ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and bigger problems with scholarly publishing..

So Discover Mag just published an article of mine, a sort of response to a piece in Forbes calling for academics to delete their ResearchGate and Academia.edu accounts. I thought the original piece was awesome and informative, but didn’t go far enough for me, and in fact many of the problems it pointed out where just parts of much bigger issues in the scholarly publishing ecosystem.

Here’s the full, unedited version, which has a bit more information and snark included. Comments on a postcard.


ResearchGateGate. It doesn’t really have a memorable ring to it, but is something we might be hearing more about in the future. A recent article published by Prof. Sarah Bond at Forbes encouraged researchers to remove all of their research articles from the for-profit company, Academia.edu. This has led to a wave of account deletions at the site, and also at ResearchGate, two of the most popular social networks that duel with each other as the ‘Facebook for academics’ of our time.

The issue raised in the article is essentially this: Why should for-profit companies be allowed to generate profits from your research with little transparency? It’s a good question.

Well, actually, this sounds suspiciously like our entire scholarly publishing ecosystem to me, and it is not clear why Academia.edu is being treated in this way. For decades, for-profit companies have been making vast sums of money from the work of researchers, and often with profit margins in excess of 35%, greater than those even of Google (25%) Apple (29%) and even the largest oil/mining companies like Rio Tinto (23%).

The traditional scholarly publishing market is worth an estimated $25.2 billion USD each year, most of which is generated  through publicly-funded researchers giving their work to free for publishers, having that work reviewed for free by their peers, and then having publishers sell each piece of research for around $40 a copy. Researchers in exchange get to have an extra line on their CV and a trip to the pub to celebrate contributing to publisher’s vast profits, I mean, humanity’s corpus of knowledge. This is a vast, global ecosystem that researchers fuel every day, and one that is undergoing quite a state of upheaval at the moment as more and more researchers realise just how daft the whole thing is.

So why are people treating ResearchGate and Academia.edu differently?

ResearchGate are renowned as the ultimate academic spam email machine, often sending unsolicited invitations to be co-author on articles you had nothing to do with, or vague comments about how a grad student from Estonia accidentally downloaded one of your datasets. More recently, emails have even got more ‘clickbaity’, not actually revealing anything useful unless you click through to the site, and much of the time still nothing informative awaits.

ResearchGate even has its own score, the originally named ‘ResearchGate score’, which is perceived by some as a measure of scientific reputation. A study (also available on ResearchGate if you want a tinge of irony) in 2015 found that the score is essentially non-transparent and non-reproducible, fulfilling two of the criteria for academic nonsense, and even incorporates everyone’s favourite metric, the Journal Impact Factor (another proprietary metric), into its calculation. Creating one flawed metric using another flawed one seems like a grand way to go about researcher assessment, doesn’t it. It’s not entirely clear what the score is there for, who uses it, or how it’s used, but there are better ways of doing it than leaving research assessment to a for-profit company, and their proprietary and generally weird metrics.

Academia.edu made a bit of a faux pas last year too, when it was let slip that they were sending out emails to some of their members about the potential for a new service in which papers hosted on their site could be ‘recommended’ by website editors for a small fee. I was actually contacted by someone from the product marketing team about this, being one of them ‘open advocate’ types, apparently. We discussed the idea a bit, and I basically said ‘Don’t do it.’ Scholarly publishing is in an era of massive upheaval at the moment, and I didn’t see this sort of ‘service’ of basically paying for promotion of your work (but isn’t that what we do with scholarly journals anyway..?) being met too well when more important shake-ups were happening. Like that whole ‘Open Access’ thing.

While the site didn’t seem to pursue this idea further, it did lead to the usual ‘Twitter outrage’ over such things, and another wave of account deletions, with the hashtag #DeleteAcademiaEdu.

This isn’t the first time that issues have been raised with either platform, then, so why the new wave of attraction?

The Forbes article states “Moving our papers away from Academia.edu is then about taking possession of our work and deciding what we do with it, rather than allowing a private company to use our scholarship for profit.” Again, it seems to me that this assault specifically on Academia.edu is a bit odd, as the vast majority of our publishing system is exactly that: private companies making money by taking researcher copyright and work and then selling it.

