Investigating the question of whether academics should be concerned that Academia.edu is not an educational institution, Johannah Rodgers finds that the answers depend on your definition of “education” and which parties you ask.
The first question, “Why Are We Not Boycotting Academia.edu?”, which was the title of a December 8, 2015 symposium organized by The Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University, is a crucial one. Unfortunately, it is also, at this moment in time, an apparently easy one to answer. The main reason “we” are not boycotting Academia.edu is because, as an organization backed by an estimated $17.7MM in venture-capital funding, Academia.edu has been able to successfully fulfill a need for a well-designed, easy to use, freely accessible, global repository of scholarly work across the disciplines. In fact, there is so much scholarly content posted currently on the site, including, it is worth mentioning, information about the 2015 Coventry University symposium organized by Gary Hall and Janneka Adema, that Academia.edu has become difficult to avoid.
Yet, as a privately-owned, venture-capital funded, commercial venture, Academia.edu has also been the object of some scrutiny, thanks largely to the attention brought to it by the 2015 symposium, a video recording of which can be accessed at Archive.org. The subject of two 2015 articles in the US-based magazines The Atlantic and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Academia.edu was, more recently, profiled and criticized in the Canadian magazine University Affairs for its ongoing use of the .edu domain despite the fact that the site has no educational affiliation or function. And, however educational its wider mission to facilitate access to scholarly work may be, its business model, ever evolving and not publicly disclosed, is a for-profit one that depends on the free donation of intellectual property originally funded by a range of government and non-profit sources.
The publicly available facts about Academia.edu are astonishingly consistent: It has a, somewhat inexplicably, large and growing user base that totals an estimated 46MM account holders (December, 2016) and 36MM unique visitors per month. It is free to use for its registered users and it is designed and architected to be at once easy to use and feature-rich, meaning, even if you do not regularly visit the site, it will stay in touch with you via e-mail to keep you abreast of new research posted by those “academics” whom you “follow” and the “impact” of your work based on the number of users accessing it. Further, unlike other existing scholarly databases, such as JSTOR or ProjectMuse, Academia.edu offers users access to analytics related to the reception and readership of scholarly work and a daily-updated percentile rank, i.e., top 1%, 4%, etc., of work and profile views relative to those of others “using,” perhaps more rightly referred to as, “posted,” on the site.
As a registered user of Academia.edu, I have some first-hand experience with the site’s functionality, its ease of use, and, as a result of both, several questions about its user base and the demographics of its 36MM unique monthly visitors. Although advertising itself as a platform with 46MM registered academics, the lack of any requirements for registering an account means that its user base is highly diverse and almost certainly not comprised of 46MM “academics,” unless that term is understood in the very broadest sense possible. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 there were just over 1.3 MM job positions in post-secondary education in the US. Assuming that the US represents the largest post-secondary job market globally, the fact that this number, in its entirety, represents less than three percent of Academia.edu’s user base is just the most obvious indication that the demographics of Academia.edu’s user-base are wide-ranging. Further, having posted the table of contents to my 2014 first year writing textbook on Academia.edu, I know from comments posted by users downloading this material that over two thirds of those accessing this resource are undergraduates. While I am not suggesting that undergraduates should be prevented from accessing Academia.edu nor that they should not be encouraged to access research on the site, I do think it is worthwhile pointing this out as one discrepency in Academia.edu’s advertised claims regarding its user base.
Designed at once to appeal to university administrators looking for quantitative statistics related to research employees’ overall “impact factor” and to time-pressed and post-PTSD full-time and adjunct faculty members raised and perhaps fueled by comparative, and particularly, percentile rankings, Academia.edu clearly understands its target audience. Further, as a privately held company, Academia.edu is not required to disclose any financial records and how the company is generating or plans to generate revenue is a work in progress. However, possibilities for monetizing its very rich and freely donated content, which, aside from information about its ever growing user base, currently totals 16.9MM “academic” papers, range from the highly ambitious plan of data mining content for innovative and profitable product development plans, to the more mundane and currently operational one of hosting and selling advertisements for job vacancies on its site, a fact that is all the more ironic in light of the increasingly irrational economies fueling the growth industry that is now known as “U.S. higher ed.”
