OPEN REFLECTIONS

Academia.edu and Self-Branding


Last week I was invited to give a talk at UCSB Library. Underneath you can find a transcript of my talk and a selection of my slides.

Academia.edu & Self-Branding: The Metricisation of Scholars and Scholarly Networks

Today I will be discussing two topics which are directly related: the growing use by academics of commercial research sharing networks such as Academia.edu and Researchgate, and the rise of academic self-branding as part of an overall growing reliance on metrics in Higher Education. For those of you who are not all that familiar with social research sharing networks, I will start with describing what they are and how they function and I will tell a bit more about their philosophy and business models. I will mainly be focusing on Academia.edu for this talk, but it shares many of its functionalities with other sites of its kind. After this short introduction, I will outline why I and others with me, think the rise of these kinds of platforms is a problematic development for both scholarly communication and publishing. I will also showcase some alternatives to these platforms, both already existing ones as well as sketches for potential future networks. I will end with an overview of the issues we as academics face with respect to the ongoing rise of metrics in academia and will provide some ideas on how to deal with this issue, although I don’t aim to provide any definite answers. However, hopefully we can reflect upon potential solutions to this situation together as a group as part of the discussion afterwards too.

So to start off, what are social research sharing networks? Academics have been communicating and sharing research informally via email, mailinglists, Twitter, Facebook and other social media for a while now, but since around 2008 we have seen a rise in social media and file sharing platforms that target academics specifically. From the many initiatives that where originally set up for academics, often also in specific fields, Academia.edu and ResearchGate have managed to establish themselves as the main players in this field.

But there are others, as you can see from some of the examples in this slide, that are still going strong and remain important players in this field.

Some of the main functionalities of these platforms revolve around the possibility they offer to users to easily set up an individual, publicly visible academic profile page, which is easy to update and control, complete with your own picture, CV, details of your professional affiliations, a biography, and your employment history. This in stark contrast to the staff profiles many universities put up for their academics, which tend to confirm to certain rigid parameters and stylesheets, mostly can’t be edited by scholars directly and are often not updated by their institutions for years. Social research sharing platforms are therefore useful tools to find other researchers or experts in one’s field. In this sense they function as standard profile-building websites, yet they are more flexible and easier to maintain due to the simple interface they offer. Yet these websites go further, where they also allow scholars to upload fulltext versions of their articles, talks, reports and data-sets (be they in the form of pre- or post-print manuscripts, or the officially published pdfs) and to share these with other members of the network and/or with the general public. For example, Academia.edu’s stated goal is to ‘share and follow research’. As such it encourages scholars to upload their published and unpublished papers to their personal profile pages and to tag them, making them available for others following that tag to view, for free. In this sense they fulfill a double function in both disseminating research for academics-as -authors, as well as being a discovery system for academics-as-readers, allowing members of the network to bookmark or download research from the platform. On top of this research sharing functionality, these websites have created a social dimension, where the main elements on the platform are connected by a social layer which maps relationships between documents and users, building a network of followers to show updates to or receive updates from, post messages to, discuss topics with, share resources with, review draft works with, ask questions to, and share new jobs with. Academia.edu allows its members to tap into large networks of people with similar research interests with its now almost 51 million worldwide users.

In addition, and this is a very important feature as we will see, a set of metrics is provided collected in an ‘Analytics Page’ which details the number of followers a user has, and allows one to monitor profile views, interactions, downloads, mentions in online searches, page view counts, and so on. These analytics can then be searched and broken-down in categories: for example location, time, user, university etc. and summarises ones ‘impact’ based on these analytics. These combined features have made the site extremely popular among scholars of all ranks, but also among many non-academics eager to engage with academic research.

Now, how do platforms like Academia.edu and ResearchGate manage to do all this, how do they provide this service to academics for free? Let’s turn to the business models underlying these platforms to explore this more in detail. 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 angel-investors and venture capital funding (to the tune of 17.7M$ and 35M$ respectively). Their financial model relies on the ability of the entrepreneurs who run these companies to exploit the data flows generated by members and users of their platforms when they are sharing, tagging, bookmarking and discovering research.

