Those people predicting a mass flight from Facebook as a result of the recent revelations over the misuse of their data for political purposes are probably underestimating the addictive power of social media.
One person who will definitely have to pursue other interests, though, is Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge academic who harvested the data and who has now had his Facebook account closed down. But if he is like most academics, he will probably just spend more time on higher education’s very own social media instead.
These sites, as far as I know, do not sell our data to influence elections. But, oh, what tangled webs they weave in other ways! Take the recent exciting email I received from Academia.edu noting that four “highly cited” papers had mentioned my name. Clicking the link, I then learn that another 111 papers mentioned me. Do I want to know which papers? Of course I do. So I click the link. All I have to do is pay a little less than €8 (£7) a month to sign up to Premium and the secret will be revealed.
Very reasonable, you might say. The problem is that I would also like to know about the countless direct citations of my work (Kudos), my h-index (Mendeley) and the author I have cited who has just published another article (ResearchGate). How can I keep up with it all? And will doing so bankrupt me?
At the same time, things are never quite as they seem. I strongly suspect that if I do click on ResearchGate’s offer, I will be asked to suggest to the author that he upload his new article to the platform – and then he’ll get annoyed at having to explain that the piece is not open access and the publisher might not like it. ResearchGate is also in the habit of suggesting to me that somebody referenced something I wrote, only for it to turn out that this somebody has merely cited a book I once reviewed. They didn’t even read my review; perhaps they didn't even know it existed.
Here comes another exciting message from Academia.edu. Alas, my “upgrade to Premium is incomplete”. Well, yes, it would be since I decided not to go through with it – wasn’t that obvious from the fact that I didn’t click and pay? Another email tells me what I will get for my upgrade: knowledge of all my “mentions”, citations and readers among a network of more than 60 million researchers worldwide – plus access to millions of their PDFs. How can I resist?
Remember those halcyon days of the early internet when we could use a “listserv” to discuss issues with like-minded colleagues around the world? We expressed a point of view; some respondents agreed, some disagreed and we came to a conclusion. Then we started a new thread on another topic – sometimes revisiting old ones when new colleagues joined and raised issues we had already discussed.
The conversations were genteel, and many esteemed scholars offered their views. Nobody managed our relationships for us. No measures of esteem were required. There were guidelines for online etiquette but they rarely needed applying. And there was no obligation to participate: you could just “lurk” to learn from the discussion. Most importantly, it cost nothing more than your time. No one was trying to sell you anything or use your data for nefarious ends.
Now, though, I feel that I could be missing out on something if I don’t let Mendeley know about all my publications, or if I don’t let ResearchGate have PDFs of everything I have written, or if I don’t find out which four people have just visited my Academia.edu profile.
Wait a minute! A message has just arrived offering to tell me the 114 search terms that have been used to find my papers. Uh-oh, it’s Academia.edu again – they never give up, do they? Should I click the link to “view the search terms”? Oh, go on. But wouldn’t you know it? I can only find out if I upgrade to Premium.
I am tempted to upgrade just to stop them sending me these endless teasing messages. But, then again, I could apparently get the same service or better from Paperpile for less than $3 (£2) a month. Better still, Kudos costs me nothing. But perhaps I should make sure nothing slips through the net by signing up for all three?
What I really need is someone like Cambridge Analytica to harvest all of my information from all of these sites and just hand it to me in one handy dossier once a month. The relief from all this anxiety would be worth the risk of finding myself voting for Donald Trump.
Ron Iphofen is an independent research consultant with an h-index of 9 and a ResearchGate score of 20.91. He would like to get it past 30 but fears he might need to upgrade.