“I have 100 reads therefore I am”*: ‘Academic’ social media

This post explores academics’ relationships with ‘academic social media’; specifically with regards to the marketization of HE in the UK, audit culture, gamification, and open access. Academic social media can be defined as social media sites aimed at academic staff working in higher education, particularly in research. These sites encourage their users to share work (mainly in the form of research papers) and connect with other academics and researchers. There are currently two sites dominating the academic social media sector; ResearchGate and Academia.edu. These sites have been criticised for various reasons, but many academics still prefer to use them to disseminate research instead of using their own institution’s repositories. This paper will examine some of these criticisms and look at reasons why researchers choose to use academic social media platforms despite their serious ethical flaws and potentially detrimental effect on open access to research.

 

The market-driven HE system and academic self-promotion

Over recent years, the HE system in the UK has become more and more market-driven. The language of capitalism and commerce has crept steadily into our everyday speech, thoughts and actions – we have become used to auditing and quantifying our time and our work. Even the phrase ‘research outputs’ has a commercial ring to it.  Added to this is the increasing “casualization of the academic workforce” (Pooley and Duffy), characterised by short-term contracts and a lack of job security for many academics across the sector.

Working in this environment of market-driven values, academic staff have themselves been encouraged to promote themselves as ‘brands’, and think of themselves as branded commodities (Pooley and Duffy). Relating to this, is the idea of the “curated self”, where individuals carefully craft and nurture their online presence, and the “quantified self”, where a person identifies her/himself in terms of measurable inputs and outputs.

In terms of academic social media, platforms such as Academic.edu and ResearchGate intensify the idea of self-promotion as a good, precisely because of/through the fact that they are (among other things) social media tools: Like other forms of social media, they employ interactive feedback, dashboard analytics, and user-generated content (in this case, scholarship) (Pooley and Duffy). As with Facebook, platforms such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate “start to exemplify normative, idealized behaviour” (Adema) – the “everyone” factor (the idea that “everyone” is on Facebook). Self-promotion in this way is [considered] normal and if you don’t do it your career, and by extension you, will suffer. Added to this, not creating one’s own online self incurs the risk of losing control of this self (Barbour & Marshall (2012) in Hammarfelt et al.).

Some argue that use of academic social media is a means by which academics can take (back) some control over their scholarship and even their standing in academic circles. These platforms offer services the give the user a “sense of autonomy and empowerment” (Hammarfelt et al.). For example, self-tracking could be seen as a means of taking control, making academics’ contributions visible on their own terms or to contest alternative auditing.

 

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Image by Emille Ogez (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Academics and their work as commodities

Focusing on Academia.edu, AKA “Facebook for academics” this company utilises users’ content and labour under the guise of “sharing” (Pooley and Duffy).  Not only this, but, as with mainstream social networks, the people who use the site may soon become its products. Its founder, Richard Price, has said that he plans to charge “for-profit companies for access to data and insights on which research and researchers are gaining traction” (Cutler, 2013 and Shema, 2012 in Pooley and Duffy). The financial model of companies such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate relies on their ability to exploit the data generated by their users. At the moment, the companies are concerned with exploiting the content that their add to their sites, but Adema believes that we can “see a move here from exploiting our content to exploiting the relationships around this content”. Furthermore, it is likely that in the future platforms such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate will sell our own data back to us so that we can use it in our own work.

Mirowski (2013) has argued that Facebook “teaches its users to become ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’” and trains us in “market-like transactions to advance many of our professional and personal aims” (Hammarfelt et al.). This commodification of academic selves links back to neoliberal ideas about marketization, as described above.

 

Quantification/audit culture/metrics

Hammarfelt et al. propose the idea of the “quantified academic self” (2016). This is a narrowing of the concept of the quantified self, which was first proposed by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly and refers to “an effort to increase self-knowledge through tracking devices” (Lupton 2013). The quantified academic self focuses on achievement, reputation and influence in terms of professional accomplishment (Hammarfelt et al.). This feeds into, and is in turn encouraged by the all-pervading quantification inherent on sites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate. According to Pooley and Duffy, this quantification is the main way in which Academia.edu differs from mainstream social media sites.

