Tag Archives: open access

Should you #DeleteAcademiaEdu?

[ Note: Many readers of this blog have probably heard by now that Kevin Smith, who has been the primary author here, will soon be leaving Duke to be the Dean of Libraries at the University of Kansas. We do intend to keep the blog going, and to continue to address the same issues you’ve come to expect from the site, though with a greater variety of authors. So do stay tuned. This post is by Paolo Mangiafico.]

Yesterday afternoon a kerfuffle arose on Twitter about Academia.edu, a social networking site for academics, where many academic authors have profiles, share their publications, and connect with other scholars. You can read about the beginning of the controversy in this article the Chronicle of Higher Education posted this morning.

The ensuing tweetstorm followed a fairly typical trajectory – moral outrage, call to action, a hashtag, and then of course the inevitable backlash, with each side calling into question the integrity of each other’s motivations, or at least the consistency of their actions.

The chief concern, or at least the one that appears to have caused the most heated debate initially, was whether paying for promotion of one’s scholarly work was equivalent to “vanity publishing”, but the discussion evolved into the broader issue of whether the fact that Academia.edu is a commercial service meant academics should avoid it, with several people on Twitter calling that out as hypocrisy, given the many other commercial transactions that academic life is entangled with.

My own opinion is that this is a straw man argument, and it misses an opportunity to have a more nuanced discussion about what’s really at stake here. This isn’t a morality play, and it’s not about whether charging for “monetizing” something is in itself a bad thing – for me it’s about choices, and making informed choices about keeping or ceding control to one’s own work. It’s also about being open vs being closed. Despite the impression that #DeleteAcademiaEdu is just railing against capitalism, I’d argue that it’s really about promoting a more competitive marketplace, one where the data is open for any number of potential services (consortial, member-supported, or even commercial) to do interesting and useful things with it – may the best service win, or may many complementary services thrive.

The challenge with sites like Academia.edu is that this is not possible. By most accounts, Academia.edu is a fine service, and clearly it’s meeting a need, as the number of academics who have profiles in it shows. They are doing very well at motivating academics to put their profile data and publications there. But what happens to that information once it’s there? By my read of the site’s terms of service, no other uses can be made of what you’ve put there – it’s up to Academia.edu to decide what you can and can’t do with the information you’ve given them, and they’re not likely to make it easy for alternative methods of access (why would they?). There doesn’t appear to be a public API, and you need to be logged in to do most of the useful things on the site (even as a casual reader). They were among the first to create enough value for academics to encourage them to sign up, and kudos to them for that, but does that mean your profile data and publications should be exclusively available via their platform? This is what’s called “vendor lock-in” – it’s very good for the vendor, not so good for the users.

While it’s understandable that companies will try to recoup their investments through such approaches, it nonetheless goes against the ethos of academia, and of how the Internet functions best. A few years ago at a conference I heard a speaker say

On the Internet the opposite of ‘open’ is not ‘closed’ – the opposite of ‘open’ is ‘broken’

(If I remember correctly, it was John Wilbanks)

So yesterday when I first started reading some tweets about people deleting their Academia.edu accounts, I tweeted

VIVO is an open source, open access, community-based, member-supported profile system for academics. It has been implemented by many universities and research organizations, and makes linked open data available for access and integration across implementations. In some institutions, like my own, it is connected to our open access institutional repository, so Duke researchers can easily make the full text of their publications be linked directly from their profile – open to anyone, no login required, always in the author’s control. And the custodians of the system and the data are the researcher’s home institution, as well as…  well, here I’ll quote from an article Kevin and I wrote a couple of years ago:

“this brings us to a discussion of another major player in this ecosystem that we have not yet addressed—a set of organizations that are mission driven, rather than market driven; that are widely distributed and independently operated, and therefore less vulnerable to single points of failure, and that were designed to be stable over long periods of time; that are catholic in their scope, strong supporters of intellectual freedom, and opponents of censorship and other restrictions on access to knowledge; and that are in full alignment with the mission of learning, teaching, and research that constitutes the primary reason why authors write academic articles. We are, of course, talking about libraries.”

This, ultimately, is why I think scholars will be better served by having the core data for their profiles and their research tied to open systems like VIVO, and to their universities and their libraries. Sure, the interfaces might not be as elegant, and we might move more slowly than a commercial service, but we’re in it for the long haul, we share your values, and we’re not going to try to lock in your data.

If someone wants to harvest the data from VIVO and our repository and layer on a better social networking or indexing service, that’s great – the data is available for that, and we have an open API. Do you want to charge for the service? No problem, as long as the people you’re charging know that they’re paying for your service add-ons, and not the data itself, which remains open and free to anyone else to use it outside the paid service. Do you have a service (like Academia.edu) that’s really good at convincing authors to enter their CV and upload their articles? Wonderful – make the data available unencumbered, and we might be willing to pay you to do the collecting for us (especially since institutional repositories haven’t been as successful in doing so).

