“There is a wave going through academia. People are still a little obsessed with getting papers in high-profile journals, but that is changing.”
It is difficult to argue with Richard Price, founder and chief executive of the online academic social network Academia.edu, when he says that academics are growing weary of traditional publishing processes and increasingly want to share their papers openly online. After all, his website, to which academics upload their papers for the world to see, recently passed 10 million registered users – a figure that he believes represents more than half the academics in the world.
When the California-based operation launched in September 2008, the idea of freely sharing the fruits of one’s academic labour was a “niche concept”, he says. Advocated for by a community of activists pushing the concept of “open science”, it encompassed the idea that scientific research should be accessible to anyone who wishes to see or use it, regardless of whether they subscribe to a particular journal.
“Now, this view is starting to enter mainstream academia,” says Price. “When we started, academics would question the need for them to have an online profile – they would say, ‘What’s the point?’ That’s definitely changed now.”
He puts the total number of academics in the world (one of his company’s main target markets) at 17 million, which, coincidentally, is also the total number of people registered on three of the largest academic social networks: his own (10 million users), ResearchGate (4 million) and Mendeley (just over 3 million), a London start-up that was purchased by publishing group Reed Elsevier in April last year.
Several months after that purchase, Elsevier – which publishes a large range of high-profile journals including The Lancet and Cell – began issuing a series of “takedown” notices to Academia.edu, claiming that scholars on the site were infringing copyright law by sharing papers that had originally been published in or submitted to one of its titles.
At the time, Elsevier said that a key reason why it issued takedown notices was “to ensure that the final published version of an article is readily discoverable and citable via the journal itself in order to maximise the usage metrics and credit for our authors, and to protect the quality and integrity of the scientific record”.
Price says that the requests for content removal have since dried up, which he attributes to concern on the part of Elsevier – and other publishers – not to annoy academics, many of whom are their customers and many of whom were upset at being told to remove their papers from a website frequented by their peers.
“I think our members were cross to have their papers taken down. They felt it harmed their prospects, which are slim at the best of times,” he says, adding that last year, Elsevier sent thousands of takedown notices over a period of about three months.
“Then they stopped sending them. I think they are quite sensitive to how academics view them because the vast majority of [their] subscriptions come from the academic world. They have to find a delicate balance between hitting the quarterly [profit] expectations of shareholders…without annoying academics.”
Price, a Briton who studied for a DPhil in philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford, says that his website is on solid financial ground. His company has raised about $17.7 million (£10.5 million) from venture capital to date, and he estimates total operating costs so far at about “$6 million to $7 million”.
“The general view of the open science community is that openness will win out – it’s just a question of when, not if,” he concludes. “I think this view is spreading from a more niche opinion to being more widely held across academia.”
The reason, he says, is the value one gains from engaging with other academics. “When you publish in journals, you have no idea how many people have read your work.
“I remember being at a conference and someone said they’d read my paper and I was so happy. My heart sang, because it meant that at least one person had read my paper.” These days, academics can get almost instant feedback from tens, hundreds and even thousands of fellow scholars online.
“When I was in university, I was vexed by the way publishing worked, but I thought that maybe other academics didn’t care about changing it,” he says. Now, he is almost certain that they do.