Sharing Knowledge Beyond the Ivory Tower
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Sharing Knowledge Beyond the Ivory Tower

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Academia.edu was founded in 2008 with the mission of making knowledge more accessible and fostering discussion amongst scholars. 8 years later the platform hosts over 12 million Open Access papers and has a global community of more than 35 million registered users.

Last week we stopped by their offices in San Francisco to talk to CEO and Founder Richard Price about what’s next for them, and where they see the future of academic research and education going.

“We eventually want to see all research being made freely available,” says Price. That’s an estimated 65 million papers, so he admits there’s still a way to go. The other part of his mission is to foster meaningful discussions around those papers.

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The challenge for academic social networks such as Academia.edu and its main competitors — ResearchGate and Mendeley — has always been to foster these broader conversations outside the pre-existing boundaries of departments and institutions. Academia tends to be insular and scholars are justifiably protective of their research, which can hinder openness and collaboration. Arguably, however, the next generation of researchers, having grown up in a world of social media and pervasive sharing, will find this much more natural.

The next generation of researchers growing up with social media might find sharing much more natural

One of the features they are piloting to encourage these exchanges is called Sessions, where users can upload a draft version of their paper and invite others to discuss it within a closed group for a period of 20 days. There are about 6000 sessions happening at any one time within the site, some with as many as 1000 members (although the average group size is around 50).

“The other tool we’ve developed allows a subset of authoritative users to review papers and recommend them as valid contributions to their field of research. “Currently this is limited to a very small group of users (less than .1%), who must have a PhD and have been published, plus have experience of the peer-review process, but we are looking at expanding that pool.”

The measure of importance of an academic paper is usually tied to the number of times it gets cited, the so-called “Impact Factor”, yet price believes that platforms such as Academia.edu will allow for more granular assessment of the real-world impact that research has. It’s a complex matter, because even citations can fail to give you an accurate picture of the credibility of a particular paper, as many people don’t actually read the papers they cite.

Many people don’t actually read the papers they cite, so citations are not always an accurate measure of impact

“We need to get a lot better at asking — and answering — the question of what do academics actually think about this paper,” says Price. “I’m a huge believer in Altmetrics, and think the new measures of impact such as Author Rank and Paper Rank will become a lot more important in years to come.”

Part of that means moving beyond the PDF as the standard unit of scholarly output. There are a lot of different types of files that get produced, such as data-sets, code, blog posts, etc. Yet there is no real incentive for sharing these As we move beyond the impact factor we will get a lot more granularity and that will help paint a bigger and more accurate picture of what knowledge is relevant and credible, and to better connect people with the knowledge they need.

There are a lot of different types of academic output, but there’s no real incentive to share those

The company so far raised around $17 Million and is working on ways to monetize some of its features while keeping the core platform and its content free. Yet the size of its potential user-base is actually hard to estimate, since its appeal extends beyond the traditional scholarly community.

“Only about half of our users are academics per se. The rest are teachers, diplomats, accountants, lawyers… We have investment bankers and African farmers coming to the site for the most diverse reasons, it’s really for anybody with an interest in academic research, and we don’t know how big that market is, because papers haven’t been Open Access on this scale before.”

We don’t know how big the market is, because academic papers haven’t been openly accessible before

Some of the specific use cases he mentions include a teacher using papers to support an argument for adopting a different methodology in the classroom, or a farmer looking at increasing their yield by learning about new variety of maize. And he shows me a quote that illustrates what impact this access to knowledge can have in people’s lives:

“May Allah bless you as long as the East Wind blows and shakes the branches in the distant meadows,” reads the lyric message from a grateful user in Singapore. “What you have created in academia.edu is arguably the best tool for scholars and academics. I pray to God that he provides you with all the wealth and knowledge necessary for you to keep doing what you are doing. A thousand thanks and gratitude.”

In a few years, Price hopes that all new papers published will be open and freely available so that anyone with an Internet connection can read them.

“When I was at school I only used the occasional basic AltaVista search, but in future I see a world where a kid in China interested in lithium ion batteries can find the latest research published on that subject, read it on her mobile translated automatically into Mandarin, and be able to see which of those papers are ranked as most relevant by people respected in that field, so that she instantly knows what’s most relevant to her. That’s what I want Academia.edu to make possible.”

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