One of the key arguments put forward is that in December 2016, Academia.edu revealed their alternative business model in the form of a premium feature. This provides additional information to users such as who is reading your work, what their academic role, geographic location and university are, as well as the source directing them to your work are. The Forbes article argues that this promotes academic class politics and hierarchical stratification even more, and is quite right in doing so. It does not and should not matter about the ‘rank’ of who is using your work, but how they are using it and why. That’s the sort of service worth paying for, and actually something tools like Altmetric already give you for free.

Additionally, the article argues that the platform now has a policy which means that the site can collect and evaluate data provided by users, and possibly then sell onwards. Again, it is not clear how this is any different from any publisher or journal which harvests data based on the content researchers freely provide for it. Except that ResearchGate and Academia.edu are free, make no demands on author rights, and certainly do not sell your research articles.

But by all means, if this concerns you then delete your accounts. But you should probably also then stop giving your research away for free to private publishing companies too. And delete your Facebook and Twitter accounts too, while you’re at it.

If anything, these data analytics on both platforms provides a valuable service to researchers, pending what I said about the ResearchGate score above. Both provide metrics on article re-use that are useful for researchers in seeing how their work is being digested by the community. ResearchGate even provides citation scores now too for researchers, similar to Google Scholar and other for-profit platforms like ScienceOpen. And all of them do this for free to users, removing some of the domination over citation metrics that Web of Science and Scopus, both premium and privately owned services, used to have.

Richard Price, the CEO of Academia.edu, has even statedThe goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.” That sounds pretty useful to me for a lot of different stakeholders, including researchers themselves.

And I guess one question is, so what if they are making money from publishing data? If someone sees an opportunity in making large-scale assessments about scholarly publishing and research in general, isn’t that a good thing? One of the main reasons why we publish is so that other people can re-use our work, including on a large-scale. Publishers don’t pay researchers for giving them their work, so it remains unclear to me again why this should be viewed as different for ResearchGate and Academia.edu. Except that these platforms seem to legitimately give something of value in return beyond a brand name.

As such, I find the arguments in the Forbes article not particularly convincing against either platform. Any argument against both, and their relationship to academia and research in general, seems to ignore the context and the bigger picture of our enormously broken scholarly publishing system. Things have got so bad, that whole universities and countries are now taking a stand against the profiteering nature of some publishers. Making money while improving the overall system of scholarly communication is feasible, and none of the arguments put forward convince me that either platform is in actual conflict about this.

Dark sharing versus Open Access

ResearchGate now call themselves an ‘online information society service’. Whatever that means. I can’t see researchers exactly stating that as the primary reason why they use it. Many researchers see it more as a digital CV or business card (you can request an article discussing this via ResearchGate, the original is paywalled). Most also use it for sharing their research articles, data, or projects.

It’s no great secret that a large chunk of the articles both platforms host are done so illegally. The final published ‘version of record’ is usually prohibited by publishers from being publicly shared, even by the original authors, as many require that authors transfer over all of their rights in order to be published. While this practice is in itself questionable, this does not legally justify the large-scale copyright infringement that is so apparent on either site, irrespective of how useful it might be to authors. This is even enhanced by Google Scholar, whose search algorithms preferentially point you to free versions available on either platform.

A consequence of this is that a couple of years ago, one of the biggest scholarly publishers, Elsevier, and one perhaps not held in the highest regard by many academics, sent 2,800 DMCA takedown requests of articles it published that were illegally hosted on Academia.edu. While this was a generally bad PR move for both Elsevier and Academia.edu, Elsevier were technically fully within their rights to do so. One over-arching problem here is that ResearchGate and Academia.edu are not accountable to anyone but their shareholders. When questioned about this illegal file hosting, they can simply wave their hands and say it has nothing to do with them and it’s down to the individual choices of their members. Responsible, isn’t it. In the meantime, they can both keep using this illegal content to enhance their data analytics, which is perhaps more of an issue than what they then choose to do with such data.

