I’m a relatively infrequent user of academia.edu (aren’t we all?), but I noticed recently the ‘sessions’ feature. And by “noticed recently”, I mean that I logged on one day to find that academia.edu was telling me I had an “expired session”, and I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, so I went away to find out!
It turns out that a session is a piece of writing that is opened up for comment and discussion. To open a session, one uploads a draft paper. One can ask for feedback from specific people in your network, but the draft is automatically open to comment by certain groups of followers (e.g. supervisors or mutual followers). I now recall that when I uploaded the paper in question, I did upload it as a ‘draft’ because it was a record of what I had presented at a conference, which was still a work in progress. I didn’t realise that labelling it ‘draft’ would throw it open in the way it did.
With this particular paper, I don’t mind too much that confusion during the upload process meant it was accidentally opened up, but:
- I don’t particularly like the way that academia.edu is trying to redefine collaborative processes as inherently a public one; and
- I think it will only lead to the site becoming a partial blog for people workshopping general ideas.
Rather than, say, uploading your paper to Dropbox, or iCloud, or Google Docs, or just plain ol’ emailing it around to people whose insights would be valuable, this proposed model of academic collaboration is open by default. There are some pluses, perhaps. Your paper might receive attention from those in your extended network, or beyond, who can offer valuable insights that you might otherwise have lacked.
However, the process fails to take into account the fact that publication is a key metric for academics hoping to progress in their careers. There are relatively few disciplines or cases where the model that academia.edu is offering is a desirable one for academics. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it does mean that the incentives to share so publicly early drafts of exciting and publishable work is pretty low.
In addition, particularly for those who are on the very lowest rungs of the academic ladder, for whom publishing might be a hurdle they are seeking to jump, academia.edu muddies the water. By taking steps to link one’s rate of “producing quality content” to the metrics of how much pieces have been viewed and commented upon, it constructs a competitive blogging environment.
In terms of how the feature will be used in practice, perhaps it remains to be seen, but what I have seen of the feature so far doesn’t make it a great method for collaborative working. One session that I joined, out of curiosity both about the form and the subject matter, was on The Study of English Literature, based on a short paper by John Xiros Cooper of the University of British Columbia about the future of the discipline. I did not actively seek the paper out; nor did Cooper seek me out to solicit my feedback. His session simply appeared in a list of open sessions related to my research interests, floating on the right-hand side of my home page. I requested access and was granted it. (Many thanks, John!)
To me, the paper was the sort of thing one might expect to find on a high-calibre academic blog as an extended post, and the comments were similar to those one might expect on such a post. The feature doesn’t allow for in-line editing and commenting, such as might be seen on scribophile.com or even in OneDrive, that old corporate lag. In general, the way that papers are presented is a bit undesirable; they rely on scribd, and there is always a delay in viewing/downloading a paper. If the purpose of the ‘draft paper’ function is actual collaboration, then it lacks the features necessary for nuanced comment and discussion.
Personally, if I wanted to throw open ideas for comment by anyone with an interest, I would use a blog post with moderated comments and tweet the link…
Disclaimer: I should also say that this is a very separate issue to open access to academic literature, which is one of academia.edu’s main aims, and a laudable one. As part of its general mission to open up more and more content to be available for free on its site, academia.edu encourages academics, particularly doctoral students and early-career researchers, to publish PDFs of their work. In 2013, when Elsevier issued a take-down notice for numerous papers, the site was clear and unequivocal in criticising the move, as were many academics (Michael Clarke’s analysis of the incident is particularly worth a read).