As Academia.edu’s founder Richard Price explains: “The kind of algorithm that R&D companies are looking for is a ‘trending papers’ algorithm, analogous to Twitter’s trending topics algorithm. A trending papers algorithm would tell an R&D company which are the most impactful papers in a given research area in the last 24 hours, 7 days, 30 days, or any time period. Historically it’s been very difficult to get this kind of data. Scientists have printed papers out, and read them in their labs in un-trackable ways. As scientific activity is moving online, it’s becoming easier to track which papers are getting more attention from the top scientists.” And as you can see here on this slide there is quite a bit of money to make in this area. 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 Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues, ‘it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down’. It will need to turn the data flows that are generated on its platforms into profit, either by selling it to other companies and advertisers (it currently runs job adverts and google ads alongside articles to pay for server costs for example) or they will sell out to another commercial company, which for example happened with Mendeley when it was bought out by Elsevier. Or, and this is very likely, Academia.edu will increasingly turn into a publisher, which is something Richard Price aspires to. There is a big chance that as in the past commercial publishers have been selling our own content, our articles and books, back to us, or to our libraries, increasingly these kinds of platforms will be selling our own data back to us or, more likely, to our universities, to feed into impact case studies and tenure portfolios. The data which is based on the relationships we have built up with others around ourselves and around our publications. And this is what is happening, our relationships and important forms of communication around people and content, are being abstracted, anonymized, generalized, and compartmentalised on these kinds of platforms. We can see a move here from exploiting our content to exploiting the relationships around this content.

As Gary Hall has argued in this respect: ‘Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are now labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.’ At the moment, with its premium feature, Academia.edu is selling back access to parts of the site to ourselves, to provide us with the enhanced metrics, impact reports and premium webpages we and our institutions desire. What this means in practice is that many of the features which were previously free on the website, now have become a premium feature, and one wonders when indeed, once we are all locked into these systems, we all will have to start paying a fee to make use of these kinds of sites or whether the ‘free’ part of the website will become more and more basic and bare (at the moment full text search of content on the platform is a premium feature for example).

Free content stands at the basis of this model, where it is the platforms with its millions of members and the relevant algorithms mapping their interactions on the site which determine the value propositions of these companies. To support this move and give it more validity, Academia.edu and others rely heavily on the narrative of openness, asking users to upload their papers in the name of progressing science and the public good. However, it must be stressed that Academia.edu is neither a repository for long-term preservation, nor does it offer open access in any really sense, for example users must often still register to download papers. 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 fierce 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 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. Yet, as Gary Hall has argued, posting on Academia.edu is also far from equivalent, ethically and politically speaking, to using an institutional open access repository. For it is a particular version of open access that is being promoted by these portals and increasingly also by commercial publishers and funders. This is one in which open access is not so much perceived as a radical alternative to the business ethics underlying scholarly communication, or as an ongoing critical project, but as a business model meant to stimulate the knowledge economy, in which open access is being made to serve the need for further commercialization of knowledge and research. And it is here that we can draw clear connections between open access and scholarly research sharing websites such as Academia.edu and Researchgate. I would argue that they are not so much committed to the project of open access, but to the business model that open access has increasingly become. However, instead of exploring APCs as a profitable business model, as many commercial publishers are currently doing, they are experimenting with the collection of data and services around scholarly content and its users. It is therefore a particular version of open access that the likes of academia.edu have embraced.

Next to promoting a philosophy of openness, academia.edu also sees itself as a great innovator and disruptor of academic publishing. Price said in an interview that in the near future, his service wants to become a full-fledged academic publisher—and that includes implementing features that will change the way that academic peer-review is done. “The current process is just much too slow and too cumbersome,” he said.  As such Academia.edu has launched features such as the ‘Editor Program’ or ‘Author Rank’ and ‘PaperRank’, where 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.  Academia.edu initially invited selected members to join their ‘Editor Program’, which means you will act as an unpaid editor for Academia.edu, ‘recommending’ publications appearing on the platform to others in their areas of research expertise. Editors 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 function now seems to be open to all members, where academia.edu solicits them to recommend papers they have previously bookmarked or downloaded for example. This has enabled Academia.edu to start offering what it is positioning as a speeded-up and ‘crowd-sourced’ peer-review service, measuring the impact of a paper through its paper rank number, and authors through its author rank number. Although there is a lot to be said about re-imagining peer review, the question is whether such a black and white ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ system is the way forward for peer review, where this doesn’t leave much room for ambivalence and for asking important questions as part of the qualitative discussion around a work. This feature seems to focus predominantly on the evaluation function of peer review and less on the ‘improving scholarship’ function that peer review provides through careful editing and suggesting.

