Academia.edu and the Ethics of Open Access

“Posting on Academia.edu is not ethically and politically equivalent to making research available using an institutional open access repository…”

Gary Hall — Professor of Media and Performing Arts in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, and Director of the Centre for Disruptive Media, at Coventry University, UK. — makes this provocative comment in his fascinating blog post “Does Academia.edu Mean Open Access Is Becoming Irrelevant?”

The popularity with academics of the Academia.edu social network … clearly raises a number of questions for the open access movement. After all, compared to 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 suggests 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. Nor is this state of affairs particularly surprising, given the precarious situation in which much of the academic profession finds itself today.

A quick count of USF faculty papers posted in Academia.edu shows that it is running neck-and-neck with USF’s own open-access repository in terms of sheer number of papers posted. But Hall suggests it may be worth considering the mission of the respective repository when deciding where to post a paper; or in the case of the social networking repository Academia.edu, its business model:

Its financial rationale rests instead on the ability of the angel-investor and venture-capital-funded professional entrepreneurs who run Academia.edu to exploit the data flows generated by the academics who use the platform as an intermediary for sharing and discovering research. In the words of CEO Richard Price:

The goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%. The kind of algorithm that R&D companies are looking for is a ‘trending papers’ algorithm, analogous to Twitter’s trending topics algorithm. A trending papers algorithm would tell an R&D company which are the most impactful papers in a given research area in the last 24 hours, 7 days, 30 days, or any time period.

Hall goes on to explain how in this business model, data is more valuable than content, and certainly more profitable.

Indeed, the reason it’s so crucial to understand Academia.edu’s business model is because it highlights just how much the situation regarding the publication and dissemination of academic research has changed since the open access movement first began to take shape in the 1990s and early 2000s. Without doubt the argument of this movement, that publicly-funded research should be made openly available online free of charge, is extremely pertinent to the content-driven world of profit-maximising academic publishers such as Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa, with their high journal subscription charges and book cover prices, ‘Big Deal’ library contract bundling strategies, and protection of copyright and licensing restrictions. But this argument isn’t anywhere near as relevant to the data-driven world of search engines, social media and social networking. That’s because for the likes of Google, Twitter and Academia.edu free content is what for-profit technology empires are built on.

There’s much more in the full blog post, and it’s well worth reading.

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