Welcome to online open-access Academia: Please mind your head


open-access Academia

Recently, I made a rather startling discovery. You see, I did my PhD part-time and ran my own business, with varying degrees of success, the rest of the time. Now I am only the cost of printing and binding the thesis (seriously, the prices are crazy!) away from graduating, I have turned my attention back fully towards the rigours of gaining new clients, increasing my reputation and generally improving the balance sheet.

What does all that have to do with academia? Well, as well as helping me nurture my ambition to work in academia and have a business at the same time, it presented me with a question. Since I was already familiar with using the basic, and not so basic, tools of social media marketing to try to win new clients, I wondered what would happen if I used them to try to attract readers to my papers.

So, as a little experiment, I tweeted one paper a week for a month. Actually, it was slightly more complex than that. I, like many academics have an account on academia.edu and an almost identical one on researchgate. I did all the work to try to get preprints for as many of my papers as possible and then I tweeted links to the papers on academia.edu but not the ones on researchgate. My thought was that, allowing for the differences in ages between the two profiles, that should give me a rough guide as to the effect that social media was having. I also pulled the stats from both sites to get a more in-depth view.

Now, while that has given me a lot of data to sort through, I want to fast-forward to the end, if for no other reason than that no one really wants to read a 6,000 word blog post.

What were the headline results?

On academia.edu, I am now consistently in the top 3% or 4% of users, with 84 views of my papers per month. On researchgate, I have 40 views in the same period and, while they don’t give a percentile score for views, they have helpfully told me that on their “RG Score” metric, I am in the bottom 6%.

Before you go out and flock to twitter, I have to say that only 14 of my paper views seem to have come from either there or LinkedIn, where I also advertised my work. Instead, the vast majority seem to come from SEO geeks call “organic search,” people looking for my work or for themes covered by my work and stumbling across it.

What does all this tell us? I think it does tell us clearly that social media will matter in research from now on. Even if the direct traffic isn’t always terribly impressive, having your papers out there and linked to, makes it more likely that people will find them as they will come higher in searches.

It also tells us that, if organic search is still going to be the primary source of traffic, all those posts about having good titles, using keywords and weaning ourselves the academic habit of obscure quotations and cryptic connections are completely right. Sadly, the days when academics could happily spend hours browsing the stacks and discovering they key piece of research through sheer serendipity are gone with the days when people idly surfed the web. In both cases, people are now more sure of what they want and less patient with it taking time to find it. Be googleable.

There is one more fundamental point and it is here that I begin to become a little wary. On both of my profiles, I have a few papers in lower ranking journals, a book chapter and my CV jewel, a lit review in a high-ranking journal, one of the top in my field. All of the work is available in pre-print, except the high-ranking piece, which will be available to add in about 30 months.

Guess which papers are being read the most.

Yeah, not the high-ranking one. Actually, the papers with the most reads are the oldest ones, which incidentally appeared in the lowest ranking journals.

This is not to say that those are bad papers. But what it does suggest is that the currency of research will soon be availability over journal rank, especially where high-ranking journals decide not to go open-access. While this is not the place for the debate over the different flavours of open access or even the open access vs. closed access debate, I do think that we need to be aware of this dynamic.

Actually, I saw it in action for myself. I have a rolling google alert that sends me papers related to my existing work. One day, it sent me what looked like absolute gold. A paper with the same research question as my thesis. It took me just a few minutes to realise that, although the title was great, it came from a journal listed in Beall’s list of predatory journals and contained misconceptions and out-of-date assertions that any journal editor in my field would have spotted.

Yet, since this paper is widely available, it is likely to be read far more than the more sound papers that are behind paywalls, including mine. Depending on who gets a hold of it, that one paper could lead to practitioners adopting behaviours that have already been shown to be flawed.

Whatever narrative we want to wrap round the open access/closed access debate, the truth remains that open access is giving non-academics (and academics in emerging economies) access to something that looks and smells like research. If availability is the currency of the new academic world, then we new academics had better get a handle on not just how to get a paper published but how to get it seen and read widely. It really isn’t that hard. But the consequences of pretending that nothing has changed are much more costly.

Author Bio: Jonathan Downie is currently in the final stages of his PhD on client expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University.