Since its inception EMOB has examined access to various commercial databases and related issues concerning the production and distribution of knowledge in our digital age. As an academic blog, EMOB employs a form of social media to engage in scholarly discussion and exchange. Recently as the co-authors of this blog, we both received emails asking us to verify our profiles for the ACI Scholarly Blog Index to ensure accuracy and completeness and, in turn, to expand the reach of our blog. We were told that “[a]s gratitude for completing your Author Profile, you’ll receive free access to premium features in the ACI Scholarly Blog Index for your own research needs.”
The invitation itself as well as the promise of “free access” to premium version and tools prompted some investigation. I had been following discussions of Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and other social communication networks for academics, and the ACI Scholarly Blog Index seemed to promote itself in similar ways—especially in terms of assisting scholars and promoting their work as well as the spread of knowledge.
A commercial entity but free to search,the ACI Scholarly Blog Index describes itself as follows:
ACI Scholarly Blog Index is an editorially created and curated index of scholarly social media. Authors are selected for inclusion based on their academic credentials as well as the scope and quality of their writing. Metadata, taxonomies, and proprietary Author Profile Cards are appended to each publication. An elegantly sophisticated search interface easily surfaces highly relevant articles. Post-search filtering allows researchers to further hone in on appropriate articles. ( ACI Scholarly Blog Index)
Using the line, “You know us by the company that we keep,” ACI identifies its “allies” as LexisNexis, ProQuest, and Thomson Reuters and asserts, ”This is our time. This is the Age of Research, Powered by Social Media” (ACI).
ACI’s choice of “regime” to herald its presence is telling–and perhaps quite apt given the word’s meanings and connotations. “Regime” is typically defined as either a kind of government associated with authoritarian rule or a “system or planned way of doing things, especially one imposed from above” (Oxford Dictionaries). While there is no question that scholars today are working in a very different era from even just a few decades ago, what is still up for question is how much control we have and will have over the production and distribution of knowledge. The new ways in which knowledge is being commodified does often seem as if we are operating in a new regime in which the exchange of ideas and ownership of scholarship have shifted from the control of academics to commercial entities.
That ACI’s abstracts of scholarly blogs are now “indexed in EBSCO Discovery Service, ProQuest Summon, and OCLC WorldCat” indicate the inroads that ACI Scholarly Blog index has made since its establishment within the past year or two (ACI). At this point, libraries seem to be the most acquainted with this new tool, and ACI has been making the circuit of various library and information science conferences for over a year now—and possibly longer. It also crops on university library websites as part of “new database trials,” and LYRASIS, a nonprofit organization whose members are library and information science professionals, is offering a 20% discount to subscribe to ACI Scholarly Blog Index, though a cursory search has not turned up the subscription fees for the premium version and its tools (probably a sliding fee based on several factors).
While the ACI Scholarly Blog Index is not the same as scholarly communication networks such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and Mendeley (which was purchased by Elsevier for £65 million in 2013), some of the concerns about these academic networking sites increasingly being expressed are arguably relevant. As most know by now, Academia.edu, although founded by Richard Price, who earned a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, and bearing an the domain name “.edu”, is nevertheless ultimately an entity funded by venture capitalists. Similarly, ResearchGate, which bears the domain “.net”, is also funded by venture capitalist monies as well as funding from Bill Gates of Microsoft fame.
A few weeks ago, David Matthews, a Times Higher Education (THE) reporter who covers, among other topics, the relationship among businesses and universities wrote a thought-provoking article on the topic, “Do Academic Social Networks Share Academics’ Interests?” (THE April 7, 2016). As his title indicates, the piece questions whether such scholarly networks are truly serving academics and draws attention to potential problems and detrimental effects their commercial foundation poses.
Matthews’s piece is certainly not the first to raise such questions. Many EMOB readers may have seen Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s blog post “Academia, Not Edu” that appeared last October (Planned Obsolence.net October 26, 2015. While Matthews covers three academic social network sites, Fitzpatrick focuses on Academia.edu. That ResearchGate is far more popular among those in the sciences and social sciences is no doubt one reason for her doing so. As the Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association, Fitzpatrick urges scholars of literature, English Studies, and foreign languages to put their energies into building MLA Commons, established about four whose partial purpose resembles Academic.edu’s ostensible misison with multiple other benefits including arguably the key boon of being controlled by scholars themselves.
Similarly, Janneke Adema, a member of the Centre for Disruptive Media, posted the full text of her piece “Don’t Give Your Labour To Academia.edu, Use It To Strengthen The Academic Commons” on her blog on April 7, 2016, after a portion appeared in conjunction with Matthews’s article on the THE website. Adema served as chair of the one-day “Why Are We Not Boycotting Academia.edu?” Conference, organized by the Centre for Disruptive Media held 8 December 2015 at Coventry University and who featured the following participants: Pascal Aventurier (INRA, France) Kathleen Fitzpatrick (MLA/Coventry University, US) Gary Hall (Coventry University, UK) David Parry (Saint Joseph University, US). Not surprisingly, Fitzpatrick was among them.
Finally, this issue has been attracting attention beyond the confines of academic communities. In a December 17, 2015 digital post on the The Atlantic, Laura McKenna wrote an essay on “The Convoluted Profits of Academic Publishing” . While its title offers little indication, the piece focuses heavily on Academic.edu. It offers both the concerns noted here as well as the ways the site has enabled scholars from countries without the resources to purchase the necessary books and databases access to the world’s search. McKenna also discusses Price’s plans to “improve the accuracy of the peer-review process” and other innovations he hopes to bring to academic publishing.
While the above discussion overviews the growing interest in questioning digital tools and sites created for scholars and the academic market, it does not address fully what’s at stake. Control over ideas and publications and who can access this material represent crucial issues being questioned, but these issues are not the full story. Will these sites be erroneously seen as replacing existing, more traditional tools before the function of these tools have admittedly become obsolete? My co-author’s department was approached by her institution’s librarian for English this past week inquiring whether the MLA Bibliography should be cancelled. Clearly, someone thought such a tool was no longer needed. While MLA Commons may eventually incorporate or host this work, that has yet to happen. (I am not oblivious to the fact that question about retaining the MLA Bibliography arose because of financial pressures!). Equally concerning is control and access to the data that the use of these sites and tools are amassing. With the increased emphasis on the impact one’s research has in broader quarters, data on hits, access, and more could become increasingly important in evaluating scholars, their productivity, influence and more. Many academics themeselves are already using the analytic features of Academic.edu and the like for such purposes (disclosure–I have on occasion), and the information can admittedly be valuable. While we already lack at least some transparency about the collection of such data, more questions and concerns would certainly arise if this information was under commercial control.
In short, do we want to harness the digital era and its many opportunities to benefit knowledge production in as many ways possible, or will we be content to work with the strictures accorded by a new regime of scholarly production, communication, and distribution?