One major issue here is that you can easily be fooled into thinking that this sort of ‘dark sharing’ with ResearchGate and Academia.edu is a good compromise for doing Open Access publishing right. Well, it’s not. If anything, it can detract from Open Access developments by undermining the impetus for it by providing a quick shortcut that superficially resembles the same thing, but entirely lacks the stability and management of a journal or repository system. This also means that Academia.edu is governed by different politics and ethics to that of an institutional repository, although it is not immediately clear how this non-equivalence is necessarily a bad thing at the present.

But at the end of the day, even Open Access is being used as a way for publishers to make additional money from your work. While around 70% of journals indexed by the Directory of Open Access journals do not charge to publish, the majority of large publishers who control the journals which researchers often have to publish in to receive formal recognition, often charge in excess of $3000 to not make money off your work through subscriptions. That doesn’t make much sense either, does it?

Posting to Academia.edu is no more difficult than freely posting to an institutional repository, yet with more than 47 million members at Academia.edu (apparently), you have to suspect that ease actually has little to do with it. In fact, it is probably the ‘Facebook-ness’ of Academia.edu that makes it so appealing – academics precariously use it as a professional advertising tool, and in an academic environment where egotism and self-marketing is rewarded more than sharing, it is easy to perhaps see why one is more popular than the other. After all, the best reward for self-archiving your work is only that warm feeling knowing that you’ve done the right thing, and you can’t put that on your CV.

All is not lost

There are a swathe of institutional repositories out there that have one job: to make your work Open Access in a manner that is compliant with research funding mandates and publisher policies. The great thing about this is that it’s easy, and everyone benefits from it without a penny exchanging hands. Except for the librarians and support staff that administer the repository, anyway. The institutional repository system isn’t without its flaws, with some still requiring institutional logins to access, for example, but they certainly offer a more sustainable option for researchers at the present.

There are a host of other subject-specific or cross-disciplinary repositories too. These include Zenodo, a non-profit and funded by OpenAIRE, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, and CERN, to help super-collide your research, or the arXiv, which has been hosting articles since 1991. Ethan Gruber has even recently launched a tool that transfers all of your content between Academia.edu and Zenodo, for those interested.

For me, I deleted both of my accounts through redundancy as I was just not seeing the value in them. I have already made all of my research openly available through my institutional repository at Imperial College, as required, or available at Open Access journals.

Similarly, Guillaume Cabanac of Université de Toulouse, who originally alerted me to the Forbes article, said “All of my papers are available through my lab’s repository and other local and national repositories. I also try to keep a CV up to date with all DOIs and links to self-archived PDFs on my webpage. I don’t see the point of pushing them on these privately owned platforms too. Now I’m educated about Open Access, I decided to leave.  The fate of my profile was in my hands.”

For those not in such a position to be able to do this, there might still be a great appeal in using both platforms though for sharing of articles. Academia.edu and ResearchGate can be an option to help level the field a bit: for sharing non-traditional research outputs, for authors who can’t afford to publish Open Access, for those who don’t have access to an institutional repository or have an institutional affiliation, for those who don’t remain within academia but still want to preserve their research articles in a community space.

Being in a position where you can delete your accounts, therefore, is actually a position of academic privilege, and telling other authors to do so could be inconsiderate of their position and status. And for authors in situations like those above, I get the feeling that they won’t be too concerned about complaints from publishers about how they’re allowed to use their own work, or that the platforms are for-profit.

So I think a lot of the angst towards Academia.edu and ResearchGate might be better placed elsewhere. We have an entire scholarly publishing system that is largely fuelled by taxpayer money, but governed and constrained by private interests, and that should be something of much deeper concern. ResearchGate and Academia.edu are really just small-fry in this vast sea of profit-seeking.

The real question is what do we do when private interests actually start to interfere with those of the public, as many scholarly publishers actively do by prohibiting access to research – indeed, this is how they make their money. I don’t see Academia.edu and ResearchGate doing that, or at least not to an extent that is greater than any other for-profit company involved in scholarly publishing.

If you want to actually do something useful, choose Open Access, and share your research far and wide. Just don’t lock it up.

Author note: Thanks to Lisa Matthias and Penny Andrews for discussions on this topic.

UPDATE, 26/06/2018. The direct quote from the report about the scholarly publishing market is: “The annual revenues generated from English-language STM journal publishing are estimated at about $10 billion in 2013, (up from $8 billion in 2008, representing a CAGR of about 4.5%), within a broader STM information publishing market worth some $25.2 billion.”

