Academic social networking sites – boon or bane of institutions?

by Nicole Eva
University of Lethbridge
Alberta, Canada

At our University, we are struggling with getting researchers to understand the value of the institutional repository. They think that putting their output in Academia.edu or ResearchGate is equivalent to putting it into the IR. It’s not, and the reasons are many: as public, for-profit entities these sites are likely to start monetizing their services (as was seen this spring with Academia.edu); there is no guarantee that these for-profit entities will remain in perpetuity (and in fact, it’s quite likely they will not); and they aren’t truly ‘open’, as obtaining copies of articles posted requires a login (even if that login is free) and thus does not comply with some funders’ Open Access mandates. Not to mention the trouble they could get into if they are posting versions of the article online for which they’ve signed away their copyrights.

I had the idea that we could view the researchers associated with our institution that have posted in Academia.edu and ResearchGate and contact them to see if they would allow us to harvest their articles for deposit in our IR as well. In hindsight, I should not have been surprised that a number of the scholars listed under the University of Lethbridge were not actually members of our faculty. Many were listed as either Graduate or Undergraduate students, the latter of which I wasn’t aware were part of the target market for these products, and neither of which generally posted any actual articles – presumably they set up their profiles simply to follow other researchers. But others were listed as department members who clearly had no affiliation with the University. There was much ambiguity and lack of authority control in the selection of department listings, including at least one that was completely fabricated.

It made me really question the value of these tools – shouldn’t there be some sort of screening mechanism? There are also a few researchers with a two profiles within one site, with no way to merge the two. It is possible, whether purposely or accidentally, to set up more than one profile using different email addresses. A vetting process in ensuring the registrant has an email address associated with the institution they claim to be a part of would solve this problem in addition to the imposter problem. Allowing non-institutional email addresses may be by design, as Alumni are also allowed to create profiles and may no longer have access to their institutional email. But if these sites claim to be academic in nature, should there not be some sort of authority control or vetting process? What is the damage to the institution if multiple profiles associated with them are not legitimate? What if some of the articles posted by these phony researchers are terrible, tarnishing the university’s reputation? Should universities be taking a more active role in shaping these tools, or at least monitoring them? I have always told people that I see no harm in creating profiles as it just spreads the research wider (but recommend rather than posting papers on these that they redirect via URL to the institutional repository) but now I wonder if in fact these sites could be doing our institution more harm than good.

It was fortuitous that I began this process, because as these questions began to rise to mind I realized I could have a research project here. A quick literature search suggests that little to nothing has been done looking at these sites and asking these questions. There is a lot on how researchers feel about them, and how their metrics compare to more traditional metrics – but nothing looking at the institutional impact. I’ve been struggling for a few months with researcher’s block, feeling uninspired and unmotivated to start a new project; in fact, my lack of excitement over my planned research for a study leave led me to withdraw my application. Stumbling upon this was quite fortuitous so I’m hoping I manage to turn it into something useful. Perhaps not enough to sustain a study leave, but at least enough to get me out of my rut and get publishing again.

What do you counsel faculty members about creating academic social networking profiles? Do you think these tools have an obligation to institutions to try to provide a gatekeeping mechanism against fake profiles? Does it matter? I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on this topic.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

2 thoughts on “Academic social networking sites – boon or bane of institutions?

  1. Hi Nicole,
    Thanks for this post! You raised interesting ideas that I haven’t thought of. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently too – but from a different angle…
    So much that is posted on these sites is posted illegally (i.e. publisher’s version posted against copyright), when a patron is looking for an article that we don’t have access to should we refer them to a ResearchGate copy that is likely posted illegally? My gut response is no we shouldn’t (analogous to an ethical obligation to not refer people to SciHub). BUT – it is the authors themselves that are sharing in this case (on ResearchGate), so maybe the situation is different from SciHub (a piracy operation).
    Who are our professional obligations ultimately to? Patrons who need access to information and don’t want to wait for ILL (and the faculty authors sharing their research wanting it to be read)? Or are we the copyright police, enforcing publisher’s copyright?
    -DeDe

    • Thanks DeDe! That’s a really good point as well. I suppose a work-around would be to encourage the patron to share the article directly, allowed as ‘scholarly sharing’ by the copyright police. But honestly… if we found it online I’d likely look the other way because as you say, it’s sort of scholarly sharing already in that the author themselves posted it (albeit illegally). This risk of copyright contravention is exactly why I counsel faculty to post the version they are allowed to post in our IR, and then link to the IR from these other sites. Our IR is mediated deposit, so the person in the library posting the article is checking copyright restrictions and ensuring the right version is being deposited. So much less risk of running afoul.
      Thanks!

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