This idea fits into the now ubiquitous audit culture of UK HE, where all outputs, even research must be quantified as “measurable deliverables” (Pooley and Duffy), which in turn fits into neoliberal ideas about free markets and free trade. Hence we now have the concepts of researchers as entrepreneurs, publications as products (outputs) and academia as a global marketplace (Hammarfelt et al.). Looking at the wider context, it can be seen that, from the mid-20th century onwards, there has been a tendency for people in secularized societies to replace religious motivations with goal setting and meaning making through “sports, art, science and other challenging endeavours”: Sloterdijk’s ‘doctrine of upward propagation’ (2014, in Hammarfelt et al.).

The ResearchGate Score purports to “[take] all of your research and [turn] it into a source of reputation”. Hammarfelt et al. see this as a “magical manoeuvre”: it is magical in the sense that the points are seen as valuable even though there worth is actually unknown, and also in the sense that it is very hard to see or understand how the score is calculated. Most people like quantification (whether they admit it or not) because it provides easy answers, or at least easy data they can use to compare themselves with other people. Added to this, numbers, once gained, are self-reinforcing. For example, the more contacts you have the more valuable you become, because more people think you are popular and want to link to you (van Dijck 2013 in Pooley and Duffy). It is really just a different version of playground popularity and again, this follows the general trend of self-quantification in society (Hammarfelt et al.). As Adema says, “we feel an urgent need to quantify ourselves”.

 

Gamification

Related to the idea of quantification is the concept of gamification, “the practice of applying game features, including aesthetics, in non-game contexts”. Most social media sites, including those for academics, include game features such as point scoring, reaching new levels of attainment, and claiming of new territories (Hammarfelt et al.). Gamification can be an effective way to influence people’s behaviour due to the positive feedback aspect, but Hammarfelt et al. argue that it comes at a price: total surveillance. Gamification, like quantification, is also just another way of “bureaucratising everyday life” using IT infrastructures. We are always ‘on’, always connected, measuring, auditing ourselves, analysing scores, imputing data. We are feeding the machine and integrating ourselves more and more into the system – we are the bureaucracy.

On the other hand, some, such as Dragona (2014) have argued that gaming features can help create meaning in everyday life: people have needs and like goals so games can be used to help people develop in a positive way. They could even be seen as a “rational and uncomplicated alternative to a highly complex world” (Hammarfelt et al.), relating back to the idea of academics using social media platforms to attempt to take back some control over their environments.

 

Academic social media and open access

It is notable that Academa.edu and ResearchGate in particular makes an effort to advertise themselves as a place where academics can upload their papers. Academia.edu’s front page states:

Join 54,226,674 Academics

Academia is the easiest way to share papers with millions of people across the world for free. A study recently published in PLOS ONE found that papers uploaded to Academia receive a 69% boost in citations over 5 years.

Open access is not specifically mentioned by name, but the idea is there – sharing papers for free. There is even reference to an academic study, which does mention the phrase ‘open access’. However, legally and ethically uploading papers to Academia.edu or ResearchGate is not the same as putting them on a genuinely open access repository. (As an aside, it should be pointed out that the study mentioned on Academia.edu’s front page was carried out by, among other people, Richard Price, CEO of Academia.edu.)

From a legal and ethical point of view, many of the articles posted on Academia.edu and ResearchGate are not compliant with copyright law or journal publishers’ open access policies and permissions. These sites place the onus for copyright compliance on their users (see the AE copyright statement). As Pooley and Duffy point out “[these sites] are peer-to-peer PDF-sharing repositories, akin to Napster circa 1994 […] Academia.edu is like Sci-Hub, but with venture backing (and a carefully-written, liability-dodging “Copyright Policy””.  Open access (or a version of it) is part of a business model made to “serve the need for further commercialization of knowledge and research” (Adema).