71 thoughts on “ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and bigger problems with scholarly publishing..

  1. It appears like the conflict between “free sharing of knowledge” and “recognition of copyrights” rages on and on. Certainly, people’s works and contributions have to acknowledged as per the authorship tradition.

    Nonetheless, we cannot fail to appreciate the changes that the internet platform has brought into the field. It would be a losing battle. Relevant stakeholders should find a way of curbing unauthorized sharing while at the same time taking advantage of internet as an effective material sharing tool.

    1. Everyone thinks authors should get credit. The question here is whether publishers should get exorbitant profits and obstruct the dissemination of research with paywalls.

  2. I noticed Google has shunned academia.edu no longer making papers or profiles available in search results but never shunned the data aggregators which offer completely erroneous personal data.

  3. I stopped taking ResearchGate seriously when I noticed that one member had claimed all of the papers of another person as their own (same surname and initial but different person). They say they take this sort of thing very seriously but nothing got done with I reported it. Would have taken just a couple of minutes to verify.

  4. As far as I know, I am one of two people in the world named “Dr Kaveh Bazargan”. Funnily enough I met the other one and we got on well! My research was in 3D imaging, his in 3D user interfaces. I am forever getting emails from the two sites discussed, asking me to confirm papers written by him are my papers. Boy, am I tempted. 😉

  5. Many of the arguments here are head-scratchers. A number are analogous to objections that might be given to anti-slavery arguments advanced when slavery was expanding to new states in the 1840s. To wit: “Slavery is nothing new, so what’s your beef?” Another is: “Owners make money off of employees too, so objecting to making money off of slaves isn’t a valid complaint.” The latter obviously overlooks the point that making money off of others’ work is not quite what is at issue. Doing so without paying workers, or paying enough (or profit sharing), is. The former seems to be saying “Because neither kind of worker exploitation is new, no sound argument about an injustice has been given.”

    Another set of head scratchers are analogous to the counter argument “If you want to boycott products from these [expansion] states, you should stop buying all cotton clothes, since most is from cotton plantations in the South.” Such problems of consistency are certainly difficult to think through, but pure consistency (thus martyrdom – “if you ever boycott an injustice you have to boycott every injustice”) and pure let-it-go-ism are not the only options. We can also engage in selective action, putting pressure on key players at points that are effective, while holding our noses at the bulk of injustices that we have to put up with in order to survive without martyring ourselves.

    In sum, the unstated conclusion here seems to be of a let-it-go cynical variety, supported by arguments that don’t seem to work, because they seem to ignore too many of the options on the board (many of which were in the article to which this blog post’s author is objecting).

  6. Really appreciate this article protohedgehog. It has more balance than others on the subject. I am a engineer and am immersed in my own lit research for books that I am attempting to complete, and in the process have been gladly nudged to become more ‘academic’; learning to perform lit search et al.. This has been a substantial shift for me after a couple of decades working for startups in the bay area and elsewhere.
    In doing so however, the challenges of getting access to scholarly information has been obstructive and more arduous than I would have imagined, but not insurmountable.
    Your comments about the benefit of having some way to level the playing field in publishing to preserve work and make it available to a thoughtful community, so that it may be re-used, was particularly encouraging. Indeed, knowledge and theory developed through practice does not strike me as being illegitimate―but in a way it has been made so, once outside of the business and corporate world. Begging the question: what is it that academia really wants? Is it truly the expansion of knowledge or to propagate a guild based knowledge economy?
    My consulting partner of several years was an academic. It was he who assured me that I had something of value to say and share. As a result, I have set aside several years of my highest paying career years to learn enough to make the attempt. It has certainly been the hardest and most humbling time of my entire career and life to date to do so.
    So the lingering question is, where is the right place for someone like me to build their scholarly community and share their work, if and when one becomes dedicated to such effort and makes the in-earnest attempt, without being or becoming a card carrying academic?

    This, BTW, is not a rhetorical question.

