Outraged academics last week encouraged their colleagues to delete their Academia.edu accounts after an email suggested the scholarly social network was considering charging users a fee to have their work considered for a recommendation.
Academia.edu has since dismissed the idea as one of many the website is debating, but the brief controversy has raised awareness among many academics about the economics of scholarly publishing. Some have called for colleges to build an open-access alternative to the website.
News of the idea to charge members spread across the internet Wednesday after a handful of users received an email from Adnan Akil, a product developer at Academia.edu. In the email, Akil said he wanted to gauge users’ interest in "paying a small fee to submit any upcoming papers to our board of editors to be considered for recommendation."
Scott F. Johnson, assistant professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, was among the users who received the email. He tweeted a screenshot:
Akil responded to Johnson less than an hour later to expand on the email, but not before other academics noticed the tweet. Some organized under the hashtag #DeleteAcademiaEdu, sharing screenshots as they deleted their accounts.
“We need to care about who our intellectual labor profits,” Caroline Magennis, a lecturer at the University of Salford in Britain, tweeted. “I will not ask for article subventions [with] money that could buy books for students.”
Academia.edu runs an editor program open to users with doctorates or professorships in specific fields and experience with publishing and peer review. Users who are given editor status gain access to a "Recommend" button, which they can use to promote research.
Michael E. Smith, professor of anthropology at Arizona State University, is one such user. He, too, received the email from Akil. In a blog post, he expressed skepticism about adding money to the recommendation system.
"As it stands, you have a bunch of low-quality scholars making recommendations, and I don’t consider the recommendations any kind of rigorous or useful measure of anything," Smith wrote. "The idea of paying a fee for recommendations sounds ludicrous. … I have previously looked at Academia.edu as an alternative to the trend of increasing commercialization of scholarship. But now you want people to pay for some kind of recommendation? The recognition that matters to me is citations, not some social-media type of 'liking' or fee-based recommendations."
Reached by email, Akil said he was not surprised by the response.
"It just goes to show how frustrated people are with the current state of academic publishing," Akil wrote. "Authors want their works to be legitimized by their peers, they want to reach as many readers as they can and they don't want to have to pay an arm and a leg for that. These discussions are hard and people are upset but rightfully so."
Akil said was only bouncing the idea off a couple of Academia.edu users. He compared it to the gold open-access publishing model, where authors (or their institutions) assume the cost of funding scholarly publishing by paying an article processing charge.
“Thought we could make a super-cheap version of it to be more inclusive,” Akil wrote. “It's really amazing what happens when we tear down paywalls and open academic knowledge to everyone!”
Many academics disagreed with that interpretation, however, saying that paying for recommendations would force them to choose between promoting their research and maintaining their integrity.
Paolo Mangiafico, coordinator of scholarly communications technology at Duke University, called that dilemma a “straw man argument.” He summarized the controversy in a blog post titled "Should you #DeleteAcademiaEdu?" arguing that debate exposes a need for a "more competitive marketplace" for scholarly publishing -- a marketplace that includes both commercial and nonprofit platforms.
"If you’re comfortable with the trade-offs and risks, and willing to exchange those for the service provided, then don’t #DeleteAcademiaEdu," Mangiafico wrote. "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."