The question that is both the title and the subject of this post comes from an essay by Gary Hall I read recently on academia.edu. I found it while searching for an open-access poetry journal to submit an article to, and my google search term picked up ‘open access’ from Hall’s discussion of how the economics of true open access and of sites like academia.edu differ.
Hall notes that with many open-access journals, the financial burden usually placed on authors or their institutional backers is absent, which is also true of academia.edu. However, as Hall goes on to note,
The key aspect of Academia.edu to be aware of in this respect is its business model. Unlike that of some for-profit publishers, this is not based on academic authors, their institutions, or their funders paying a fee for their research to be made available on a free and open basis: what’s known as author-pays, or an article processing charge (APC). Its financial rationale rests instead on the ability of the angel-investor and venture-capital-funded professional entrepreneurs who run Academia.edu to exploit the data flows generated by the academics who use the platform as an intermediary for sharing their research.
In other words, academia.edu is free because the users are the product they’re actually selling, just as with Facebook or twitter. By “providing trending research data to R&D institutions” (tracking which papers are read most and by whom) academia.edu gives its institutional partners ways of employing R&D without employing researchers, and there are also obvious security applications, given the number of academic 'radicals' that use the service to share their analyses of diverse social and intellectual problems.
Hall places this phenomenon of a website (academia.edu currently has 26 million academics signed up as of October of this year, who have uploaded almost 7 million papers and designated themselves under more than 1.5 million research interests) in the context of the burgeoning open access movement in academic publishing, and asks whether open access publications need to mimic academia.edu’s scale and usability, especially their metrics features, in order to avoid being outflanked by facebook-style data-driven sites. Noting the logistical impossibility of this, considering that academia.edu has 1.7 million dollars from angel investors where most open access journals have editors who receive institutional salaries for other work and (often) more or less donate their time to editorial duties, Hall argues that academia.edu is emblematic of the recentralization of infrastructure, in Rachel O’Dwyer’s words, and represents a new wrinkle in academic publishing in which gatekeeping has ceased to focus on actual publication and instead centers its attention on readership.
The general tone of Hall’s essay is pessimistic, and understandably so. Hall believes in open access and feels that institutional repositories and open access journals are a more ethical venue for offering the free access to information that links both academia.edu and journals like Praxis. Hall is right to note that self-publication on academia.edu is a logical choice for early-career researchers engaged in trying to get and keep academic jobs, and equally right to be wary of a large, for-profit company that exists in a grey area between piracy and ‘sharing,’ between actual publication and self-publication, and which is designed to yield data for use by large corporate interests as a means to save money and track trending research (and researchers).
However, I find myself ultimately unconvinced that the rise of academia.edu is a major problem in academic publishing. For one thing, academic publishing, even open-access publishing, is neither cohesive nor common enough to generalize about. There are journals like Praxis that allow authors to retain copyright and simply ask for acknowledgment on the occasion of a reprint, but there are also journals that retain copyright and charge hefty fees for republication, sometimes as much as $250, or otherwise require payment for publication. I’m less impressed with the latter kind of open access publications because they simply shift the cost of publication from the institution to the individual, thus retaining the economic disincentive to publication that applies to independent researchers and scholars from cash-poor institutions in the closed access publication world; at the same time it’s important to acknowledge that Praxis can avoid charging authors or institutions because we use graduate student labor paid for through other work. For another thing, academic publishing still relies on reputation metrics that neither academia.edu nor open access publishing quite achieve; sadly, the top journals in the humanities still tend to be closed access journals run by the large, for-profit companies like Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa.
What I take from Hall’s essay is not that academia.edu is evil and open access good. Instead I think his essay is useful in placing the work we do in an economic context and in pointing out how complicated it is to make ethical decisions at the intersection of private and public interest: should we expect researchers to make the ethical decision, if it is one, and only publish with open access journals (and not post on academia.edu)? Should we work towards making open access publishing more like academia.edu? Do we need to be asking what open access journals do with their metrics, and why those metrics are often so difficult for authors to access? As one of the editors of an open access journal these questions are undoubtedly more interesting to me than to the average person, but this is a topic every academic should consider carefully. How and where we publish is both an economic and an ethical decision, and the intersection between the two imperatives is deeply complicated and often messy.