Apart from anything else, putting one’s research papers on to an academic social media site does not meet the conditions for the HEFCE mandate regarding open access or funder policy.  Academic social media sites may seem to be advocates of open access, but it is ‘open access’ on their terms. They are not repositories, and offer no guarantee of indefinite, continued access to the research papers they hold. As Fitzpatrick says, at some point “[Academia.edu] will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.” The ‘free’ access could cease without warning, either by the site itself, or because of litigation from publishers (Pooley and Duffy).

Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value. We can thus see that posting on Academia.edu is not ethically and politically equivalent to making research available using an institutional open access repository at all.

Gary Hall

Just as pertinent are the potential negative effects sites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate could have on true open access. Hall warns that the open access movement is “in danger of being outflanked, if not rendered irrelevant” by Academia.edu. From personal experience, it is disheartening to note that academics are more likely to upload their papers to Academic.edu or ResearchGate than they are to deposit them in the institutional repository. Perhaps this proves Hall’s hypothesis that, for many researchers, “the priority may not be so much making their work openly available free of charge […] as building their careers and reputations in an individualistic, self-promoting, self-quantifying, self-marketing fashion.”

 

Conclusion

Such self-promotion is understandable in today’s current climate of the marketization of higher education (see above), but surely we as academics should resist this trend as much as possible? If academics are really interested in academic freedom, disseminating research, and access to knowledge for all then they/we are not going to help matters by playing into the hands of people motivated by money rather than the public good. (Even if Price et al. really believe they are doing good, their venture capitalist funders are only looking for return on their investment: that is what they exist for). The scholarly communications ecosystem is already dominated by big corporations that control our publishing industry. The open access movement was founded as an alternative to this, but, in using commercial social media sites to share research, we risk trading “one set of revenue-hungry companies for another.” (Pooley and Duffy)

So what are the alternatives? In terms of sharing research and making it genuine open access, permitted versions of papers should be uploaded to academics’ institutional repositories. The burden for a change in attitudes towards repositories when compared with social media sites does not rest solely on academic staff: software developers working on repositories need to at least try to recreate the look and feel, especially the intuitive ease of use, of social media sites if they are going to win over researchers and ensure that genuine open access does not get side-lined by (often illegal) paper sharing on academic social media. Also, advocates of open access working in HE (myself included) need to ensure that researchers are aware of all its benefits – not just in terms of funder compliance, but wider societal advantages – and try to make using repository software as easy as possible. There are also not-for-profit disciplinary repositories that can be used – many, if not all, of these can be accessed via OpenDOAR (Directory of Open Access Repositories).

In terms of the ‘social’ aspect of academic social media, scholarly societies may be one way to meet this need. For example, the MLA’s office for scholarly communication has set up Humanities Commons, as an alternative academic social network.

Whether or not researchers continue to use academic social networks, it is important that they are aware of the financial rationales and ethical standpoints of the companies that created them, so at least they can make informed choices about where they are putting their research and investing their energies and time. It is particularly important that academics are aware of the potential implications for genuine open access, and for the privacy of their own data. As Adema says “to give up privacy for access is not a form of ‘open access’ I can endorse.”

 

*Hammarfelt et al.

 

Bibliography

Adema, J. (2017) Academia.edu and self-branding, Open Reflections. Available at: https://openreflections.wordpress.com/2017/05/09/academia-edu-and-self-branding/. Accessed 16th August 2017.

Fitzpatrick, K. (2015) Academia, not edu, Planned Obsolescence. Available at: http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/academia-not-edu/. Accessed 16th August 2017.

Geltner, G. (2015) Upon leaving Academia.edu, Mittelalter. Available at: http://mittelalter.hypotheses.org/7123. Accessed 16th August 2017.

Hall, G. (2015) Does Academia.edu mean that Open Access is becoming irrelevant? Media Gifts. Available at: http://www.garyhall.info/journal/2015/10/18/does-academiaedu-mean-open-access-is-becoming-irrelevant.html. Accessed 16th August 2017.

