Richard Price, who recently earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford, launched Academia.edu on September 16, 2008. The website seeks to answer the question “Who’s researching what?” by taking a social networking approach to academic relationships. Academia.edu illustrates these relationships as a genealogy in which users are grouped by university, then department, then their position within their department. Users add content based on their research, including what papers they have written, their research interests, and their advisors.
Academia.edu uses a tree-like genealogical structure to organize academic relationships. Colleges and Universities are listed in a row along the top of the page – clicking the background and dragging it left or right allows a user to scroll through other universities. Using the search box in the middle of the page, a user finds their college or university and, if the school is not found, adds it to the list of universities and colleges. Once the user finds his or her university, s/he will see departments organized alphabetically on a tree that stems from his or her university. The user then locates his or her department or adds the department if it is not already part of the tree.
Once a user views his or her department, s/he adds information to the relevant part of the tree: “Faculty Member,” “Post Doc,” “Graduate Student,” or “Other Department Member.” Within each section – faculty members, for example – people are organized alphabetically rather than by status within the department (Professor, Associate Professor, Assistant Professor), which is not an option for determining one’s level within a department.
There are also two separate boxes next to each tree – the one on the left provides a list of “Related Departments” while the box on the right lists “Related Research Interests.”
Clicking the buttons “Complete This Department,” “Add Faculty Member,” “Add Post Doc,” “Add Graduate Student,” or “Add Other Department Member” opens a separate box where a user can add the relevant person’s name and email address to confirm his or her relationship to the department.
The people listed on the tree appear with their picture (if they have uploaded a photo) and links to Papers, Research Interests, and Contacts (provided they have added information to each of these areas on their profile). Clicking on a person reveals their profile.
The majority of the profile information exists in a sidebar on the left-hand side of the page. This information includes a profile picture, a link to the “About” section of profile, and links to papers, teaching documents, and a CV along with websites and research interests. Other information that can be added to a users webpage includes books, talks, blog posts, and papers and books read. To the right of the sidebar is the “About” section of the profile, which consists of a text box to write status updates, and sections for university, department, level within department, thesis title, advisor names and homepage URLs, plus contact information and another text box where a user can type in more information.
Academia.edu also displays keywords generated by people on search engines like Google. For instance, if a person types a query like “renee hudson” into a search engine and finds Renee Hudson’s Academia.edu webpage, the keywords used to generate that result – here, “renee hudson” – are automatically added to Renee Hudson’s list of keywords on her Academia.edu webpage. Clicking on the keywords link of a profile will list all keywords used on a search engine to access that profile (provided a user has not decided to be the only person who can view the keywords, which is a privacy option) along with the date and time of the query, the rank on the search engine of the Academia.edu webpage using those search terms, the search engine name, and the country in which the search was performed. This list of keywords includes anything found on one’s Academia.edu webpage, from the actual profile to any documents contained within the profile.
In order to add a paper or book to one’s list of papers and books read, a user can search by title and / or author for a particular text, then click search, which will search both Academia.edu’s archive and the web for the paper while simultaneously checking if one has already read the generated results. Based on the results generated, the user then clicks a button marked “I’ve Read This” to add the piece to his or her collection of papers and books read. Alternatively, a user can simply click the link “Add a New Paper” or “Add a New Book” instead of searching for one. From there, the user is asked to supply title, author, URL, and an abstract of the text.
Clicking on a paper a user has added (their own paper, not one they have marked as read), will show the abstract and a link to download the paper. If other users have marked the paper as read, a list of readers will also be listed. If a person came across the paper while performing a search on a search engine, a list of recent searches that found the paper will also be listed. Blogs and talks do not have this same functionality. If a user has added a paper to the “Paper I’ve Read” section of their profile, like a well-known article, the title and author appear along with a link to download (which may result in the file downloading or in the user being redirected to another site, like Google Scholar). In this instance, readers are listed, but no keywords are listed presumably because the paper is not part of the Academia.edu archive, which consists of documents uploaded by users who share their own work.
When a user adds a Paper they’ve written, a Talk they’ve given, or a Teaching Document they’ve written, s/he also has the option to post the Paper, Talk, or Teaching Document to their Facebook profile as a news story using Facebook Connect.