    I found your article, just as I was about to join academia.edu, as a personal due diligence step. Because of this, your balanced post was very helpful, albeit not truly satisfying to believe that such a move is helping the Open Access movement. Still, I do thank you again, wholeheartedly, for your post.
    I too am concerned about the direction this form of FB-like, opaque, and for-profit option will likely things, but where else to go? And, of course, this offers very little in regards to also being able to engage high-scrutiny peer-review, which I must pursue through informal channels and appeals to University friends and 3rd party connections; a poor substitute at best.


    P.S. as I read forward, to your May 2017 post, re: Unpaywall and Open Access Button, those look very interesting. As screwy and medieval as the academic publishing world still seems to be, with not much different profit-led motive than academia.edu, there does indeed seem to be an ebbing enlightenment movement gaining traction. One might even hope Aaron Schwartz is being afforded some tiny bit of peace from it all.

  7. A few remarks:

    1. ResearchGate is a spam machine if you don’t opt out all emails in the settings. I get one or two mails a week, concerning the number of reads end eventually new citations. That’s all. Secondly, never click the button inviting your co-authors to join. In this way they won’t receive unwanted spam from you.

    2. I already put all my papers on my webpage, Arxiv and ResearchGate. Paying for open access is absurd when you are allowed to use free means to do this. I find ResearchGate interesting because it shows who reads my papers, and shows who might be interested in my research. This is another metric, different from the citation metric.

    Any public funded research should be accessible to everyone.

  8. “Being in a position where you can delete your accounts, therefore, is actually a position of academic privilege, and telling other authors to do so could be inconsiderate of their position and status. ”

    Refreshing honesty.

  9. Academi.edu has been spamming my email address with false advertising. I could detect the BS right away because I have exactly ZERO papers published and yet the company tells me “the name “Albano Coelho” is mentioned in 4 PDFs uploaded to Academia”. I’m just an IT Consultant and a Changan Auto brand ambassador (for free, because I love their designs and philosophy).

  10. Very interesting post. One thing I would challenge is the assertion that “ The traditional scholarly publishing market is worth an estimated $25.2bn a year”.

    What the report you cite says is: “The annual revenues generated from English-language STM journal publishing are estimated at about $10 billion in 2013, (up from $8 billion in 2008, representing a CAGR of about 4.5%), within a broader STM information publishing market worth some $25.2 billion.”

    The $10bn figure makes more sense. Elsevier publishes about 17 per cent of the world’s articles and its primary research revenues (journals) are about $2bn (£1.6bn).

    The global research budget is about $500bn a year, so the cost of publishing is about 2% of research spend.

    For transparency’s sake, I work for Elsevier’s parent company.

    1. Lovely, thanks Paul! This is quite an old post, so you’ll forgive me for not changing the text within the post, but I will add a note at the bottom to reflect this.

      1. What I find most disturbing is the self-defining posture of academics themselves, as if they have been endowed with the license to judge what is, and is not, considered worthy to be read. Then, there’s the purpose of so-called “scholarly” journals and publications. It seems as though they exist simply as a way to pad one’s CV, throwing out one’s own views simply to be read by others who think the same way. Those not affiliated with any educational institution are automatically judged a lesser star in the academic firmament, although they may actually have something to say that would be worthwhile for others. I publish on Academia.edu to avoid the arrogant, self-satisfied gatekeepers who will turn down a paper because of a violation of the Chicago Manual of Style, even if the substance has merit.

  11. Author copy right should not be given to others When academia edu is unable to pay author.If this concept is forever.No professor go and teach in University and colleges .
    What about the definition of Intellectuals property right of author. authors are registered with academia edu,it should take responsibility of their work.Independent researcher academia edu zulkharnine sultana

