A letter to Academia.edu

December 9th, 2015

Note: This letter was published briefly on Academia.edu in December 2015 before I deleted my account.  It was updated following email correspondence with Richard Price, the CEO of Academia.edu, on the evening of December 9th 2015, who contacted me to let me know that my initial assertion that Academia.edu does not provide access to papers unless the site is joined is not technically correct. 

 

Dear Academia.edu,

 

When I discovered you a couple of years ago, I was immediately enamoured.  Here was a website dedicated to the principles of open access that would enable me to share my research with members of the public.  Here was a site that allowed me to control my profile and add and delete material at will—unlike my own academic institution, where adding a paper or updating my profile is a task so unwieldy and complicated, I rarely bother.  Here was a site that would expose me to the work of academics I might otherwise never have heard of.  Plus, it looked like the younger, hipper sibling of ResearchGate, which, as far as I could ascertain, was populated primarily by nerdy scientists.

 

Recently, though, the glow has begun to wear off.  It started with an email I received a few months back asking if I would like to be an Academia.edu ‘editor’.  I indicated that I was very busy with other editorial roles but, as you will recall, I took up the offer to have a Skype conversation about it.  During our conversation, it soon became clear that ‘editors’ (a term you clearly use loosely) are no different from other users, except that they have the power to ‘recommend’ rather than bookmark papers, and those papers automatically jump to the top of individual newsfeeds.  When I asked about your criteria for choosing editors, it was based primarily on popularity (i.e., high monthly views and a reasonably large number of followers), although you assured me that you were checking out their qualifications as well.  Somewhat perturbed, I turned down your invitation, expressing my concerns about the way in which Academia.edu seemed increasingly to be designed as a popularity contest.

 

At some level, I think most of us are well aware that this is what Academia.edu is.  You are very clearly geared towards competition and a variety of metrics are prominently displayed on individual profiles.  This wasn’t always the case.  When I first joined you, no trophies were awarded to the top-percenters, but over time metric upon metric has been piled on—everything from “top %” to PaperRank (for papers recommended by ‘editors’) and AuthorRank (number of papers ‘recommended’).

 

I’d be the first to admit that metrics are seductive—when I first joined you, I watched my number of followers and page views rise with (self)absorbed and obsessive fascination.  I cheered when my profile made into the “top 1%” category [1]; I patted myself on the back when a ‘name’ followed by work.  But then reality set in.  As much as it pains me to say it, over time it has become all-too-apparent that my ‘popularity’ rests largely on factors bearing no relationship whatsoever to the quality of my work.  Based on the number of times each paper has been ‘viewed’ (I shall have more to say on this below), these are the factors that seem to be primarily responsible for my score:

 

  1. Having a very similar name to someone famous;

  2. Having several papers with sexy titles or with words like “breasts” and “genital” in them (apparently, lots of people are keen on seeing Kristen Bell’s nipples);

  3. Writing papers on highly topical subjects like e-cigarettes;

  4. Writing a couple of rants discussing dodgy journals—journals that a lot of people are clearly receiving email invitations from and then doing internet searches on in the hopes of finding out whether they are legitimate or not.

 

So my advice to anyone wanting to boost their profile is that the paper itself is irrelevant: what really counts is the name.  In fact, you don’t even need to bother with writing actual papers.  You could post a poem, or a picture, or a favourite quote and you’d still get a lot of views—although not, admittedly, any ‘recommends’.  But you can now take care of that too!  As a colleague of mine discovered last week, Academia.edu has been experimenting with a new “share with the field” feature that would allow people to pay a review fee to give their article more visibility (i.e., giving them prime real-estate on newsfeeds). 

 

For some reason, while most of us consider academic metrics to be relatively meaningless, whenever they apply to us we suddenly see them as objective evidence of our ‘value’ [2].  And it’s precisely this conceit that you rely—and actively thrive—on.  But here’s the thing.  While academics are happy to have their egos stoked, at the end of the day they want their work to be read and engaged with.  So, while I was willing to forgive Academia.edu for catering to our basest instincts, your crass commercialism [3], and your blatant attempts to encourage academics to violate copyright agreements whilst simultaneously disclaiming all responsibility for doing so [4], at the end of the day I am not willing to forgive the fact that although you present yourself as an open access site, you fail to meet the spirit of what this actually means.

 

Until this morning, I had assumed that anyone could access copies of my papers on Academia.edu if they had access to the internet.  While that is technically true, try and download a paper without being logged in and the following message now pops up:

 
 
 
 

Try to click on a paper link and you get this:

 
 
 
 
 
 

When you click on the “download" link?  Well, you get taken right back to the sign up invitation.  That said, it has been brought to my attention (by you, in fact) that you can actually access a HTML version of the paper—I draw your attention to the virtually invisible text at the very bottom of the screenshot stating “read paper”; if you scroll down, a HTML version magically appears.  However, I think you’ll agree that you do a very good job of giving the impression that membership is required to obtain access, which makes your statement that “our platform is the best way to share your research with the world” dubious at best.

 

And, of course, it makes an utter joke out of your metrics, because the fact is that the number of views assigned to any given paper is based on the number of people who’ve clicked on the link, not the number of people who’ve actually looked at it.  Frankly, that kind of statistic starts to make the journal impact factor look valid by comparison, and I didn’t even think that was possible.

 

In sum, Academia.edu, this letter is notice of our impending divorce.  That’s right, I’m leaving you.  I wanted to give you a week to digest the news (and read this letter), and then I’m walking out the door.  Now don’t worry, I’m not leaving you for ResearchGate.  Instead, I plan to look a little closer to home—to the equivalent of that lanky kid next door I ignored for many years in favour of more exotic fare.  Yep, that’s right, I’m hitching myself to my own university’s repository.  Because, quite frankly, it’s now clear to me that there are academic research repositories and academic research suppositories—and I’d rather lodge my research in a place that doesn’t smell of stink palm [5].

 

Yours no longer,

 

 

Kirsten Bell. 

 

 

Notes

 

[1] It doesn’t even specify any more what this figure actually means; apparently we’re just expected to be blinded by the academic’s general awesomeness.

 

[2] After all, we are constantly placed in a position where our work is being critiqued, so most of us are secretly desperate for some kind of external validation.

 

[3] And who can blame you for that when your primary available role model is academic publishers?

 

[4] Your site terms and conditions make it clear that it's the author's responsibility to ensure they are not violating copyright agreements, but you actively encourage academics to violate them by relentlessly hassling people to upload as opposed to merely listing papers—even going so far as getting academics to send each other “tell the author you would like a copy of this paper” requests, which become transformed into an email summons more along the lines of “Upload your paper, you selfish arsehole!”.

 

[5] You would have to have seen the movie Mallrats to understand this reference, but can see a full explanation here: