Yesterday Sarah Bond published a thoughtful, short article in her regular Forbes column suggesting that academics abandon Academia.edu and move their research to open access alternatives. Bond argues that academia.edu is a for-profit wolf in .edu-sheep clothing. It’s not a real .edu, in that it’s not in institution of higher learning (which is the current criteria for an organization to use the “.edu” domain name). It is a for-profit company that is looking for ways to monetize academic research further. Academia.edu’s recent offer to boost a participant’s visibility on their increasing crowded site for a small fee would seem to confirm their willingness to ignore academic convention in the name of profit.
To be clear, I largely agree with Sarah’s critique and when Ethan Gruber and Eric Kansa lend their voices to the call, I’m even more inclined to follow their lead. My purpose of writing this blog post is to force myself to think through the issues at stake rather than necessarily to weigh in with any authority.
That being said, it seems to me that the pros and cons of academia.edu break down like this:
Academia.edu is good at what it provides at present: an easy to use and highly discoverable outlet for scholars to share research. They seem to have very little interest in interfering with what people upload to their site making it a useful back-channel for acquiring articles that would otherwise be trapped behind paywalls. They don’t charge fees for posting content or downloading content.
There are risks. Academia.edu can mine who looks at our research as well as the research itself and make this data available to people who do not have our best interest at heart (as well as those with shared interests, to be clear). As we have all encountered with Facebook, there is a model for monetizing visibility and discoverability, and it seems clear that academia.edu has in mind to monetize that. Finally, and most boorishly, academia.edu could clutter its interface with obnoxious advertisements, special offers, and other crap diminishing its legibility and utility.
The risks associated with using Academia.edu are not, to my mind, entirely unique to that platform. For example, the recent panic over the status of climate change data in the U.S. has demonstrated that state sponsored repositories are not necessarily safe from those who seek to undermine the free exchange of information. In state with an emboldened and interventionist super-majority in our legislature, I am not sure that I would trust North Dakota to protect access to my work in a repository. At the same time, private companies who understand their audience, users, and clients, have recently gone to battle with the federal government to protect privacy of their users (while at the same time mining user data for their own purposes). It is likely, of course, that academia.edu sells what they know about us to third parties, but to avoid this practice one would have to stay off the internet entirely. As a user of academia.edu and any number of other commercial platforms and tools from gmail to Facebook, WordPress.com, and my iPhone, I’m familiar with the cost/benefit dance that goes on any time we use a diverse digital ecosystem, and our power as consumers and users of these tools to influence how they use the information that they collect about us.
As an aside, I’m not terribly concerned about academia.edu’s ability to mine our research. Making our research open to the public always exposes it to the possibility of commercial uses. After all, we hope that our students mine our research for their own personal profits, both monetary and, we can hope, humanistic. I also have the feeling that community building in the public sphere will expose us to certain risks.
The alternatives to Academia.edu do help avoid some of the risks associated with that platform, but they sacrifice discoverability, ease of use, and familiarity. I know the argument that if more people used the alternatives, then they might develop many of the same features and utility as academia.edu and provide a platform that is simultaneously more open and safer. I’m slowly populating my account at the Humanities Commons with my research, but I think I’ll keep my Academia.edu account for a while. For now, the visibility and utility of the platform – much like gmail or even Facebook – outweighs the risks, but as negative vibes around it continues to grow, I’ll prepare my escape route.