath you can find the full version.
Don’t Give Your Labour To Academia.edu, Use It To Strengthen The Academic Commons
Academia.edu is showing signs of moving closer to its goal of becoming a full-blown publisher, whilst consolidating its role as a major intermediary in the scholarly communication and publishing system. Currently the biggest social networking site for academics with around 30 million members, Academia.edu has recently launched a new feature that seems to exist under 2 names: the ‘Editor Program’ or ‘PaperRank’ (the latter suggests a reference to Larry Page’s PageRank, which was the first algorithm used by Google to order and rank web pages in search results). This feature allows selected scholars on the platform who become part of the editor program to recommend papers online—they are expected to recommend between 2 and 10 articles per month—which are then rated and given a score based on the amount of recommendations received. This will enable Academia.edu to start offering what it is positioning as a speeded-up and ‘crowd-sourced’ peer-review service. Last January Academia.edu even proposed the idea of charging a fee to users to have their papers considered for recommendation by its editors—a suggestions that was heavily criticised by the academic community. This spawned the #DeleteAcademiaEdu hashtag on Twitter, urging users to delete their Academia.edu accounts.
Academic social networking sites such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate and Mendeley are certainly extremely popular with scholars, with these three platforms alone having nearly 50 million members between them. This popularity notwithstanding, in recent weeks the Academia.edu social network in particular has been subject to a series of sharp criticisms in high-profile blog posts by concerned academics, including Gary Hall, Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Guy Geltner. These led to an event held at Coventry University in December 2015 to explicitly address the question: Why Are We Not Boycotting Academia.edu? The critiques of the bloggers focus mainly on the social networks’ business models. Mendeley was bought out several years ago by the giant profit-maximising publisher Elsevier and both Academia.edu—which is not a higher education institution, as the .edu domain name might appear to suggest, but is in fact a privately held for-profit company—and ResearchGate are backed by venture capital funding (to the tune of 17.8M$ and 35M$ respectively). The concern is that, while Academia.edu is not currently making a profit, this venture capital backing means that it will have to do so at some point. Otherwise, as Fitzpatrick argues, ‘it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down’. How these platforms’ business models will develop in the future remains unsure but the options seem to be limited: they can either start charging a fee for access or use of the site, they can sell ads or user and research data and analytics (following the examples of Facebook and Google), or as the developments above suggest, they can move further into the highly-profitable academic publishing market.
However, in marked contrast to profit-maximising publishers such as Elsevier, which are subject to regular protests and calls for boycotts from academics, there has been surprisingly little debate about the business models of these sites. One question raised by a number of the speakers at the Coventry event therefore concerned whether, as academics, we should put our research and data, and with them our academic labour, into the hands of these profit-led companies—especially given their primary goal is not to help academics communicate with one another, but to monetize that communication to serve the interest of their investors? Indeed, for Hall, ‘Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value’.
Such comments will no doubt appear surprising to a lot of those who use these sites, given that Academia.edu and ResearchGate both present themselves as proponents of open access. Many of their members therefore assume that by posting their research on these platforms they are making their publications available on an open access basis. Yet as a number of librarians and repository managers have recently insisted, uploading publications to these portals is not the equivalent to publishing open access, mainly because their business models have led these platforms to put up barriers to the re-use of user data, the downloading of documents, and the use of open licenses.
How then should we respond to this situation? Should we try to improve these platforms to make them both more compatible with open access and more transparent and accountable? Should we become ‘editors’ of Academia.edu and donate our time and labour for free to help rank its publications? Most speakers at the Coventry symposium concluded that this might not be the best route to take. Their argument was that this might end up strengthening the particular version of open access that is being promoted by these portals (and increasingly by commercial publishers and funders). This is one that sees open access as offering not so much an alternative to the corporate philosophy that is underlying so much of scholarly communication nowadays, as a system of monetisation designed to stimulate the knowledge economy. From this point of view, scholarly sharing websites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate are perceived as being committed less to the project of open access, than to the business model that open access has increasingly become.
Indeed, if we do put our labour in the service of these companies, there is a real chance that we might only make them into slighter friendlier and more right-on versions of their venture capitalist-funded selves. Perhaps then we should stop being lazy, as Geltner argues, and think far more carefully than most of us have to date about to whom and where we donate our tax-funded labour and pay more attention to where we publish and stop just refusing to think about it; Building a more ethical publishing system based on a distributed commons with shared governance is something to strive for. Let us therefore use our labour to support not-for-profit, distributed and institutionally supported alternatives to Academia.edu and ResearchGate—drawing on the commons; As Fitzpatrick points out, however, this means we need to be involved as scholars within our scholarly societies. Just as those scholars that recently left the Elsevier journal Lingua to start their own OA alternative Glossa, do we need to leave Academia.edu et al and start our own OA alternatives to such academic social networking platforms?