Academia.edu used to be a refreshing and very useful platform for academics and students all over the world. That has ended with academia.edu introducing the ‘paid search’.
When Academia.edu was launched, it was a welcome change in the academic publishing world. That world was and is dominated by the so-called ‘important journal’. The business model of these journals rested on the support of the national governments pushing academic researchers to publish in those journals if they want an academic career. That combination was a very profitable business model for those journals: academics are paid by the governments (and thus by the tax-payers), they don’t get paid by the journals for their publication. The reviewers and the editors of these journals, again academics, are not paid for their job either. Moreover, when you submit your research to such a journal, you transfer your copyright to the publisher – for free. After which, the publisher asks a very high price for that ‘quality product’. This is a business model based on free labor and making research unavailable for students or researchers who don’t have a subscription.
The academic production of knowledge should not be used to make profit, but to improve society
This publishing practice was the direct cause of the success of Academia.edu. That social network site for academics allowed academics to build a network, to upload their papers, books and projects and search for new content. All for free. In the last 5 years, Academia has been a useful educational tool. Lecturers suggest their students to make a profile so that they have access to an enormous amount of papers and other content. It showed the democratic and educational potential of a social network site.
The problem with Academia.edu is that it is a commercial enterprise. It is not created to serve the common good – diffusing knowledge. It is also not created to serve democratic ideals, but to make money. And like almost all such ‘user-generated content sites’ they start as dot.communism but almost overnight turn into dot.capitalism, to paraphrase Van Dijk. The first signs of that shift in the case of Academia.edu were visible when they introduced ‘the premium account’ saying: ‘Academia Premium is for people who want powerful extra features on Academia.’
Clearly, this premium account did not generate enough profits. Today, to my surprise, while searching for some literature for my students, I saw that Academia had also introduced ‘Advanced search’. In the case of my search for ‘Potterheads’ (fans of Harry Potter), Academia informed me that zero papers had the word ‘potterheads’ in their titles, but 26 papers use the word in the paper itself. But in order for me to be able to see that search result, I have to pay 7,42 euro per month. With this fee, Academia.edu takes over the business model of the old journals. And as such, this means the end of that medium.
The lessons to be drawn from this, are the same ones that Siva Vaidhyanathan listed when talking about the Google Books projects. The academic production of knowledge should not be used to make profit, but to improve society. Academic knowledge is, or at least should be a common. The fact that academic knowledge is now part of the ‘for profit’ business can only be understood as the failing of the state and the dominance of neoliberalism. The market destroys academia and the only way to change that is to set up our own platforms. Platforms that only have one goal: to give that knowledge back to society. Fortunately, in a way, this policy shift in Academia.edu now opens a space for new platforms offering genuinely open access for a community of scholars around the world, craving to read and discuss each others' findings, but increasingly constrained by insane paywalls.