What’s In a Name? At Academia.“edu,” About $17.7MM
Though not an educational institution, Academia.edu retains the right to use the .edu domain address because it purchased the name prior to October 29, 2001 when new guidelines related to the use of the domain were implemented. In other words, with respect to its use of the .edu domain, Academia.edu is “grandfathered” in. While this fact has been widely reported, and as much as Richard Price, the founder of Academia.edu can be congratulated on his foresight and financial acumen in registering the domain name Academia.edu on May 10, 1999, the company’s right to the continued use of the .edu domain is not guaranteed since this use is subject to US government policies that can be amended. In April, 2012, a proposed amendment to current .edu policy was introduced to assess the intent and purpose of the sites maintained by existing .edu domain holders and to disqualify those sites with “Use Inconsistent with the Purpose of .edu.” Though never ratified, the amendment was open to public comment through July 3, 2012, and the eighteen comments posted pointed out both the long-overdue need for such an amendment and its potential drawbacks, particularly with respect to its possibly and somewhat intentionally vague language. A lengthy comment posted by Academia.edu founder Richard Price opposed the amendment in no uncertain terms, arguing that it was the scope of the definition of terms such as “educational” that were at issue and subject to debate, interpretation, and application.
Words, Their Values, Valuations, and Costs
I very much agree with Price’s assessment of the situation. It is issues of definition that must be discussed, both what words mean and who is in charge of the dictionary, meaning, increasingly, directory, being used as a reliable reference source to define them. The US Department of Commerce oversees the policies related to the use of .edu domain names, and though this function has been outsourced, in exchange for $54K per year to the not-for-profit educational information technology association Educause (an organization with 2015 revenues of $32MM and a director who was paid a $450K salary in 2015) it is still responsible for addressing just what this word education and its virtual place-holder .edu signify to U.S., state, and local governments in 2016 and update its policies accordingly.
Government investment in network and communications technologies related to the internet were intended to serve both commercial and public purposes. Just what the appropriate balance is between these two aims, sometimes, though not always similar, is open to debate. However, the privatization and commercialization of public resources, which are then monetized and sold back to the public, seems to be both a shady business practice and decidedly not in the public interest. What is more, Academia.edu’s actual cost to public information and educational initiatives is ever growing and needs to be quantified. As university administrators look increasingly to private companies and their “free” services to supplement and, increasingly, replace internal information technology initiatives related to instructional, research, and curricular support, the question of what words mean, where and how their definitions are verified, and what real and virtual value is attached to them becomes all the more pressing. The Twitter “conversation” related to #deleteacademiaedu revealed that some universities—Arizona State, for instance—are in the process of “getting rid” of faculty websites. The college where I am employed, The New York City College of Technology at The City University of New York, has also made it harder, not easier, for faculty to create and host publicly available web sites at the college.
Regarding answers to the question of whether academics should or should not use Academia.edu, there is, to date, no consensus. Although most universities now maintain repositories of scholarly articles published by their faculty and these can be somewhat easily accessed by scholars unaffiliated with the sponsoring institution, unaffiliated users cannot deposit materials to them. The 2016 MLA Commons/CORE initiative is the most recent publicly available repository of scholarly publications. However, this project, like the Humanities Commons project is only for scholars in the Humanities. While I applaud these initiatives, both of which are “related” to ongoing Scholarly Commons projects at CUNY, where I am affiliated, I continue to believe that all of these initiatives need to be combined with university projects into a consortium model. Academia.edu's ease of use is unparalleled compared to any other scholarly repository that I have accessed. That said, I advise academics who have decided to continue using Academia.edu to post LINKS ONLY to that web site and upload their intellectual property to repositories hosted by universities.