4 Questions for the Founder of Academia.edu

On business models, takedown notices, and the changing world of academic publication and peer review.

February 10, 2014

I got interested in learning more about Academia.edu after reading an Audrey Watters post about the platform. 

My curiosity was further piqued when Barbara Fister wrote about the takedown notices that Elseiver was sending to Academia.edu.

Academia.edu’s founder and CEO Richard Price, who happens to also have a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford, kindly agreed to answer my questions about his site.

What questions do you want to ask Richard about Academia.edu?  Have you uploaded your materials to the site?  

Question 1. Give us the Academia.edu elevator pitch.

Academia.edu is building a new system for scientists to share their work, an end-to-end solution that is independent of the scientific journal system. 7 million academics have joined Academia.edu, and over 800,000 join each month.

Here is how scientific publishing currently works. A scientist does some experiments and writes up a paper. He sends it to a journal who sends it out to two or three peer reviewers. They peer review it, which means writing a page of comments on it, and recommending either accepting or rejecting it. Usually you get a few journal rejections, and the average time-lag between finishing the paper and its being published is 12 months. Then the paper is behind a paywall and people have to pay $35 to read it.

Our view of scientific publishing is that once you have finished writing a paper, you should post it immediately on the internet. Peer review should be done post-publication, and it should be done by the community, Reddit-style, not by just two or three people. We believe peer review will be more robust that way. And the paper should be openly and freely accessible for anyone to read, along with the data and any accompanying materials like source code.

Question 2. Is Academia.edu only for peer reviewed publications? Should an alt-ac person like me, someone that blogs and writes for non-academic websites, put our publications on Academia.edu?  

Often academics upload papers on Academia.edu that are in draft form, and haven't been published yet. We welcome independent researchers to share their work, and scientists at companies. Anyone who is doing original research, and wants to share it.

Question 3.  What is the business model of Academia.edu?  What is your funding? Your burn rate?  Your plan to monetize the site?

Amgen, a large pharmaceutical company, did a study in 2011 of 53 landmark oncology papers in top journals, and found that 89% of them were not reproducible. It costs Amgen $1-5 million to reproduce a paper. When 89% of those reproductions fail, it wastes time and money in the drug discovery process.

We believe that a community of reviewers, dissecting the paper line by line, is more likely to surface errors than the current peer review system. We plan to build a new peer review system for science that does a better job at predicting reproducibility, and thereby save money for pharmaceutical companies, and other R&D companies that productize scientific research.

We have raised $17.7 million from Khosla Ventures, Spark Capital and True Ventures.

Question 4. Tell us a little about the takedown notices from Elsevier. Why should the larger academic community be concerned. What should we do?

Usually we would get a take-down notice from Elsevier once every couple of weeks. In October, Elsevier started sending take-down notices in batches of a thousand a time. In total they requested that 2,800 papers be taken down. Academics are used to being able to share their papers on on the internet since the early days of the web. Discontent from academics about the Elsevier take-downs of their papers spilled out onto Twitter and the blogosphere. That led to media coverage from mainstream outlets: The Economist, the Washington Post, TechCrunch, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

An accentuating factor in the academic community was that it wasn't just Academia.edu that was targeted: many universities received take-down notices, including Harvard and Calgary, and several others in the US and UK that opted to remain anonymous.

Elsevier and other publishers allow academics to share the final Word doc of their paper, so it's worth the while of academics to hold onto it, and share that version, rather than delete it or lose track of it. In the case of older papers, the Word doc is on a hard drive from 5 computers ago, so it isn't practically accessible any longer. In this case we heard of one academic emailing the Copyright Clearance Center at www.copyright.com, and requesting permission to post his paper on Academia.edu, and permission was granted. That is time-consuming but it is worth trying.

If you have access to the money, you can pay the $3,000 fee that it costs to publish your paper in an open access journal.

How would you respond to Richard?

Do you think that our community should be concerned about the Elsevier takedown notices?


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