Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Academia, Not Edu – Planned Obsolescence

Source: http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/academia-not-edu/

Academia, Not Edu

week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present
state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for
both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as
openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also
some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing
that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for
work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important
model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other
potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset
any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled
content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become
rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for
experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.

Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of
work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already
share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for
comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories.
And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via
Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build
connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of
others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of
socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned
about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for
the future of the work involved.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com,
which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital
funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the
network’s model or intent, but it does make clear that there are a
limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it
will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it
will shut down.

And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited
number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who
are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to
continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will
somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested
parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said
that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D
institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.”
Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access:
“Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education
system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help
build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the
aggregated input, data and attention value.” The network, in other
words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate
with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication.
All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong
with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we
should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.

The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in
our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just
about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness,
the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it
feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate
Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to
connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives
to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard
to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful,
thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because
that’s where everybody is.

And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the
flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as
institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously
protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as
high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects,
but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve
been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and
preserving its own material independently of all others, and second,
that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The
result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of
what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded
project SHARE is working to
solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small
amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and
large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their
fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary
identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would
seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my
work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will
read it?

The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions
is only one of the features key to their success, and to their
successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features
include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can
require thoughtful fundraising
but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and
those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and
interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is
where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it
developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships
among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built
heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not
primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their

Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of
overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of
members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those
members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons,
to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its
members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals
of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE,
a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve
their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the
network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can
communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire
higher-education-based research network can benefit.

Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time
to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re
working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative,
which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The
interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we
envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary
lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have
single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they
work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can
maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.

So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons,
you not only get your work into circulation within your community of
practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that
community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the
“everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the
possibilities for genuine open access.

Academia, Not Edu – Planned Obsolescence

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