A recent debate on twitter was precipitated by a friend's decision to leave academia.edu, a social network designed for academics. Several people sympathised, saying that they had not really got very much out of it. This post is just a few thoughts on why I find it useful and where it needs improving. I've given no consideration to whether issues might be greater or smaller technical challenges.
Academia.edu - The positives
- Free advertising
The search engine optimisation on academia.edu is excellent. Even if your organisation provides you with a profile webspace it is unlikely to rank higher in searches than your academia.edu page. Further, if like many academics today, you aren't completely defined by the work you do with one institution you may find it easier to promote the totality of your activities outside the official webspace.
The you-have-been-googled notifications can induce paranoia in some (and have been used to insult me) but are particularly useful as they also index the papers you have uploaded. By uploading my BSc and MA theses I have had many more hits than my name would have got me and though some of those undoubtedly clicked off in frustration I have certainly had a few follows from it.
In general people are fairly professional but (unlike LinkedIn) people don't appear to be constantly on some sort of self-marketing binge! Answers to questions and personal messages are consistently polite and well meaning and most seem to be helpful.
- Access to articles
This is a very patchy area, but for several of my regular research topics (eg, Mesolithic studies) there are a fair number of papers that are difficult to access elsewhere. Some senior professors seem to have dumped large quantities of their own back catalogue on the site including material that they have digitised personally.
Because academia.edu is not reciprocal (based on follows of people or interests) it enables you to see research from those at all levels of the discipline (there are no issues of student/professor and so on). This contrasts particularly strongly with Mendeley where (I find) that making a contact request is a barrier to interaction. Similarly the closed groups on Mendeley rather than the open research interests on academia.edu create barriers to interaction.
Effectively this means that I only connect with people who are colleagues in real life: I do not go out of my way to follow the work of others that profess similar research interests and I can't see myself using it as a first point of contact. Academia.edu however I have used in preference to email for cold contact with several people, some of these have led to fruitful exchanges, all have been politely replied to.
Simple, clean, easy to use. Let's hope new features never lead it to look as vomit-inducing as LinkedIn!
Academia.edu - The negatives
By this I mean connectivity, not only between researchers (mentioned above) but also between a range of entities both within academia.edu and on external sites. Firstly, internal connectivity could be greatly improved by the ability to link multiple author's profiles to a single copy of a paper. It seems contradictory that a system designed to foster and emphasise collaboration doesn't do this. Further, the fact that the share buttons on papers only lead to Twitter and Facebook seems utterly self defeating! If I want to share a paper that's hosted on academia.edu with a contact who is also on academia.edu I can't! I have to tweet them, facebook them or ctrl-C a link into a good old email. With a similar share button it should be possible to suggest contacts to one another, welcome them onto academia.edu and so on.
Secondly, connectivity to external websites. Mendeley have (recently I think) created a widget that you can dump on external websites pointing to your profile - this would be a great start. Better still would be a 'Share on academia.edu' button that can appear on any website with academic content in the same way as Like, TweetThis and 1 buttons for Facebook, Twitter and Google. Maybe there could be a 'what I'm reading now' stream?
Many of the research interests are so broad that people from quite different backgrounds ask and answer questions with huge assumptions about the background. In my early experience of the service I found that the questions were dominated by examples that demonstrated either a complete lack of background knowledge or were so focused on the researcher's own work that they were essentially boasts phrased as questions. This was reinforced when I asked the question Is it inevitable that all questions on here will sound either pretentious, naive or both? which was immediately misunderstood! However, it actually led to an interesting discussion on the challenges of understanding a new medium as academics.
- New content types
It'd be great to be able to embed prezis, slideshares or videos of talks - ideally through a widget.
As a technophile I find twitter back channels incredibly useful at conferences but I can understand that syndicating such content to academia.edu could easily put off those less keen on such informal means of sharing. However, if academia.edu could introduce conference pages it could help foster digital connections that might be missed at conferences otherwise.
In fact, there is a golden opportunity to create a 'killer-app' for managing academic conferences. There is currently no obvious system that is functional, easy-to-use, integrated and in which academics feel safe. Eventbrite meets the Open Conference System?
The papers on academia.edu (or the other pages for that matter) seem to be lacking good machine-readable meta-data. It certainly doesn't seem to be dublin core or readable by Zotero.