Why Academia.edu is not the answer that proponents of open access have been looking for and why many academics don’t care (but should)

17 October 2016

Scholarly journals are of the few areas in the publishing sector where substantial profits are made.  Ironically, publications that are some of the least expensive to produce are the most expensive to purchase – mostly because of the pool of free labour academics provide in writing content and ensuring its quality, and the existence of a captive market (i.e., universities) forced to purchase products at whatever price publishers choose to charge.  This situation has led the science reporter George Monbiot to quip that academic publishers make ‘WalMart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch look like a socialist’ – criticisms that verge on understated when you consider the fact that Elsevier charges USD$612 for an annual individual subscription to Social Science and Medicine, one of its mid-tier journals (the price for an institutional subscription is USD$8,596).  As Peter Suber notes, ‘the largest journal publishers earn higher profit margins than the largest oil companies.  In 2010, Elsevier’s[1] journal division had a profit margin of 35.7 percent while ExxonMobil had only 28.1 percent’ (2012: 32).

 

It was this broader environment that sparked the open access movement, which has stimulated a number of changes in the scholarly publishing sector.  First, it has led to the rise of open access journals - a broad term for journals freely accessible to the public, but utilizing a number of different funding models. While a number are free for submitting authors and interested readers, others, such as those run by PLoS, are based on a model where the author pays an article processing fee to cover the journal's operating costs. Following this model, most for-profit publishers now allow authors to pay a hefty fee to enable their journal article to be open access (Social Science and Medicine charges USD$3,200 to do so).  However, as Guy Geltner observes, ‘To these publishers, Open Access is not an ideology but a business model meant to keep profits as high as possible.  It is more than likely therefore that their way to calculate APCs [article processing charges] does not reflect out-of-pocket costs but desired revenues’.  Moreover, this version of open access relies on significant financial outlays by academics, becoming unfeasible for anyone whose research is not supported by large research grants – which is true of virtually all of the non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) disciplines.

Second, and more importantly, it has forced most commercial publishers to agree to ‘green’ open access models that allow academics to self-archive a pre-print version of their article on their personal website or in a university repository.[2]  Notably, the definition of a ‘pre-print’ differs from publisher to publisher.  For some, it’s the version that has been accepted for publication but has not yet been through the production process; for others, it’s the submitted version of the manuscript before it has been through peer review.  Others, still, place further restrictions on when authors can post the pre-print – requiring them to wait at least 12 months after publication (sometimes two years) before doing so.

 

Sites like Academia.edu[3] emerged this context, seeming to provide a third option for scholars supporting open access principles.  Launched in 2008 by Richard Price, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur with a PhD in philosophy, Academia.edu is a social networking site for academics – using a Facebook-like platform, scholars can create a personal profile, upload copies of their work and ‘follow’ other academics to receive regular updates on their publications.  Interestingly, this networking function is largely absent from Academia.edu’s current marketing materials, which present it primarily as an open access repository.  ‘Academia is the easiest way to share papers with millions of people across the world for free’, its homepage proclaims. 
 

 
 
 

Academia.edu’s posted membership numbers from 2011-present[4]

 

Today the site boasts ‘42,852,499 academics’ – up from 13,985,761 in October 2014 – and continues to grow at an impressive rate.  At the time of writing, Academia.edu had gained 719,824 new followers in the past two weeks and another 500,573 in the two weeks before that.  However, amidst the site’s popularity, a groundswell of opposition has recently emerged.  In November 2015, the Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University held a conference titled ‘Why are we not boycotting Academia.edu?’.  The conference followed (and seems to have been partly inspired by) Gary Hall’s conference paper Does Academia.edu mean open access is becoming irrelevant?[5] and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s follow-up Academia, not Edu blog post.

 

In this same period, the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of California posted a notice titled ‘A social networking site is not an open access repository’, warning faculty and students that sites like ResearchGate and Academia.edu were commercial entities that did not meet the requirements of institutional open access policies.  Academia.edu’s brief flirtation with introducing a fee for academics wanting to increase the visibility of their work also generated a significant backlash, and was the focus of several articles in higher education rags (e.g., The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed) as well as inspiring the #DeleteAcademiaEdu hashtag.  Towards the end of 2015, there were various high-profile departures from Academia.edu (e.g., that of Guy Geltner) as well as several lower-profile ones (such as my own).  More recently, a couple of articles have picked up on the larger critiques, including ‘Some academics remain skeptical of Academia.edu’ (published in University Affairs) and  ‘Do academic social networks share academics’ interests?’ (published in The Times Higher Education), along with various blog posts (e.g., UrfistInfo, ScholarlyCommunications@Duke).