Hammarfelt, B, de Rijcke, S.D & Rushforth, A.D. (2016). Quantified academic selves: the gamification of research through social networking services, Information Research, 21(2), paper SM1. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/21-2/SM1.html (Archived by WebCite& reg; at http://www.webcitation.org/6hn1Kv5yY). Accessed 16th August 2017.

Ingram, M. (2015) Scientists win when they are social with their work, study shows, Fortune.com. Available at: http://fortune.com/2015/05/08/scientists-social-study/. Accessed 16th August 2017.

Kraker, P., Jordan, K., Lex, E. (2015) The ResearchGate Score: a good example of a bad metric, Impact of Social Sciences. Available at: https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2015/12/researchgate-score-good-example-of-a-bad-metric/. Accessed 16th August 2017.

Pooley, B. E. and Duffy, J. D. (2017) “Facebook for Academics”: The Convergence of Self-Branding and Social Media Logic on Academia.edu, Social Media + Society, Vol. 3, issue 1. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2056305117696523. Accessed 16th August 2017.

 

 

 

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Technology, digital capabilities and the language of change

This talk by David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Sussex, was the first in our series of Learning and Research Support (LRS) Seminars.

The premise of David’s talk was that the language we use to describe, implement and travel through change does not reflect the (difficult) reality of how it feels (and is) to go through change. Therefore, language becomes a barrier to successful change.

Embrace the unruly

(Donna Lanclos)

Alongside this is a long-held belief that (new) systems will make everything better, when actually what we really need is to have difficult, “messy”, conversations and deal with what is already going on.

People are taught to want transformational change, but actually, in the Higher Education (HE) sector, change tends to be developmental rather than transformational [n.b. I don’t think transformational is a word, I think the word should be transformative. WordPress doesn’t think that’s a word either, though].  I.e. a shiny new library management system is not going to make everything better in one fell swoop. Well, we think we know this, but the idea that a new LMS is the answer to everything is still a prevalent myth within the library world  – perpetuated by the producers of such systems, of course.

The next big thing

(Dylan Williams)

Or rather the seductive temptation of the next big thing: we look for this amazing new thing that’s going to fix all our problems but actually we should just be getting on and doing things to improve the situation.

The nature of terms associated with change can breed uncertainty and resistance, says David. Let’s take a look at some of those terms (as we did in the seminar):

word-cloud-2

Hands up who gets turned off by those words? *puts up hand*

Resistance is [not] futile

(David Walker)

It’s really not. I’ve been there (and I am there, currently going through a departmental restructure, and I can tell you that resistance to change is always going to be there, whether those in charge believe or know it or not. I sometimes think that the people who are responsible for implementing change (I know everyone is responsible for implementing change to some degree, but you know what I mean) don’t really believe that people are going to be resistant to it. There is still this idea that people will just to what they’re told and when this doesn’t happen the people in charge don’t know what to do. This is probably partly because, as David said, change is a complex process – it is not just about the actual change (which is enough) but also the ‘ripple effect’ of emotions and consequences for people’s lives and the service in the long term; things which will feed in to the resistance. As David also said, there is quite often a  failure to explain the rationale for change [in a way which is helpful to those most affected by it].

Resistance is a primary cause of failure of change. In my experience, it’s not a failure in terms of the change literally not happening, but rather to make the change a positive experience (if that is possible) or to run smoothly. If nothing else, resistance makes the change process longer, which is usually the last thing people need.

Higher education is dominated by

de-humanising language

This was a bit of a shocker (surely HE should be the epitome of liberal, humanistic thought?), but when I heard David say it, I already knew it was true, I just hadn’t thought about it properly before. I’ve thought a lot about how HE is now a market, using the language of the market and business and commerce (e.g. students are now customers), but I hadn’t made that leap to actually seeing it as being de-humanising. But, arguably, by seeing HE as a market is almost automatically envisages those whose lives are involved with HE less than human – currency, transactions – and the philosophy of HE seems to be no longer about education and thought but about the market: Universities don’t seek after truth or knowledge but rather the top ranking on the leader board, to be market-leading, world-beating, transformative, innovative, leading, leading, leading. In what? It’s not really about people, except as numbers or survey results, FTEs, cohorts. I feel tired just thinking about it.

