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In the mid-2000s, Facebook, Bebo and Myspace were neck and neck in a frenzied race to attract the most users to their fledgling social networks. A decade later, Bebo and Myspace were moribund while Facebook boasted more than 1.5 billion monthly active users and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had become the fourth-richest man in the world.
Zuckerberg’s position is unlikely to be challenged by anyone founding a social network focusing specifically on academics. One of those people – Richard Price, founder and chief executive of Academia.edu – estimates there to be about 6 million academics globally, plus 11 million graduate students: a mere drop in the ocean of humanity that Facebook is fishing in. Nevertheless, there is serious cash riding on Academia.edu’s struggle with the likes of ResearchGate and Mendeley to be the biggest fish in that relatively small sea.
So far, San Francisco-based Academia.edu has reportedly raised $17.7 million (£12.5 million) from investors, including the multibillion-dollar venture capital firm Khosla Ventures. Meanwhile, Berlin-based ResearchGate has raised at least $35 million from venture capitalists and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. And London-based Mendeley also attracted significant investment before being bought by the giant publisher Elsevier for £65 million in 2013. According to Michael Clarke, president of Clarke & Company, a consultancy that specialises in the scientific and medical information business, figures such as these mean that “the bar for success is high” in terms of profitability.
The likelihood of that bar being surmounted depends crucially on user numbers. In terms of registered users, the biggest of the “big three” networks is Academia.edu. Founded in 2008, it has signed up more than 34 million “academics”, while ResearchGate and Mendeley – also launched in 2008 – have “more than 9 million members” and “more than 4.6 million registered users”, respectively. However, a major survey of academic social network usage, to be published on 15 April (see 'Who’s winning the battle for users? Dominance of ResearchGate' box, below) suggests that, in terms of active usage, ResearchGate considerably outstrips Academia.edu.
The organisers of the Innovations in Scholarly Communication survey, Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer, based at Utrecht University library, say that this finding is borne out by the fact that searching for papers by a particular individual or department typically turns up more on ResearchGate than on Academia.edu. They say that the discrepancy between the survey results and the official usage figures may be explained by the fact that there are more lapsed or passive accounts – possibly set up by students – on Academia.edu; their survey asked “What researcher profiles do you use?”, implying active usage.
“The overall membership figures published by ResearchGate and Academia.edu are potentially very important in their marketing. This is not to say they are false, but they may not describe the full picture,” they say.
The phrasing of the question could also explain the very low reported use of Mendeley, which bills itself not so much a “researcher profile” site as a “reference manager”. Mendeley was also excluded from the automatic menu of responses, so respondents had to manually enter it.
Academic social networks allow researchers to post, share, collate and recommend papers. Researchers regard them as “a valuable way of getting publications online and making them publicly available, as it is often a lot quicker and less restrictive than the processes for depositing items in their institutional repository”, says Katy Jordan, who has interviewed academics on the topic for a PhD at the Open University.
Advocates hope that this process of making academics more rapidly and comprehensively aware of what peers are publishing will speed up the pace of discovery and potentially facilitate a revolution in peer review, with a paper’s quality being thrashed out by network users post-publication, rather than by a tiny number of referees pre-publication. And just as the Facebook newsfeed has transformed how people keep up to date with current affairs, some foresee analogues of this on academic social media sites having a similar effect on how academics keep up with developments in their own fields.
Data gathered through social networks could even be used to inform hiring and grant decisions. The Metric Tide, a major report released in the UK last year that looked at the use of metrics in assessing research, suggested that “over time”, social networking sites – including mainstream ones such as Twitter and Facebook – “might be developed to provide indicators of research progression and impact, or act as early pointers towards indicators more closely correlated with quality, such as citations”.
Be this as it may, why should academics care which, if any, network emerges victorious? To take the “if” question first, there is certainly an argument that one network would be better than many, given the effort required to keep them updated. “The thing that I have the biggest trouble with…is just how many of them there are, and how widely incompatible their datasets are,” says Michael Heron, a lecturer at Robert Gordon University. “At the same time, I don’t feel like I can ignore them – I’m an early career researcher, and I need to make my work visible.”
Source: Times Higher Education