I just deleted my accounts on Academia.edu and ResearchGate. I think we are currently in a crucial time in choosing how academia shapes up in the future and they are not helping.
Academic publishing is weird. Most of the labour is provided by academics: we write the papers, we do the reviews and we are the editors keeping the journals alive. Yet, the academic publishing giants reap the rewards, selling journal subscriptions to the universities of the very people who create the content on those journals. Sure, there are costs to running those journals, from server space to layout services, but those are marginal compared to the massive academic effort of doing the actual research, review and editing.
There are signs that the situation is getting better, with universities negotiating better deals and more open access options being available. The future of academic publishing is hopefully more open and accessible also to those outside the wealthy elite universities that can afford the subscription costs.
The situation in academic networking is somewhat similar, except the course is not so clear. The old academic networks are both formal (associations) and informal (meeting people in conferences), but there are signs that new attempts at making the networks more like the ones for families and friends (Facebook, Twitter etc.) are afoot.
Networks like Academia.edu, ResearchGate and Mendeley are fighting for the attention of academics, promising the all-important visibility academics need in order to succeed. It’s not enough just to do good research: you have to also make sure everybody finds it. Academia.edu and ResearchGate undoubtedly help – the constant notifications that other people are reading my research are addicting, a sign that against all odds, somebody somewhere might find my research useful.
But the networks are not in the business for science. Just like Facebook, they might be useful for you, but their purpose is not to help you, it’s to make money. Some of the updates are making it more clear: ResearchGate now inserts its own page into every pdf uploaded to their servers, making sure that everyone looking at research will first see an ad for their network. Academia.edu has added premium features, making sure that those with the money will most benefit from their network. They are walled gardens and the walls will grow ever taller if it benefits their bottom line.
The future is not yet set in stone and if we want science to be more, not less, open in the days to come, we need to think hard whether we need more walled gardens around knowledge. There are alternatives: Zotero is competing with Mendeley. ORCID is trying to make researchers more easily findable. But it’s not self-evident that the open alternatives are going win. That is going to be decided by the academic community.