At this point, one of my colleagues made a good point: people are so used to hearing these words [see word cloud above] that we don’t even hear them anymore – we are word blind (deaf?).

Another one of my colleagues also said, (I paraphrase) this is all bit toxic isn’t it?

“Transformative” makes people feel bad

(Brookfield)

Was what we were doing so bad that we have to do something entirely new and never be able to go back to what we did before?

What can we do?

  • Talk about improvement rather than change
  • Promote dialogue – legitimise everyone’s voices
  • Recognise that change impacts on culture and is an emotional process
  • Acknowledge concerns and give feedback
  • Change/improvement should be a sustained process – it takes time and is not a one off event
  • Use partnerships as an approach to engagement, including external partnerships across the HE sector – work with others, share expertise and experience instead of duplicating work and working against one another
  • Share a common language – learn to understand different professional languages (e.g. technical terms). This does not mean everyone has to do “management speak”
  • Gain an HE teaching qualification to improve knowledge of teaching practices and educational theories
  • Gain some other qualifications (e.g. PRINCE2 (project management), IT qualifications) to support meaningful discussion with colleagues in other departments

Myth busting makes me feel good

The idea of ‘digital natives’ is a myth. Just because most young people can operate a mobile phone or send an email or watch dodgy YouTube videos this does not mean they have digital capabilities that are “fit for living, learning and working in a digital society”. The skills they have are not transferable to (e.g.) an educational context – we  can make all the search boxes on our library management systems look like Google but this isn’t going to help people find the resources they really need or learn how to assess them or write a good essay or save their work safely or create a webpage or program something or print something out or turn the computer on (or off).

As David said, we need academic staff who are skilled in using technologies so they can pass these skills on to their students, or at least model them.

An avalanche is coming…

(Barber et al)

…and people generally don’t have the skills to deal with it. David argued that we need to increase focus on “maker pedagogies” – students (and us) as creators and researchers – students as producers. Although I think I understand what he’s trying to say (we need creative people for jobs in creative industries, the idea of students as producers seems again to be part of the language of commerce. Of course it’s good if students (and academics) produce work and research outputs but is it not OK to study for the action/work of studying  and learning and the improvement of knowledge as an end in itself? I think once we lose the idea of ‘study for pleasure’ it’s only a matter of time before reading for pleasure and visiting galleries for pleasure and listening to music for pleasure go out of the window as well. But I may be overreacting.

We do need people to be creative, but I’m not sure that HE is a very creative place anymore. Producing does not necessarily mean being creative in the wider sense of the word.

“Up-skilling” is killing me

Not literally. It just saps my soul every time I hear it. It is meaningless. Just say ‘learning new skills’. It’s a bit like my other pet-hate phrase, “going forward”. What happened to “in the future”?

Moving on…

Support staff are the best

Not surprisingly, support staff are needed to enable technology enhanced learning (TEL), in other words to help people use technology effectively when they’re studying, learning and/or teaching. A good thing which came out of the session with David was that we all recognised the need for us in the library to work together with people in IT and LTEU (Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit) to provide effective support to people. At the moment it’s a bit confusing for people – who should they go to for help? It would be good to sit down with colleagues in other department and have a nice chat about what we all do  and how we can help each other (and students and staff) out. I wonder if that’s possible?

Creating a customer focused environment in the academic sector

I went on a CILIP training course last week, the title of which is above. The main objectives of the course were as follows:

  • To understand what outstanding customer service is and why it is important
  • To understand and predict customer needs
  • To create a plan to involve customers
  • To learn how to communicate effectively with different types of customers (including more challenging ones)
  • To learn how to measure customer satisfaction using different methods
  • To learn the methodology of writing and conducting questionnaires
  • To have an action plan to take away and implement

We began by thinking about what a customer focused environment is, and why it is important. I found the reasons why it’s important quite interesting: of course it is a “defensive necessity” – to keep customers and win new ones, but it is also a motivator for staff. As the course notes quote “If you know you are adding value you feel valued yourself”. I think this is an important point, and one that is quite relevant to what is going on in the library I work in at the moment. Library staff are trying their best to provide good customer service but aren’t able to do so due to circumstances outside of their control. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but this is making me feel useless, bad at my job and undervalued.

