This is my second post about Academic PR, the practice of PR by academic professionals seeking to network, disseminate research, and discover funding opportunities. Today’s post is about Academia.edu, a social networking website for academics. I love the site because it leverages powerful techniques from the social networking web in a way that is easy and accessible for academics. But I hate the site because it overlooks some the most fundamental social networking techniques as well. Before I get into the details, first let me begin with the caveat that I’ve been in touch with the developers of Academia.edu about my concerns, and I was told that they are working them out. So by the time you’re reading this, things might be all better, in which case I’ll edit this post or write a new one. But for now, it’s a love-hate relationship.
Why I love Academia.edu
The reasons I love this website far outnumber the reasons I hate it. Most importantly, Academia.edu has an obvious understanding of their audience: academics. When you want to communicate with academics, you really need to cut the flack. Academics want simplicity and efficiency, not flash and complexity. So I love academia.edu because they’ve succeeded in appealing to their audience. And they’ve done so in three primary ways: the functionality, the database, and the interface.
Academia.edu is a free and easy way for academics to publish their bios, publications, contact information, and Twitter-like status updates for the entire world to see. Further to that, users can use specialized search terms like research interests and departmental affiliations to find like-minded individuals and forge potential connections. I briefly mentioned that users can post publications, but I want to emphasize what an easy way this is for academics to highlight the work they feel best represents what they’re currently interested in. Furthermore, the Academia.edu site allows users to easily write blog posts that become part of their online profile.
The information about thousands of post-secondary institutions has been populated into the Academia.edu database. So when a new academic user first registers, the site intuitively auto-populates the information about their academic institution and department. A simple example of this is the fact a PhD candidate from, say, the University of Waterloo’s English department (my alma mater), can choose the appropriate departmental title, the “Department of English Language and Literature,” instead of simply a generic title like the “Department of English.” Academia.edu achieves this by allowing users to populate the database as they register. So the first registrant of a given department paves the way for subsequent registrants to easily select their department from a list of options.
I think this is a neat way to visualize the hierarchy of a given academic department, although I have to admit it’s rather unremarkable if a department only has four Academia.edu users. The site uses a similar visual approach for laying out users according to their research interests.
The is also comprised of four primary feeds: News, Papers, People, and Status Updates. Which leads me to the next part of my post . . .
What I hate about Academia.edu
In its current iteration, I despise Academia.edu because users can’t filter the site’s feeds. The feeds are scrolling updates about users posting papers, status updates, profile changes, etc. You’ll be most familiar with this user interface from Facebook (and I can only assume you’re familiar with Facebook if you’ve read this far.) Academia.edu claims . . . CLAIMS that the site uses your reported research interests to populate your feed with information you’ll find relevant. Well this is just not true.
Like many others, I’m an interdisciplinary researcher with interests reaching from Linguistics to Medical Education. Perhaps this diversity is the reason my feed is constantly clogged with information about academics who I am not interested in and papers that I don’t want to read. Although the site allows you to “Follow” the work of some academics, this doesn’t occlude the work of academics you’ve never heard of from appearing in your newsfeed.
Everytime I log into Academia.edu I find myself having to sort through a wealth of unnecessary information. While I can perhaps see the logic insofar as the site’s organizers hoped to foster previously unknown research connections, it’s completely unacceptable that I my Papers feed contains a graduate student research paper about Islamic poetry when the closest Research Interest that may link me to this topic is “Illness in Literature.” This site desperately needs filters for their feeds and right now they don’t.
So maybe I was a little off when I said the site’s designers fully understood their audience. After all, while academics are particularly good at cutting the chaff from the wheat, we need to be in control of WHO’S work we want to follow, and WHICH papers we want to read. Anyone who understands academics knows that while we appreciate recommendations, we don’t want them forced on us.