 

Although a number of issues have been raised, a primary criticism is that Academia.edu is not an open access repository, despite its branding as such.  As Gary Hall notes, ‘posting on Academia.edu is far from being ethically and politically equivalent to using an institutional open access repository’.  Likewise, Guy Geltner points to the ‘complacency of users regarding the portal’s financial horizons, its plans to monetize, and the political implications thereof, be it for professional academics or the freedom of scholarship in general’. 

 

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with developing a profit-driven social networking website for academics, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick observes: ‘it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down’.  Thus, members’ illusion of control over their content is just that.  To quote the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of California:

ResearchGate and Academia.edu do not permit their users to take their own data and reuse it elsewhere,[6] nor do their terms of service permit the library to extract that data on the authors’ behalf… institutional repositories, on the other hand, are largely committed to complete openness and re-use of data…  Open access repositories are usually managed by universities, government agencies, or nonprofit associations.  Affiliation with a larger institution (with a public service mission) means that repositories are likely to be around for a long time… Academia.edu and ResearchGate are independent for-profit companies that could theoretically close up shop any time (anyone remember pets.com?)

 

The very openness that Academia.edu purports to endorse is also belied by the way it increasingly restricts access to its content.  Until 2015, papers uploaded by members could be freely read and downloaded by anyone with access to the internet.  However, this is no longer true.  As I noted in my open letter to Academia.edu prior to deleting my account, although the site still allows papers to be viewed by non-members, it does its best to give the impression that membership is required to obtain access; indeed, papers can no longer be downloaded without logging in. 

 

In email correspondence with Richard Price[7] following the publication of my letter, he explained this decision in the following way: 

You might ask: ‘why do we require people who want to download the pdf to join?’  The reason is that the primary purpose of Academia has been to create an open platform for the sharing of papers.  Getting papers online is no easy task.  It turns out that the majority of the 8 million papers on Academia.edu have come from people who've downloaded a paper on Academia.edu, joined, and then uploaded their own papers. Does the benefit of having a few million papers online outweigh the cost of asking people to sign up when downloading a paper?  Reasonable people might disagree on this question. We take the view that it's a net positive.

 

The audience Price has in mind for Academia.edu’s content is clearly academics themselves; indeed, this is implicit in the site’s assumption that all of its members are academics (as per the site’s declaration that ‘42,852,499 academics’ currently belong).  The irony, of course, is that many academics already have institutional access to papers posted on Academia.edu;[8] it’s the public that doesn’t.  Would a member of the public with a casual interest in a paper go to the effort of creating an account in order to download it?  I strongly doubt it.  The result is that the primary population the open access movement targets is effectively excluded from the site. 

 

None of this would be a problem if Academia.edu represented itself merely as a social networking site for academics, but recall that its function as an open access repository is central to its branding (‘Academia is the easiest way to share papers with millions of people across the world for free’).  Interestingly, this wasn’t always the case.  According to my Wayback Archive search, at the beginning of 2010 the site’s slogan was ‘Find out who’s researching what’, which focused exclusively on its scholarly networking capacities.  In April 2010 it changed to ‘Follow the latest research in your field’, which made it sound like a LinkedIn for academics.  It was only in August 2011 that its role as a place for sharing research was emphasized: Academia.edu is ‘the place to share and follow research’, the website declared.  Finally, in March 2015, the emphasis on networking disappeared entirely.  ‘With 30 million monthly visitors, Academia.edu is the best way to share research’ became the new tagline, before being replaced by its current slogan in February 2016.  Thus, over time there has been a marked shift in the way that Academia.edu has positioned itself, with its social networking attributes increasingly downplayed in favour of its open access function.  

 

If the site’s current membership numbers are anything to go by, this rebranding was evidently successful, so why haven’t the concerns raised about Academia.edu had more of an effect?  As the Centre for Disruptive Media asks, ‘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?’

