Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Impact of Social Sciences – The growing user base of Academia. edu presents new issues for the sharing and dissemination of research.

 Source: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/10/06/the-growing-user-base-of-academia-edu-issues-in-the-dissemination-of-research/

The growing user base of Academia. edu presents new issues for the sharing and dissemination of research.

the online academic network for sharing research papers, appears to be
expanding its user base within the academic community and drawing
interest from the wider public.
Alistair Brown
looks at what might happen as the lines between researchers and public
audiences on the network become blurred. For example, academic users of
the network are trained to appreciate what a pre-publication version
means, in the sense that it may not be entirely finished. Public users,
however, may not perceive the difference.

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.

Image credit: Pank Seelen (CC BY-SA)
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
  • 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.

This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog, The Pequod, and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the
position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School
of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Alistair Brown is a Postdoctoral Teaching Assistant in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, where he edits the blog Research in English At Durham (READ). He
is also an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, teaching courses
on the Arts and Literature. He tweets as @alibrown18 and blogs at www.thepequod.org.uk.

Impact of Social Sciences – The growing user base of Academia. edu presents new issues for the sharing and dissemination of research.

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