In December, commercial academic publisher Reed Elsevier, a press that specializes in science, health, and math scholarship, issued a series of take-down requests to social media site Academia.edu, and Academia.edu complied by removing Elsevier-published articles posted to individual users’ pages. As you can see from the screen grab of Academia.edu’s correspondence with the scholars whose work was removed, Academia.edu framed itself as an advocate of the open access and expressed regret at its compliance.
When academics sign contracts with publishers, the terms of the publication arrangement may issue an embargo period or outright prohibition of the author posting the final, published version of the essay on a personal blog or a site like Academia.edu. Some scholars may argue that the exchange of knowledge is the point of academic publishing and these contract stipulations inhibit that goal. Meanwhile, many of the largest academic publishers are for-profit companies that benefit from the unpaid labor of academic writers and volunteer peer reviewers. Moreover, these companies also enjoy virtual subsidies provided by universities that pay researchers’ salaries and that fund the libraries that purchase expensive journal subscriptions. All of these layers of seeming exploitation may seem to justify the efforts of academics to create alternative distribution methods to share their own research.
My interest in the Elsevier takedown orders, however, was heightened by a rich debate about Elsevier’s actions and Academia.edu’s response that broke out on the listserv for the Association of Internet Researchers (AIR).* The conversation shifted to the ethics of Academia.edu’s business model, one that depends upon the sale of the data freely provided by scholars. For academics, then, the stakes of the Copyleft movement in terms of our own work has become increasingly complicated, for even when we try to share freely through a mechanism like Academia.edu (a for-profit business), we are nevertheless imbricating our work within a consistently exploitative process.
The questions are difficult to answer. Do we stop supporting top journals that are not open access? Have open-access journals earned the credibility to build our case for tenure? Should we refrain from using sites like Academia.edu (and Facebook) that base their business models yet again on the exploitation of work we give freely? Where is the space online to (truly) freely spread knowledge and spark intellectual debate?
*Many academics participated in the Air-L discussion, and I highly recommend you read more in the AIR-L archive.