  12. Re-ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and bigger problems with scholarly publishing. February 2, 2017
    Can you afford 0.000001 percent of the exposure that Researchgate and Academia.edu offered you and other researchers of various countries in the world, especially the third world countries in the exposure of their works to the global community? You learned from them according to your article and experience, yes, you started from somewhere. This is a challenge for the ‘public’ – government to provide a platform for researchers to display the result of their findings, especially in the developing countries, where even the private sector like Researchgate and Academia.edu do not exist, even though some individuals and politicians have much money more than the government of their states. Your are only writing, researching and thinking one-sided. With your wealth of experience I think you suppose to reason globally, because, your work and articles are read globally and I accessed this article/information I am reacting to via Goggling Researchgate and Academia.edu not your webpage. Your message is well crafted but it lacks global appeal because you have not captured the global community of the North and South like: Researchgate and Academia.edu and you have not given or suggested any solution to curbing the menace of these profit-seeking organizations, especially to the upcoming researchers, who are looking to where to make their work seen, known and used or duplicated, objectively to acertain if what works for them can work elsewhere. Yet still, even the public platforms (if any exist) in developing countries cannot offer the services and opportunities offered by the duo you are discussing in your article. While I am not supporting their aggressive profiteering tendencies, and ‘Cyberlording’ of research work of unsuspecting scientists and subject-matter specialists, the scientific community in particular can form themselves together at the global, regional, national, state and even local levels to promote creativity, research, innovations, excellence and enterprise by using the UGC, UN, and other international, regional., national and local agencies ( or even creating new ones to promote creativity, research, innovation and scholarship in a variety of ways) and by your vast experience, you can start the move since you have discovered the flaws that are inherent in ‘open-source’ and ‘Dark sharing’ motives of Researchgate and Academis.edu. You have a duty more than this. Let us not look at the revenue generated by the private publishing houses or the private online publishing platforms only. Simple economic theory tells us that when there is competition, the prices of goods and services will come down, because when demand for these goods and services rises, prices will definitely drop. Let us suggest and advocate a means to curb the situation, where some people in their small wisdom and technologies are exploiting the creators/inventors of knowledge, though exposing them, including you to the global community. I think, if some of us were the Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, the computers, the popular GSM and i-pads of this time would not reach us; ‘we would have retired or died with our gifts” because we are scientists, philosophers or creators! I need a re-think, you need a re-think and we need a re-think to make this generation move forward and prosper, globally. Let us try to think globally.
    Thank you for the information

  13. Great article here , Good article.
    Great article, just what I needed.
    Hello to all, the contents existing at this site are in fact awesome for people experience, well, keep up the good work fellows.

  14. Suggestion : Why not using theoriq.com, researchers can share the the main idea of their work to the masses without actually publishing the whole research. Just a thought…

  15. Like i said my heart has always been clean n true for you i cant even think how life is gona be with out you n how im gona live it with out you by my side

  16. I love the idea of a poll! I know that all these ideas work well because you taught them to me and I have found a way to survive in the organic reach game!

  17. Found your comment (and others related) as I was searching to see if anyone has reported that Academia.edu has access to google searches and then uses the information to push its “services.” They have done exactly that to me and that crosses the line. I have no idea how they did it, but I am sure it is buried in their so-called privacy policy.

    The facts:
    I was looking for a paper in a field very much unrelated to mine. Google offered it through a link to academia.edu and I was too lazy to VPN into my university to download it. So I created an account without logging in through google or facebook. I got the paper and I was happy.

    Then the emails starting coming. 80 emails in three months and counting. OK, it is spam and I was about to opt out of them.

    But the last one disturbed me greatly. Why? Because it referred to a google search I made on a book I used as an undergraduate many many years ago. How did academia.edu know the contents of a google search I made? Is google sharing my searches and including identification that is highly unique as well as personal with academia.edu? The connection here is that my account is my google email address, but I never used my google password nor did I explicitly gave them permission to monitor me.

    I tried wading through their privacy policy and have no idea if it gives them authority to monitor my google searches. If it does, this is, in my opinion, an outrageous abuse of the trust we unwittingly have on those who provide services for free. I would expect Facebook or the NSA to pull something like this but a for-profit company? Maybe it is legal, but it sure as hell is outrageously unethical.

    BTW, I just logged into academia.edu. It is recommending me other papers because of that google search.

    Screw it. I am cancelling my account with them.

    I suggest you do the same unless you are comfortable with the idea that someone can use your searches to directly track what you do and act based on that information. We need someone like Edward Snowden inside these companies. Only then will we know what they are doing. (“yeah, there oughta be a law.”)

  18. Marci pour ce partage et ce travail.beautiful articile.the article is really very helpful.RAElly graet.GOOOD BAYYYYYY.

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