We thought about and discussed good and bad experiences of customer services. On our table, Argos was held up as an appalling example of customer service and Amazon are very good, apparently.

We went on to assess how customer focused we feel our organisations are at the moment, using the six basic customer needs as our criteria. These are:

  • Friendliness
  • Understanding and empathy
  • Fairness
  • Control (as in whether the customer feels they have some degree of control over what happens to them)
  • Options and alternatives
  • Information

I think the library is good at some of these but quite bad at others! Again, part of the reason we’re (front line/Reader Services) bad at providing some of these things is due to reasons outside of our control. We had to give ourselves marks out of ten for each criteria. I had the thought that the scores would differ if you looked at what people (especially library managers) think we’re good at and then looked at the reality of what happens on a day to day basis.

Coffee time, then we thought about one particular group of customers, or a particular customer, that we might come into contact with and tried to put ourselves in their shoes to think about what they might want or need from the library. I decided to try and think about what it might be like to be a Sports Science student. It was quite difficult! In the end, I thought that the main thing would be that the student would need to realise that the library is relevant to him (sorry, I was being stereotypical) and so the library would need to find ways of making itself relevant, accessible and unpatronising.

We then thought as a group about a different group of potential customers and what we thought they would most need their “service providers to be and give”. Our table thought about academics and decided that the top six things that academics might want were for us to be accurate, flexible, knowledgeable, professional timely and well-stocked (in no particular order). I know this latter is rather ironic in light of the stock management policy, but perhaps we’d better not go there. We then thought about how well these customer needs are currently being fulfilled and what services we could provide to fulfill these needs. We didn’t really get very far with our thoughts, although it occurred to me that it’s important not to pander to the ‘needs’ of one group of customers if that could result in a detrimental effect on another group.

Then it was lunch time, after which we looked at different models of communication style and how we could use these to improve our communication with different types of customers. Apparently, I have an analytical communication style – I am less assertive and less responsive. Responsiveness “relates to how much or how little you show your own emotions or demonstrate awareness of the feelings of others”. The other styles are:

  • Driver (more assertive, less responsive)
  • Amiable (less assertive, more responsive)
  • Expressive (more assertive, more responsive)

The purpose of this was to think about ways in which we could adapt our communication style when dealing with customers we might find difficult to deal with. I thought of some things I could do, but these things are always easier said than done.

More coffee, and then we moved on to looking at ways of measuring customer satisfaction. We briefly examined different types of surveying (random customer survey, staff attitude survey, target customer or customer type survey, focus groups, face-to-face interviews, mystery shopping) and then learned about how to create an effective survey. The most important thing to remember when creating a survey is that you need to define your research objectives. This is more complicated than it might first appear, when you start thinking about it.

The last thing we did was to create an “action plan” to take back to our workplaces. I found this quite difficult, mainly because I don’t think I have the power to change very much in the library. If I did, I would want to try and look at how we can give more equity of service to students and staff, a lot of whom are not based on campus. Also relating to equity of service, one question that arose at the beginning of the day and never really got answered was ‘how do you deal with individual needs and still follow library policies and procedures?’ Needless to say, I didn’t create much of an action plan. That’s the problem with all courses, I find. They’re very interesting and potentially useful, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever implemented anything I’ve learnt on a course into my day-to-day work, unless I’ve done it subconsciously. I shouldn’t have said that, should I?

P.S. I’m sorry if anyone doesn’t like using the word “customers” when referring to library users. I don’t really like it either, but it was the word that was (unsurprisingly) used in the training. I came back to work and used to word “customers” about three times in one email. Aggh!