In 2016 Academia.edu shortly proposed the idea of charging a fee to users to have their papers considered for recommendation by its editors. It emailed queries to scholars asking if they might want to pay a “small fee” in exchange for getting papers “recommended” on the site. In other words, they were offering to promote their publications in exchange for money. This suggestion was heavily criticised by the academic community. This spawned the #DeleteAcademiaEdu hashtag on Twitter, urging users to delete their Academia.edu accounts. However, in marked contrast to profit-maximising publishers such as Elsevier—and let me again here emphasise the kinds of profits the commercial publishing giants make—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 and we have seen only the occasional disgruntlement and Twitter protest by academics. Why have researchers been so ready to campaign against for-profit academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa, but not against for-profit platforms such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and Google Scholar? Should academics refrain from providing free labours for these publishing companies too?

These questions in combination with a series of sharp criticisms in high-profile blog posts by concerned academics, including Gary Hall, Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Guy Geltner, led to an event held at Coventry University in December 2015 to explicitly address the question: Why Are We Not Boycotting Academia.edu? One of the main questions raised by a number of the speakers at this event thus 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? We discussed how to 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 symposium concluded that this might not be the best route to take. Their argument was again 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). If we 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. Guy Geltner has argued that perhaps we should just stop being lazy, 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, the symposium concluded. As such we should use our labour to support not-for-profit, distributed and institutionally supported alternatives to Academia.edu and ResearchGate instead—drawing on the commons; As Fitzpatrick points out, this means amongst others that we need to be more involved as scholars within our scholarly societies.

One of the things Gary Hall and I did directly after this event is work on an edited collection, a liquid book, that would capture some of the main aspects of and arguments in this debate, that would highlight the existing literature on this topic, and that would showcase alternative platforms for academics to use. We published this edited collection within Open Humanities Press’ Liquid Books series, which is open for anyone to edit, so please add any references or resources to this collection as you see fit.

So, what kinds of alternatives are there then? Next to your institutional repository, which is of course a place where you should always be sharing your research, I would like to highlight some other open access, not-for-profit alternatives where you can share your research.

First of all I would like to mention Humanities Commons, which is a nonprofit open source digital scholarly communications initiative intended to foster open collaboration and communication in the humanities. This is a project initiated by the office of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Humanities Commons was designed by scholarly societies in the humanities to serve the needs of humanists, therefore Humanities Commons is open-access, open-source, and nonprofit. It focuses on providing a space to discuss, share, and store research and will not generate a profit from users’ intellectual and personal data. One of the main features of the network is an open-access repository, the Commons Open Repository Exchange or CORE which allows users to preserve their research and share it. CORE is a full-text, interdisciplinary, non-profit social repository designed to increase the impact of work in the Humanities. For the future, Humanities Commons are building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories to the benefit of the entire higher-education-based research network. The public beta of Humanities Commons was launched in December 2016 with 3 society partners. Each of the society partners has its own Commons platform for its members, but all of these are brought together by the central, open, interdisciplinary hub. But you don’t need to be a member of a society to join, Humanities Commons is open to all academics. In just a few months the platform has already grown considerably, and now includes nearly 9,000 members in a wide range of humanities fields.

Domain of one’s Own, or Domains in short, is a program that helps institutions offer students, faculty, and staff online spaces that they themselves control. Domains grew out of a project at the University of Mary Washington (UMW). Two of its founders Jim Groom and Tim Owens, have from there started a company, Reclaim Hosting, which has launched Domains programs at over 40 institutions. This company is foremost education-focused, and they have priced plans in a way to make it affordable for students and faculty. Domains allows people to register their own domain names, associate them with a hosted web space, and from there install over 100 open source applications in order to publish, curate, and share their work online. Domains is built around the idea of full data ownership and portability. Educators and their institutions are thus able to offer their students a web space that they own and control, which will enable students to develop digital literacy and will aid them in designing their own digital presence. The domain and web space are free for the time they’re at the University. Empowerment of students is one of the main values underlying this project, next to a move towards a more diversified federated web instead of a centralized, platform-based one. And although Domains is at the moment mainly focused on students, I think on an institutional level this is a project that can aid in giving faculty and staff an important controleable online presence too, where digital literacy is something many of us could still develop further too. At Coventry University my colleagues have just set up Coventry.domains, which will enable students and staff to install many different applications for web publishing, community building, information management and other purposes. Coventry University will provide documentation and development opportunities aimed at helping account owners get started with the DoOO platform and make the most of available web applications. In addition, a community of practice will be built around the project, connecting participants and enabling opportunities to share expertise across faculties. And by the way, isn’t it interesting how Academia.edu, as part of one of its new premium features, is now offering you an ‘personal website’ on its platform? For a fee of course.