The key reasons why authors should choose first to work with their scholarly communities rather than purely commercial enterprises isn’t that making money is bad – we all have to earn a living – but that the goals and values aren’t necessarily in alignment. I’ve used a lot of words to say something that Katie Fortney and Justin Gonder said in December (in “A social networking site is not an open access repository”) and Kathleen Fitzpatrick said a few months before that (in “Academia, Not Edu”), but the Twitter discussion sparked yesterday has made many more people aware of this issue, so I wanted to underline these ideas, and say a bit more about it than would fit in my tweets yesterday afternoon.

You have a choice, and the choice I hope you will think more about is whether you feel more comfortable investing your time and efforts with your home institution and your library, whose incentives and values presumably align with your own, and who will contribute to an open ecosystem, or with a service whose incentives and values and life span are unknown, and whose business model relies on being closed. If you’re comfortable with the trade-offs and risks, and willing to exchange those for the service provided, then don’t #DeleteAcademiaEdu. But I hope you will use this opportunity to look into whether alternatives exist that will meet your needs while keeping your options open and your data open, and preserving your ability to keep control of your work and make sure it’s not helping sustain an ecosystem that’s broken.


If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll also tolerate this shameless plug for an upcoming event that will be a forum for addressing many of the issues discussed above – the Scholarly Communication Institute. The theme of SCI 2016, to be held in Chapel Hill, NC, in October, is “Incentives, Economics, and Values: Changing the Political Economy of Scholarly Publishing.” We invite teams to submit proposals of projects they’d like to work on that fit this theme, and to build a dream team of participants they’d like to spend 4 days with working on it. For proposals that are selected, we pay expenses (thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) for the team to come to the North Carolina Research Triangle and work on their project alongside several other similar teams, in an institute that’s part retreat, part seminar, part unconference, and part development sprint. You can find out more about the institute at trianglesci.orgproposals are due March 14, so if you’re interested, start putting together your team soon.

Sit, Stay, Pay: Paywalls and Popular Research

A couple of weeks ago, an article detailing new research findings by the Duke Canine Cognition Center appeared in our Raleigh area newspaper, the News and Observer. The researchers found that tone of voice can affect how different types of dogs—calmer dogs versus more energetic dogs—respond to their owners’ commands. As a dog owner myself, this is a potentially useful discovery that could help me and many others develop better relationships with our pets.

For those readers who wanted to delve deeper into the researchers’ methods and results by reading the original article, the News and Observer thoughtfully included a link to the article from the journal in which it was published: Animal Cognition. However, clicking on the link takes the reader not to the article itself but to an intermediary page that requires a payment of $40 in order to access the article. In the parlance of scholarly communication, the reader is “hitting a paywall.” By charging prohibitively high fees to view single articles, journals create a barrier between readers without a subscription (read: most of the general public) and the research they want to access.

This problem is not a new one. The open access movement has been trying to address the paywall issue for the better part of two decades. In 2010, as a part of that effort, the Duke faculty adopted a university-wide open access policy to facilitate wider access to their research. The policy enables faculty members to archive copies of their research articles in our institutional repository, DukeSpace. Open self-archiving is accepted by most journals, and many of Duke’s faculty members have uploaded their work to the repository. Anything archived in DukeSpace is free and open to anyone with an internet connection.

For the past two years, to raise awareness about the availability of DukeSpace as resource for making faculty work available to the public, the Duke Libraries Office of Copyright and Scholarly Communication has been collaborating with our Office of News and Communication to provide open access copies of research papers that are featured in the news. When a news story is about to be released, we are alerted so that we can get in touch with the authors and request a copy of the research article. Most authors get back to us within a day or two. My colleagues and I then upload the article to the repository and provide the permanent link to Duke News to include in the story.

Since we began seeking these articles out, we’ve uploaded dozens of papers to the repository, many of which have seen very high numbers of downloads. One particular article about a new material that can harvest power from the airwaves has been viewed nearly 17,000 times since it was archived in DukeSpace in 2013. And the readership wasn’t limited to the United States. Many of the downloads came from other countries, including India, China, Russia, and Japan.

Like that article, we wanted to make the Canine Cognition Center’s paper available openly. Though the News and Observer is not a Duke publication, we still saw the opportunity to leverage our open access policy to provide wider access to the article. When the authors received my request, they were—like most of the authors we contact—more than happy to provide a copy of the article. They were quite appreciative, in fact, of the offer to upload it on their behalf, as it would help increase the impact of the article’s findings. It is now available for download free of charge in Dukespace.

I hope that this case will raise awareness among news agencies of the limited access the public has to academic research, but also of ability to collaborate with authors and institutions to provide open copies of research articles. By contacting the researchers and asking them to post an open access version of their paper, you will not be imposing on them, but helping them increase the reach and impact of their scholarship. And in so doing, you’ll be affording more readers the opportunity to engage with current research.

For all the dog lovers out there, enjoy the article.