in academia, networks, open access

Academia, Not Edu

Last 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, 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), 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,’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: “ 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, 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 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 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 — 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 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 relationships.

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.

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  1. I have an honest question, actually a couple. First, what happens to the materials when my membership lapses? Personally, I’m shifting careers and thus scholarship and professional affiliation. My work in MLA-type research is still relevant but my MLA membership, not as much. Do I need to keep the membership to keep my research available? Which brings up the question of membership at all. Freemium sites lik are attractive to many scholars because they are free now. And by scholars, I mean adjuncts, graduate students, and other poorly compensated members of the academy. Free is perhaps where everyone is at because that’s what most people can afford. I know the cost is nominal as well as presented on a sliding scale, and I also know that providing these services aren’t free, but free now (not to mention SEO optimized) is not a minor selling point for the service provides. I could also add that the transdisciplinary nature of is a feature that represents an opportunity for scholars to brush up against other perspectives, almost the way wandering the stacks in the library once did (and for many of us admittedly still do). And finally, for many of us who have been doing research and writing and publishing “for free” as adjuncts and contingent faculty while institutions profits in terms of prestige, at least is honest in its capitalist goals.

    I say this not to tear down the project but because I would like it to succeed, but to succeed, it import to consider other reasons why will continue to be a more attractive choice.

    • The materials remain available if your membership lapses! The only thing that would change is your ability to continue contributing to the conversations on the Commons. But honestly, given the work going on via Connected Academics and other such programs, I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that MLA membership won’t remain relevant in your new career. MLA members are in an increasingly wide range of professions, and the conversations across those professions remain crucial to them. Participating in those conversations, and shaping those programs, is an indispensable benefit of membership, one that I consider worth supporting. And honestly, “free” is never free. Caveat emptor, is all I’m saying.

  2. Love this, Kathleen. At the risk of self-promoting, I think my post from last week focuses on one of the challenges that can prevent scholars from sharing their work on CORE. We are going to have to work to get publishers to understand that there really isn’t a reason to differentiate between institutional and disciplinary repositories. If author agreements don’t give us the right to share our work in something like CORE, it doesn’t matter how good the model is.

    • Thanks, Brian — and you’re absolutely right about the obstacles that unaltered publisher agreements can present to developing disciplinary networks and repositories. I’ll hope that your post encourages more scholars to read those agreements carefully and to consider the ways that addenda like SPARC’s can support a more open, more flexible future for scholarly communication.

  3. I share your concerns about As a private startup, it can only go rotten over time. I forsee three possible scenarios:

    1) it goes bust. If they’re lucky, users will have some reasonable period in which to export their data in some hopefully not too disastrous format;
    2) it is bought-out by a rival. This is the usual startup business plan. Cf. Mendeley buyout by Elsevier.
    3) it becomes a hideous, gouging, privacy-busting behemoth from which no escape is possible.

    These newcomers only succeed at challenging the existing infrastructure because they provide user-oriented reference management features that the existing library infrastructure is failing to provide.

    Where is the universal public database of author/title/publication metadata to serve as a common component for any reference management tool? The amount of researcher time wasted on managing these personally and institution-wide must be colossal.

    It can’t be such a huge amount of data: the whole of Medline is about 113GB; the whole of ArXiV fits on a 64GB thumbdrive; and so on, which implies the metadata of every scholarly publication ever would fit on a modern desktop machine.

    Why does this not exist, and what are librarians doing about it?

    • I hadn’t realized the “size” of ArXiV. Is this because it keeps its contents in LaTeX and generates PDFs on the fly? I confess I don’t know much about its mechanics/infrastructure, but I am profoundly jealous that scientists/physicists have it. Why the humanities run so far behind in this, and seem to depend so heavily on proprietary solutions to everything from word processing (Word) to digital accessioning ( truly escapes me.

    • Have you used WorldCat at all? ( It’s a database of the catalogs of member libraries, which is most if not all in the US and a number internationally. Listings of books, articles, archival works, etc. work with ref mgmt tools, or at least with both Mendeley and Zotero, which I’ve used myself. Metadata may not be exactly correct for every citation style in every entry, but as I tell students, that’s true of every database/citation manager (unless you enter everything yourself, which as you note is time-consuming), so it’s always best to check everything over before you consider it complete.

      So to your question, it does exist, and librarians have been adding to it for years.

  4. I haven’t heard any talk about in years. Research Gate is the latest rage. Why is that and do you see any differences?

    • That’s interesting! I can’t tell where you are posting, of course, but I wonder if it’s a Europe/US difference, given that ResearchGate is based in Germany. That EU home points to another possibility, though: ResearchGate was not subject to the flood of Elsevier DMCA takedown notices that hit a while back due to differences in national laws. The other possibility is that it’s a field-based thing, but I’m not sure.

      As to differences — honestly, I haven’t spent any time with ResearchGate, and I don’t know the sources of their funding, so I can’t say. I’d love to know your thoughts!

        • RG is STEM-focused while Academia seems to attract more in the humanities. I’m in a STEM school and most people who’d have accounts with this sort of site have one on RG and post to it fairly regularly, while some may have accounts in Academia but most have done very little with it.