In 2016 I myself, as part of a team including Samuel Moore, Sherri Barnes, Donna Lanclos, Stuart Lawson, and Eileen Joy took part in the Triangle SCI Institute 2016 in Chapel Hill. We primarily came together with a strong motivation to think through what a not-for-profit and non-platform based alternative to social researching sites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate could be. This was motivated by a felt need to reduce the amount of and reliance on commercial players in scholarly communication. Yet we also wanted to avoid a ‘platform-solution’ given the recent surge of both commercial and NFP platforms in academic communication and publishing, many of which are non-interoperable, are increasingly mandatory for scholars (and highly labour intensive) and are problematic where it concerns sustainability in the long term. Instead we wanted to emphasise what is already out there, both content, collection and platform-wise in the form of a scholarly commons of materials, relations and services.

How can we compose a distributed social layer that would connect these distributed commons and make them more interoperable while allowing for more self-governance with respect to our scholarly data, networks and relationships? As part of our work at the Institute we started to envision and theorise a ‘layer’ that would connect the commons together and would ‘overlay them’. Our thinking was very much inspired by hypothes.is, the annotation and highlighting software that creates an annotation layer over the web and allows for the bringing together of data via groups, tags, keywords and a variety of other search and filter functionalities. Hypothes.is wants to create an open, interoperable annotation layer over scholarly content. As such Hypothes.is seems to provide the perfect starting point for a discussion on the potentials of de-centralised architecture for collaborative research.

Humanities Commons also proofed an important inspiration, as it incorporates many of the positive aspects we were identifying in social researching sites (and most importantly a not-for-profit alternative); and of course we very much appreciated Domain of One’s Own move towards a more diversified federated web instead of a centralized, platform-based one. This could be one of the self-controlled nodes our layer could connect to and from where scholars could syndicate (social) data. Although our project was mainly a speculative endeavor by a group of academics and librarians, we did try to visualise what our social layer would look like. With our layer/system, we wanted to emphasise that whatever “it” is it not foremost or necessarily individual based or centered. The individual scholar is just one node in the network between content, software, platforms and the relationships themselves. What we would want to see developed is a layer, a ‘thing’ or a system, that via for example APIs would feed updates, contents (i.e. preprints) and data into an invisible layer, which can then be accessed and filtered according to keyword, tag, field, time, location, type etc.. The results of this search and filter exercise will culminate in a feed which can be turned into (live) visualisations and widgets to again upload and share in one’s own domains or websites, but also to then be published and broadcast more widely in the form of curated collections of content. As this would be an overlay tool, we would imagine that it also would be able to bring in content from one place to another place. For example comments on an article one one’s server could be made visible on the same (or similar) PDF in a repository. This would be one of the integration aspects we would like to see.

Although this system is still very much an ideal system at the moment, many of the ideas embodied within it have already materialised in the form of not-for-profit tools, platforms, services and practices. Finding a way to create such an overlay layer based on already existing tools would be a first step. What kind of tools are there that are already collating social media info and which are open source for example? Where are the commons located and which aspects of them could be easily integrated into such a system? What existing and past examples of similar services should we try to emulate or further explore? For us this project was very much an exercise in imagining what for us would be the ideal social research sharing system; to not be lazy and passive, in Guy Geltner’s work, and to speculate about what our ideal future would look like.

