Academia.edu’s motto, “share research,” may sound like a godsend to scholars who want to do everything possible to make sure their work echoes far beyond the ivory tower. The pared-down social network lets users connect with colleagues, post their own publications, and track the readership of their work—all without having to dig through photographs of people’s cats and reactions to whatever is on TV.
It’s a message with resonance, as the site’s growth bears out. More than 7 million people have created academic profiles on the site, says Richard Price, the company’s founder and CEO, with more than 800,000 joining each month. “Around 25 percent come back each month,” he says, “which is a return rate comparable to Twitter’s.”
But the appeal of that motto is precisely what worries publishers like Elsevier, the self-declared “leading provider of science and health information.” Starting in late 2013, Elsevier began demanding that Academia.edu—and institutions such as University of Calgary, University of California-Irvine, and Harvard University—take down research publications that, in many cases, authors had posted themselves.
As the Washington Post recently reported: “The takedown campaign goes against a long-standing industry practice in which journal publishers look the other way when academics post their own work.”
Price told the Post in December that Academia.edu, which had previously gotten one or two takedown requests a week, had received 2,800 in the span of a few weeks. Two months later, Price says, the takedown notices have stopped, and he isn’t sure whether they will return.
The takedown process might sound familiar to scholars who recall the entertainment industry’s campaign against copyright violations on YouTube and on file-sharing networks. First Academia.edu receives a takedown request citing the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Then staff members remove the paper and notify the author that his or her work has been taken down.
There’s generally no additional action taken against the author, and there is an opportunity for appeal. “The DMCA framework allows the author to counter-file if they would like,” Price says. “There is a form they have to fill in to do that.”
Even when Academia.edu was receiving 2,800 requests, it was a small percentage of the more than 2.3 million papers on Academia.edu. But it’s cause for concern for academics who are drawn to the site precisely because it promises to disseminate their research. If you’re posting your work on Academia.edu now, should you stop? Or change your standards for what makes it onto your profile page?
That depends on whom you ask. Tyrus Miller, vice provost and dean of graduate studies at University of California, joined Academia.edu in November 2012. Like many academics, he advocates “as broad a use of open-access publication and as broad a legal construal of scholarly fair use as possible.” It’s too late for Elsevier’s takedown demands to make a serious impact, he says: “The genie is already way out of the bottle.”
Yet Miller advises against using the site to share brand-new publications that aren’t open access. “I wouldn't, for instance, scan a newly published book chapter in an edited volume and post it immediately,” he says. “But I think after a year or so, a posting probably boosts the prominence and prestige, perhaps even sales, of the book, rather than taking them away.”
Unclear on whether your journal would sign off? You could always just ask. Before posting her papers, Jenny Bledsoe, a Ph.D. student in English at Emory University, obtains permission from journal staff. In her experience, journals are typically glad to allow authors to post PDFs with proper credit and a link to the journal site.
“Journals sometimes specify a pre-print PDF rather than the finished product as the appropriate document to share on Academia.edu,” she says. “As Academia.edu grows in popularity, I think journals will establish policies and guidelines for posting PDFs on the site.”
Remember: As Bledsoe points out, this is still murky territory. Publishers, journals, and scholars are all feeling their way around.
James Elkins, chair of art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, doesn’t think scholars should worry too much about takedown demands. He points to the website Scribd, which bills itself as “the world's largest digital library.”
“I post everything, including, in some cases, entire books, and I have never seen evidence that those postings have hurt sales or that the material has been plagiarized,” he says. “Scribd has several high-level partnerships”—with publishers that include HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster—“and yet the same site doesn't police people who upload other people's work and charge for it!”
Elkins, who is currently editing a Penn State University Press book series, tells a story to demonstrate the challenges of cracking down on online content distribution. Last year, a week after he received his first advance copy of a volume in the series, he saw a full PDF available for free on the site aaaaarg.org. The PDF was an uncorrected proof, which Elkins interpreted to mean that someone at the press had leaked it. But when he emailed the editor to express concern, she said she was unable to log on to the site.
“The difficulty the Penn State employee had, and—I assume—the fact that they didn't pursue the matter, shows me how disconnected some publishers are from the digital world, and therefore how unlikely it is that any publisher or content provider will effectively police the many illegal uploads,” Elkins says.
'Like a Newspaper'
There’s a broader question here, though: If you’re not using (or are barely using) Academia.edu, should you start?
Elkins may be the right person to ask. He appears to be one of the scholars with the most visibility on Academia.edu, and he recommends it widely—even though he briefly quit the site in 2009. “I no longer use this site,” he posted at the time, because Academia.edu “is too slow, too limited in its interactions, and awkwardly formatted for messages. (And is an ‘I like’ with a star really a good thing for an academic site?)”
But in 2010, he joined again, and he now receives about 100 notifications every day from Academia.edu about colleagues subscribing to his feed, reading his publications, or posting their own research. He’s even decided to stop monitoring his LinkedIn page, despite a network of 2,500 connections. He now dismisses LinkedIn as “mainly for white-collar workers looking for jobs, who need introductions to people because they feel they can't write directly to prospective employers,” and he is disappointed with what he views as a lack of active and central scholars on the site.
A disclaimer on his LinkedIn profile directs readers to, among other profiles, his Academia.edu page. Academia.edu keeps track of pageview stats, so Elkins knows that his profile has received nearly 40,000 views, and that the papers he has posted have received more than 125,000. Those readers also tend to be active users of the site, which helps Elkins stay informed about developments in his field. “I use Academia.edu like a newspaper,” he says.
Numbers like those are enough to convince many scholars looking to develop an audience. Heidi Campbell, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, is among them. Don’t jump on to Academia.edu expecting to find vibrant discussions or active networkers, she says. Think of it instead as a “great way to share my work and let others know about my scholarship.”
“While it has not been that useful for me as a social-networking tool or for building collaborations,” she says, “it offers some great features that have spread the word about my work to a broader audience beyond my subfield. I think it has helped raise my public profile as a scholar online.”
When Miller, of Santa Cruz, joined Academia.edu, he thought it was a “justifiable dip-of-the-toe in the water of the social media world,” because, like LinkedIn, Academia.edu seemed more sober and professional than Facebook or Twitter.
He now uses the site to post information, to share items via other social platforms, and occasionally to communicate with other users. His Academia.edu profile has exceeded his expectations, with more than 1,550 profile views and about 4,650 document views.
“Some substantial part of those must have been new readers and people who didn't know my work before, and with whom I might never have had any contact,” he says.
And seasoned Academia.edu users have learned little tricks that help make the site work for them. For example: Bledsoe, of Emory, has found that tagging her papers generates greater traffic from search engines.
For many scholars, Academia.edu isn’t just about exposure; it’s about analytics. In addition to tracking the number of users reading and downloading your articles, the site will tell you who’s searching for you online. If you’re interested in the reach of your scholarship, this can hold real appeal.
Miller has seen, through the analytics function, that his posts are being viewed across the globe: in Iran, Algeria, Bangladesh, Georgia, Romania, Indonesia, Turkey, India, Chile, and Macedonia in just the past month.
“I've done a fair amount of work in post-socialist countries such as Hungary and the Republic of Georgia, where scholars' access to published materials may be uneven or restricted by past and present collections and subscriptions,” he says. “I appreciate that Academia.edu may be playing an important role in making more publications available to scholars outside the hegemonic countries of North America and Western Europe.”
With academic presses suffering from limited resources and staffing, Academia.edu can also be helpful—if one can steer clear of complaints from Elsevier—for scholars who want to promote books that might otherwise go under-advertised.