'Academic' site's virtual scholars

Concern as new '.edu' website lists non-existent individuals and departments. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 20, 2008

A new website that hopes eventually to list every researcher in the world, and provide an information network for academics, is causing concern among university internet managers.

The privately run site, created by a University of Oxford PhD graduate, aims to to enable academics to "keep track of the latest news in their field - the latest people, papers and talks". But anyone can pass themselves off as an academic on the site, Academia.edu, and scholars could be misled into putting their details on it because it occupies the generic top-level domain ".edu", which is normally reserved for universities.

Times Higher Education's spoof University of Poppleton, for example, has already been added to the site, and website managers at both Oxford and Cambridge say the site lists academics and departments that do not exist.

Oxford's entry lists the department of "Uncooperative Stidies" (sic).

The site, which has no official university affiliation, is run by Richard Price. In an email circular advertising the site, Dr Price said that more than 9,000 academics - including Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky - had joined in the past two months.

But Sebastian Rahtz, information manager for computing services at the University of Oxford, said it could be misleading for academics because.edu domains were normally "very tightly tied" to academic institutions.

"It is a bit worrying to see this kind of rogue thing," he said. "If you see '.edu' you should have some faith that it is a genuine institution."

Helen Sargan, webmaster for the University of Cambridge, said it was of concern if people were putting misplaced faith in the site. "If anyone can add themselves it is a nonsense," she said.

Dr Price defended the site, saying that the feedback he had received had shown that visitors "quickly understand" the site's goals and purpose.

"Users haven't expressed confusion about the site being a '.edu'," he said.

Dr Price explained that like any site where users create profiles, people occasionally make mistakes and there are abuses. He said that, like most sites of this type, Academia.edu allows users to report profiles using incorrect data, which will then be looked at and deleted if necessary.

"When users report a case of incorrect data, we examine it and take action," he said, pointing out that Facebook included clearly fake profiles of "George Bush" and "Hillary Clinton".

Dr Price said the site's famous users were all genuine. "We specifically invited these academics to join, and so we know that they are who they say they are," he added.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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