 

I suspect the answer to this question lies partially in academics’ failure to appreciate the ways that the internet is transforming knowledge production and circulation.  As Garry Hall points out,

…for the likes of Google, Twitter and Academia.edu free content is what for-profit technology empires are built on.  In this world who gate-keeps access to (and so can extract maximum value from) content is less important, because that access is already free, than who gate-keeps (and so can extract maximum value from) the data generated around the use of that content.

 

The larger issue, however, appears to be underlying transformations in academia itself – frequently characterized as the rise of the ‘neoliberal academy’[9] – and the resulting regulative ensemble in which we are embedded, where the ethics of competition and performance prevail (see pieces by Simon Marginson, Marilyn Strathern, Stephen J. Ball, Kari Dehli and Alison Taylor, and Cris Shore).  In this context, where individuals’ prospects for tenure and promotion are increasingly tied to ‘self-interest, pragmatics and performative worth’ (to quote Ball), Academia.edu is unquestionably valuable.  Once again, Hall cuts to the heart of the matter:

…compared with the general sluggishness (and at times overt resistance) with which the call to make research available on an open access basis has been met, Academia.edu’s success in getting scholars to share suggest that, for many, the priority may not be so much making their work openly available free of charge so it can be disseminated as widely and as quickly as possible, as building their careers and reputations in an individualistic, self-promoting, self-quantifying, self-marketing fashion. 

 

Academia.edu clearly capitalizes on the growing ‘metricization’ of the academy and the preoccupation with instantiating academic value that Roger Burrows has discussed at length in ‘Living with the h-index?’.  A core feature of the website is the personalized metrics it provides members of ‘impact’ – namely, detailed information about how many times their work has been viewed, from where, and how it was found.  Over time, these statistics have become increasingly prominent on the site and further parsed into what Price calls ‘credibility metrics’: those that ‘reflect the sentiment of the scientific community toward a particular piece of content’.  Thus, personal webpages now indicate whether the member has one of the most viewed profiles on the site, along with details such as individual PaperRank (how many times a given paper has been recommended by Academia.edu ‘editors’), and AuthorRank (a metric based on the individual rank of those who have recommended the paper).    

 

The site’s potential to enhance the symbolic capital of its members is prominently highlighted in the way it markets itself.  For example, following its current tagline is a note that: ‘A study recently published in PLOS ONE found that papers uploaded to Academia receive a 69% boost in citations over 5 years’.[10]  This emphasis becomes even more evident in a 2013 interview Academia.edu staff conducted with the site’s most followed academic.  To quote from the article’s opening:

The academic with the most followers on Academia.edu might surprise you…  Simon Springer, a humble assistant professor at the University of Victoria, has slowly cultivated an impressive global following of 6,244 (and counting), a number that tips off his tenure and promotion committee that he means business.  ‘I’m going to use this when I go up for promotion in a year’s time.  I think it will be really valuable to show that my work has made an impact and that people are interested in what I’m doing.  I think that’s important for building a reputation in particular fields’, says Simon.

 

As I have illustrated elsewhere, there is something deeply seductive about the site’s individualized tracking capacities and the way they seem to demonstrate, in real-time, the ‘impact’ of one’s work.  Moreover, the statistics Academia.edu produces are arguably experienced as personally validating: a rare sensation in an increasingly precarious profession where, according to Rosalind Gill, feelings of ‘anxiety, …out-of-placeness, fraudulence and fear of exposure’ are the norm.  But the problem, of course, is that these metrics are ultimately simulacra: they actively create the reality they claim to represent.[11]

 

Again, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Academia.edu still presented itself as primarily a career-building tool.  No one who creates a Google Scholar Citation Profile (which I must confess to having) claims that it is anything other than a means of tracking their citations for the purposes of self-promotion.  Likewise, Twitter now increasingly operates in much the same way, especially given the rise and growing influence of Altmetric: a measure of the social media attention any given research article receives.  But Academia.edu (and other sites like it) is unique in aligning itself with the open access movement.  Moreover, its expansion has arguably been enabled by the movement’s success in pushing for ‘green’ open access (and the legal loopholes it created for sites like Academia.edu). 

 

And there’s the rub: instead of supporting the open access movement, Academia.edu appears to be operating in a largely parasitic fashion.  As Hall observes, academics ‘labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value’; moreover, many are posting their work to Academia.edu instead of institutional or subject-specific repositories.  In effect, by taking the path of least resistance paved by Academia.edu and the like, Geltner argues that academics are perpetuating the transformation of open access into a business model that supports profit-driven organizations.

