Academia, Not Edu

Core repository, via commons.wikimedia.org. By Hannes Grobe/AWI. Shared under CC BY 3.0.

Last week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.

Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories. And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for the future of the work involved.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com, which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent, but 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.

And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10–20%.” Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access: “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.” The network, in other words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication. All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.

The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness, the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.

And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects, but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and preserving its own material independently of all others, and second, that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded project SHARE is working to solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will read it?

The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions is only one of the features key to their success, and to their successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can require thoughtful fundraising but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their relationships.

Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons, to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE, a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire higher-education-based research network can benefit.

Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative, which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.

So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons, you not only get your work into circulation within your community of practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the “everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the possibilities for genuine open access.


“Academia, Not Edu” was originally published on Planned Obsolescence.