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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The growing user base of academia.edu: Issues in the dissemination of research

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Browsing academia.edu this morning, I was drawn to a remarkable statistic: according to this blog post, academia.edu is "adding roughly 70,000 researchers to [the] community every day" - or to put it another way, 25 million per year. At first I wondered if this was a typo, but elsewhere academia.edu claims to have 25 million users and to now be adding ten percent each month, or roughly 80 000 a day. Assuming this is correct, academia.edu will add as many new users this year (a further 25 million) as it gained in the first seven years of its operation since it began in 2008 (21 million).


That caveat out of the way, let's assume for a moment that this particular academic network is set to boom in the manner anticipated. What does this mean for the type of audience who uses academia.edu? And how might this affect the way in which researchers use the network and assess its value, especially in terms of research dissemination and impact?

The first thing to point out is that at these levels of growth it seems that academia.edu is not used only by researchers (i.e. those who work as PhD students, academics at universities, or those employed in research-driven industries). While I have not been able to find figures for how many people worldwide are categorised as working in Higher Education or research industries, with there being 23 000 universities globally, and a relatively fixed number of researchers, it seems fair to assume that a significant proportion of those new users of academia.edu are not going to be based in research institutions.

Since one of my roles is in research dissemination within the arts and humanities, I'm bound to say that this is not a bad thing. While academics have focused on putting research 'out there' into public spheres, through social and traditional media, there's no reason why we should not also allow our audiences to come 'in here' and to find research within networks and spaces that we have traditionally used for internal conversations among ourselves.

Yet when it comes to thinking about impact and dissemination, this does have a number of different effects that might bear reflection. There is, I think, a fundamental tension between academia.edu's mission to "bring the world's research online, available to all, for free" and the way researchers themselves might conceive of and use the network as a way of discussing and sharing research within what they perceive to be a primarily academic community. This tension might not really have manifested itself in the early years of academia.edu - but it becomes increasingly apparent when the network broadens its reach.

Since I'm writing this post as a way of thinking through the possible issues, I'd just like to pose a number of open questions:
  • If academia.edu is increasingly used by a public audience to find 'us', perhaps researchers might want to consider the way in which they present themselves to that audience. For example, the way biographies are presented on academia.edu seems to be typically academic-facing, emphasising a person's specialised fields of research, key publications and awards, teaching. Portrait images are often quite formal. Many biographies, I suspect, are a straight copy-and-paste from biographies on institutional websites which are, let's face it, often pretty dull. The self-presentation on academia.edu is not necessarily 'friendly', especially when compared to the flexible and jovial way many academics present on social media. Should academics adapt their profile even on what has been a traditionally 'academic' network?
  • As research assessment such as the REF seems increasingly likely to be metric-driven, we need sharper tools to diagnose just who is bookmarking, citing, and sharing research. For instance, if a research paper is bookmarked by 100 non-researchers, this hints that the impact of the research is outward facing. If it is bookmarked by 10 researchers, its main value may be within the sphere of academic knowledge. At present, the analytics on academia.edu only give overall counts of the number of times a document has been viewed or downloaded. Don't we need to be able to see exactly who is looking at our work within academia.edu in order to judge its effect and report on it appropriately?
  • The ecosphere of closed and open access publishing is changing rapidly (plug here for the recent launch of Open Library of Humanities - yay!), but as we transition from the former to the latter, closed publishers have begun to permit academics to upload pre-publication versions of papers to academia.edu, as well as institutional repositories. Academic users of the network are trained to appreciate what a pre-publication version means, in the sense that it may not be an entirely finished copy. Public users, however, may not perceive the difference. Indeed, since papers put on academia.edu are already available to anyone via search engines, this is already a concern, although in my experience academia.edu papers rank lower than papers on the publisher's own site. If users are accessing pre-publication versions of papers, when the finished version has significant corrections in it, could this cause research to be misrepresented or misinterpreted? 
  • One might wonder whether non-academic users of academia.edu are able to frame as 'published' research what is actually personal speculation, unpublished and not peer-reviewed. A presence on academia.edu confers academic credentials by proxy: the clue's in the name. If people think that anyone one academia.edu is an academic, when actually this is increasingly not the case, this has risks. Homeopathy, anyone?
I'm conscious that in posing these questions I may seem to be resenting the fact that the lines between academic researchers and the public have become blurry, and that the unwashed masses of the 'public' are encroaching onto 'our' spaces and territory. That's not the case. I'm certainly not advocating pulling up the drawbridge to our ivory towers, and preserving the likes of academia.edu as networks for academics alone. However, as previously academic networks become increasingly like social networks, we do need to consider what this might mean for the way we present ourselves and our research on them.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:43 am

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