 

It is unquestionably easier to upload one’s work onto Academia.edu than to an institutional repository.  Articles uploaded onto the site also generally rank higher on Google searches (although it’s worth pointing out that this feature is relatively meaningless if people can’t access the article without joining the site).  Moreover, placing one’s work on an institutional repository doesn’t pay direct dividends in the way that posting to one’s Academia.edu profile does.  As Fitzpatrick notes, most people don’t see much value in sharing their work in a place where it will be found by few of the people they hope to read it – namely, their colleagues.  However, improvements could readily be made in these areas[12] if academics were more invested and involved in such repositories.

 

As Gustavo Lins Ribeiro has observed, it is now almost a truism that our modes of producing knowledge reflect their historical and sociological contexts; however, academics have often proved reluctant to engage directly with the political, legal, bureaucratic and commercial forces that shape it.  More recently, Roger Burrows has pointed to a similar passivity amongst academics – despite all our talk of ‘critical reflexivity’, he argues, it has been ‘largely absent from any consideration about our own contexts, experiences and practices’ (p. 356).  However, we can’t afford to be complacent about these new players entering the field of academic publishing, even if – especially if – we find them personally useful.[13]  After all, it was complacency that largely got us into the present mess in the first place, with academic publishers given a free reign to hold research hostage to commercial interests.  I leave the final word to Ribeiro, who captures the heart of the problem:

If researchers want to do research and guarantee ‘academic freedom’, they need to do politics within and beyond their institutions.  If they do not, other people will, and sooner or later researchers will see themselves caught within other people’s webs of stereotypes and regulations [and interests] (pp. 530-31).

 

Notes

[1] It probably sounds like I’m singling Elsevier out here.  However, although they have attracted considerable ire amongst academics for their journal pricing strategies and their aggressive attempts to stop copyright infringements by issuing take-down notices to academics placing post-prints on Academia.edu (a practice they appear to have started after they purchased rival website Mendeley, although Elsevier has subsequently denied this), I personally don’t think they are worse than any other commercial academic publisher.  To my mind, targeting Elsevier is like singling out the reigning Heather for being a ‘mega-bitch’; her replacement will behave just as badly as soon as she’s wearing the red ribbon (and, yeah, this analogy makes no sense unless you have seen the 1988 movie Heathers).

 

[2] Some publishers do allow the post-print (i.e., the final published version) to be archived, but this is comparatively rare, and I suspect limited primarily to university presses that publish journals (e.g., the University of California) rather than commercial academic publishers (e.g., Elsevier, Sage, Taylor & Francis).

 

[3] For reasons of brevity, and also because it is the most commonly used platform in the social sciences and humanities, I will focus specifically on Academia.edu, but I want to make it clear that the discussion that follows applies equally to these other sites.

[4] I compiled these statistics by using Wayback Archive to find the membership numbers posted on Academia.edu, a practice they initiated in July 2011.  These statistics are based on membership numbers posted at the beginning of each month, with the exception of a 6-month period between June and November 2015, when the site temporarily discontinued this practice.

[5] Hall also posted a version on Academia.edu titled ‘Should this be the last thing you read on Academia.edu’

[6] Just to clarify, according to its terms of service Academia.edu doesn’t claim any ownership rights in ‘member content’, which is how it’s sometimes reported.  But data posted on the site can’t be extracted by your institution to upload on their own repository, which is what academics often assume.

[7] Like Geltner, I have found Price and the Academia.edu staff to be very friendly and willing to engage in discussion and debate, despite our clear differences of opinion.  I am quoting Price’s email comments with his permission.

[8] I realize this is an overgeneralization that applies less to academics in the global south, given the extortionate cost of journal subscriptions.

[9] Although I’m on the record as having concerns about the extension of the term ‘neoliberalism’ to apply to an ever-greater array of phenomena.

[10] It’s probably worth noting that the study was conducted by Academia.edu staff.

[11] Given that: 1) one’s numbers go up whenever a paper is clicked on, regardless of whether it’s actually read, and 2) as I’ve already established, readership is primarily restricted to other registered members.  This is also true of the other measures of research ‘impact’, namely the h-index, the journal impact factor and the altmetric score, where ‘impact’ is equally treated as something self-evident and straightforward.

[12] And are clearly being addressed on sites like the MLA Commons.

[13] This is what Academia.edu is literally banking on.