          • Oh and as to funding (just did a workshop on social networking for researchers so I’m more up on this topic than I might otherwise be), RG is like Academia in that both are funded by investors.

          • Isn’t that depressing!

            I signed up to academia to get to an article I needed for my dissertation (in art history, film and the various preipherals) The signed up to RG fro another article which I didn’t get un fortunately, there still seems to be less that’s uploaded there.
            Academia looks a lot more like a wall of articles and papers. Research looks more like facebook for geeks; it has a more higly developed Q&A line. And since I’m a gabby goat, I posted some answers to those questions and got swept into a rather fun debate.
            It’s depressing to fing that RG is also a for profit enterprise, but the real problem is entirely that: how can researchers live from the work they do? But in media, I really can’t see a way around either the audience to advertisers paradygm or a pay to play paradygm.
            All this of course wouldn’t matter if work were payed at the scholar’s workplace, and that from the graduate level at least. But that isn’t the case, so researchers are becoming more and more dependant on getting there stuff out there just to get noticed.
            Finally, if these sites were up-front about their for profit status, it would be chilling, but it wouldn’t really be a problem – if all the work supplied by the researchers were also compensated.
            All of this is a connondrum that I don’t see a practical solution to…

  5. Thanks for reposting of my tweet Kathleen, and for the clear explanation of everything that went unsaid in my 140 characters about why people should be aware of the commercial nature of I like the way you’ve pointed out that people find Facebook and its ilk useful for very legitimate reasons, and that the challenges of creating something that reproduce those reasons are significant. As users of the web, we all use commercial services all the time. What’s important is to do so in an informed way. Too often with services that are collecting our data, it’s not clear to many users what use the collector will make of it, and that’s where much of the problem lies.

    • Thank you for the tweet, Seth, which prompted me to get this thing that had been nagging at me for some time into circulation. I hope that our organizations can work together to build better not-for-profit alternatives to this particular service.

  6. Academia dot edu seems to be making some money by advertising head-hunters. Most of these still are for IT and STEM related fields, but a few others pop up from time to time.

    Academia dot edu also could make money licensing reader subscription access, i.e., to those who do not contribute anything peer-reviewed or already journal-published there.

    Academia dot edu’s inter and intra-disciplinary nature is in fact one of its best features.

    There is also another database system in Europe other than Research Gate, fyi ORCID. I have received requests for papers from RG users, but since an int’l journal owns the copyright to my paper, I have no standing to share it. On academia dot edu, users get the abstract and link to the journal, and not the paper itself. Which points to another benefit of academia dot edu, to find something useful to do with otherwise unpublished works. Hard to see academia dot edu monetizing those, however, since they have not been through peer review. In some ways, academia dot edu is a peer review vehicle, but all ad-hoc. To open an actual comments page on an uploaded item there is non-trivial and tedious!

    Hope they build a customer base of academic hiring scouts!

  7. Okay, an opinion question.

    30+ yrs ago, when I started academic research, the best way to discover publications was bibliographies. The biblios were sold to (generally) research libraries. It could take (well, it often took me) a week or two to comb all the biblios (as I worked at a nexus of technology and the humanities) Once I identified papers I /might/ need, I could then order them from the publisher of the bibliography or from the author or original publisher.

    Putting aside the speed issues (admittedly artificial) how different is what was the norm then from the norm now? At some level, it seems that someone-not-me is making money from my work. And it was still possible to collect statistics and act upon them.

  8. I missed the part where this inititative, i.e. is bad. So, yes, it’s done by a bunch of individuals, not an institution. It needs money in order provide excellent services that you don’t have to pay for. Mmmmhhh… . It’s certainly not pseudo-academic by virtue of the thousands of very real and quality academics/scholars/researchers that use it. There is nothing remotely comparable for getting and sharing articles. But yes, I don’t want to be naive, what are they actually doing with all that data? What is the real beef you have with them. It can’t be that it’s commercial, otherwise we should not buy books from commercial publishers anymore either… heck, we shouldn’t go to universities that take fees… . So, could you be clearer about the actually evil of Ah, and another thing I found positive: Even people not associated with institutions can and do publish. What alternative would these people have in terms of a serious platform? Lastly, if were to shut down are commercialise in a more aggressive way, what problem is there with one’s work? Surely, we all have copies of what we upload.

  9. “All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with,….” There is a root cause behind all these problems – money.

    Yet, money is false, because money is not an object of nature. Only objects of nature and their characteristics, which we call as the laws of nature are true. Everything else is false. Thus we have two things which are false, real numbers and money, which is also a real number. You cannot create something true using something false, like money.

    Since money is false, it cannot be necessary to run an economy. That is, we can run the same economy that we have now, in the exact same way without any kind of money, and yet give full democracy, and any lifestyle anybody wants. The problems in all areas, like academia, education, poverty, unemployment, wars are all created for money and by money. Note also that since money is false, it must be free and abundant at its source, which is the central bank. Take a look at money-less economy (MLE) chapter at

  10. Am I right in saying that one needs to become an MLA member to post work on the Core, and that this attracts an annual fee?


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