I want to return at this point to discuss some of the issues the ongoing metricisation of scholarship poses for us as scholars. First of all, there are serious issues with privacy here, concerning what we as scholars read and access online. As part of Academia.edu’s Premium Membership model for example, users pay to be able to see the identities of members who have been reading the work they have put up on the network. The network is thus selling your user info, including your identity, directly to other authors. And perhaps this is only the beginning. The collection of this data could also be used as a monitoring tool, to determine and keep track of anything we are reading and accessing online, to create data profiles about us which governments might for example be able to access. To paraphrase Eric Kansa in this respect, to give up privacy for access is not a form of ‘open access’ I can endorse. In this respect Gary Hall has argued that the slow pace and often resistance of scholars to take up the open access project, to upload their work to institutional repositories for example, in comparison with academia.edu’s success, makes one wonder whether for many scholars their main priority hasn’t been to make their work openly available to share it as widely as possible, yet it has been to and I quote, to ‘build their careers and reputations in an individualistic, self-promoting, self-quantifying, self-marketing fashion’.

This seems to be a systemic development, where increasingly our profession, our institutions, as well as the precarious casualised job market, are forcing us to act as entrepreneurs of ourselves, where we need to establish our personal brands in order to survive in these environments. Self-promotion has always been part of academic life and of producing new knowledge but these kinds of websites reinforce these ideas, forcing us to become a specific kind of academic. Witness for example how the individual scholar-author stands at the basis of these networks, and not for example research groups or departments. Academia.edu and ResearchGate exploit the anxiety among scholars whose products, beyond publications, are ideas and connections and relationships, where we feel an urgent need to quantify ourselves, or even the humanities more in general, to prove our value, to measure our ‘impact’ and our ‘influence’ to satisfy tenure and promotion requirements.

The focus on analytics that these networks provide, reinforce a culture of self-monitoring, of self-quantification, of impression management. As Brooke Duffy and Jefferson Pooley have stressed, these scholarly research sharing networks ‘both amplify and accelerate the logic of self-branding among scholars’. This is again amplified by a university structure which demands measurable, SMART objectives and deliverables, as part of a larger audit culture. It is the overall design of these platforms that promotes this self-branding, with an overkill of metrics, and a focus on building relationships. As Hammarfelt et al. point out, these platforms explicitly use gaming features for attracting and maintaining users. They draw heavily on points, rankings, levels, rewards and scores that are associated with gaming, including immediate feedback and gratification, in this sense wanting to turn scholarly work, or better said the free labour that we provide to these platforms, into a game, influenced by, as Hammerfelt et al. state, neoliberal ideas about markets and competition. What is very important in this context too, is that these platforms and their profiles start to exemplify normative, idealized behavior. As a professional academic you need to be on these websites, especially if you are an early-career scholar, or on a precarious contract—and universities are increasingly encouraging their faculty to promote themselves and their research through social media too. Increasingly we need to construct these particular online personas to satisfy university requirements. And this is underwritten by these ‘magical scores’ and numbers as Hammerfelt et al. call them, and I quote ‘these points are seen as rewards although, arguably, their worth is unclear. They seem in fact an abstraction of value (…) the ResearchGate score is also magical in the sense that it is very hard to understand how it is calculated; there is little transparency regarding the data and the algorithms used to produce the score.” Even if we do not know what the scores stand for, a low score is not good for your professional identity, turning them into highly normative calculations.

So, what are we to do about all this, how are we to respond? I don’t have a clear answer to this as such, but I do again want to make an argument towards rethinking where we put our relational and affectual labour, as to some extend we can control the data that is or is not collected about us. Visibility and metrics are not necessarily wrong, not at all, but we need to be aware of what it is that we measure and with that, what it is that we value. At the moment we need to be more pro-active in making this value proposition instead of leaving it to commercial platforms to create unstransparant and abstracted quantifications for us. We also need to be aware that many of the things we do as academics cannot be measured, quantified or even easily made visible. The behind the scenes work of gifting labour, from reviewing and mentoring to editing, is about to lose out in this culture of ongoing metricisation, and these I think are aspects of academic life we need to protect by all means.

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One comment on “Academia.edu and Self-Branding

  1. Luís Henriques
    May 10, 2017

    I left academia.edu for all the reasons you mentioned above and with which I agree. I maintained my profile as a reader. Researchgate seems now a good option… So as academia a couple of years ago. Humanities commons looks like a very interesting option and i will explore it. Thank you for sharing this text.

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