ResearchGate-gate isn’t quite as catchy as other scandals, but it is something we might be hearing more about in the future.
A recent article published by Sarah Bond at Forbes encouraged
researchers to remove all of their 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 sites dueling with each other to
become the “Facebook for academics.”
The issue Bond raises is this: Why should companies generate profits
from research with little transparency? It’s a good question.
This sounds suspiciously like the entire scholarly publishing
ecosystem to me, and it is not clear why Academia.edu is in Bond’s
crosshairs. For decades, for-profit companies have been making vast sums
of money from researchers’ work, and often with profit margins in excess of 35 percent, greater than those even of Google (25 percent) Apple (29 percent) and even the largest oil companies like Rio Tinto (23 percent).
The ‘Facebook for AcademicsThe traditional scholarly publishing market is worth an estimated $25.2 billion USD each year,
most of which is generated through publicly funded researchers who
provide their work for free to publishers, having that work reviewed for
free by their peers. Then, publishers turn around and sell each piece
of research for around $40 a copy. In exchange, researchers get an extra
line on their CV and a trip to the journal’s headquarters to celebrate
contributing to the 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 researchers realize just how daft the whole thing is.
So why treat ResearchGate and Academia.edu differently? In her Forbes article, Bond states:
“Moving our papers away from Academia.edu is then aboutThis critique of Academia.edu is a bit odd, as the academic
taking possession of our work and deciding what we do with it, rather
than allowing a private company to use our scholarship for profit.”
publishing system is exactly that: private companies making money by
taking researchers’ work and then selling it.
One of Bond’s key arguments is that in December 2016, Academia.edu revealed its premium feature
alternative business model. Going “premium” provides additional
information to users such as who is reading their work, the reader’s
academic role, geographic location, university affiliation, as well as
the source directing them to your work. Bond argues that this promotes
academic class politics and hierarchical stratification.
Additionally, Bond argues that the platform can now collect and
evaluate data provided by users, and possibly sell it. Again, it is not
clear how this differs from publishers that harvest data based on
content researchers freely provide.
But by all means, if this concerns you as a researcher 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.
Two Sides to Every CoinIf anything, these data analytics on both platforms provides a
valuable service to researchers. 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 stated
“The goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions
that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20 percent.” That
sounds pretty useful to me for a lot of different stakeholders,
including researchers themselves.
So here’s the question: Why does it matter 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. 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, Bond’s arguments aren’t particularly convincing; they seem
to ignore 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 vs. Open-AccessIt’s no great secret that a large chunk of the articles posted on both platforms are done so illegally.
Many publishers require authors to transfer 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 both sites, irrespective of how useful it might be to
As a consequence, one of the biggest scholarly publishers, Elsevier, 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. An overarching problem here is that ResearchGate and Academia.edu
are not accountable to anyone but their shareholders.
When questioned about illegal file hosting, they can simply wave
their hands and say it has nothing to do with them; instead, fault lies
with the choices of their members. 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
One can easily be fooled into thinking that this sort of ‘dark
sharing’ with ResearchGate and Academia.edu is a good compromise for
getting open-access publishing right—it’s not. If anything, dark sharing
undermines open-access progress by providing a quick shortcut that
lacks the stability and management of a journal or repository system.
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 percent of journals
indexed by the Directory of Open Access Journals do not charge to
publish, the majority of large publishers often charge in excess of
$3,000 to publish.
Posting to Academia.edu is no more difficult than freely posting to
an institutional repository, yet with allegedly more than 47 million
members at Academia.edu, publishing there is 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
All Is Not LostThere are many institutional repositories out there that have one
job: make researchers’ work open-access in a manner that is compliant
with funding mandates and publisher policies.
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, CERN 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.
Being in a position where you can delete ResearchGate and
Academia.edu accounts is actually a position of academic privilege, and
telling other authors to do so could be inconsiderate of their position
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 fueled by taxpayer money, but governed and
constrained by private interests, and that should be something of much
deeper concern. ResearchGate and Academia.edu are small fish 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.
Who Isn't Profiting Off the Backs of Researchers? - The Crux