The right sidebar in the profile view lists “Department Colleagues,” “Following,” “Followers,” and “Contacts.” “Department Colleagues” consists of other people in one’s department, though not necessarily people a user has a relationship with beyond being members of the same department. Academia.edu also distinguishes between followers and contacts by noting, “following someone doesn’t require the person’s approval; adding them as a contact does require their approval. The point of the ‘follow’ feature is so that your News Feed can contain updates from the people whose work you know, but whom you don’t know directly.” Users confirm contacts by clicking the “Requests” link at the top of the page.
For users of the website, they can access the following links at the top of the page: “Home,” “My Webpage,” “Friend Finder,” “Inbox,” “Logout,” and “Requests.” Non-users of the site see a different set of links, which are: “Home,” “News,” “Departments,” “Research Interests,” “People,” “Papers,” “Status Updates,” “Friend Finder,” “Login,” and “Signup.” The “Home” page for both views seeks to provide recently added information via a left-hand sidebar (which is visible for all “tree” views, but not profile views) for Departments, Research Interests, News, People, Papers, and Status Updates, though in the non-user view, the Department and Research Interests sections appear on the top of the left-hand sidebar and for the user view, they appear on the bottom.
For a user’s “Home” page, s/he receives “Updates from people you follow, your department and your contacts. Occasional updates from your wider research community.” Clicking on the “People” button shows a list of people in the user’s department sorted by “Recently Joined” or “Most Active.” Preceding the list are three search boxes which allow users to search for people based on 1) Research Interest; 2) University; or 3) Department. This allows users to find people who match one category (department for instance), two categories, or all three (all of which are sorted by either “Recently Joined” or “Most Active”). Clicking on the “Papers” button shows recently added papers, sorted either by “My Research Interests” or “All Research Interests” while clicking on “Status Updates” displays recent status updates using the same sorting categories as the “Papers” section. Selecting the “Departments” button returns the user to his or her department tree. Choosing “Research Interests” reveals the research interest tree with a random interest displayed.
Non-users who click on each of these buttons receive information that is either randomly selected (Department, Research Interests), based on most active (People), or on recent updates (Papers and Status Updates).
Regardless of whether or not a person has a profile on Academia.edu, s/he sees, at the bottom left-hand side of the page, the question “How happy are you with Academia.edu right now?” along with a scale from one to ten, with one being the lowest level of happiness and ten the highest. There is also a a text box (which enlarges once a person clicks inside) which allows for a person – whether a user or not – to send comments. On the bottom right, there is an invite link, and, in the user view, this is preceded by links to view “My Account” and “My Stats.” “My Account” allows users to change their basic information like email address and password, along with notifications, like whether or not to receive an email when someone has added a user as a contact or decided to follow the user. “My Stats” provides page view information organized by date.
Academia.edu, a social network that connects academics based on department and research interests, integrates social networking with online reading practices. These practices take the form of adding original material of one’s own work, and marking reading material from outside the Academia.edu archive as read. Outside materials are often culled from Google Book Search and Google Scholar. Users, by articulating their relationship to the reading material (uploading a paper marks a user as an author, while listing a book as a “Books I’ve Read” piece identifies the user as a reader), simultaneously define their research identity based on these materials. In this way, Academia.edu emphasizes a social networked identity that hinges both on relationships to other people on Academia.edu and to texts that exist within the site as well as outside Academia.edu.
In order to view the trees and embedded Scribd boxes which display papers, talks, etc. on Academia.edu, users must have Flash installed on their computers.
Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
Academia.edu provides a useful working model for how a system similar to ProSE can highlight relationships not only between people, but also between people and documents. While Academia.edu differs from ProSE in many ways, looking at Academia.edu’s approach to research can help the Transliteracies Project articulate what sets ProSE apart as well as what can be done to improve the system as it is presently conceived.
For instance, Academia.edu, like ProSE, seeks to create relationships between people and people and documents. However, unlike ProSE, Academia.edu does not at this time illustrate relationships between documents. With Academia.edu, social relationships take precedence over textual relationships because Academia.edu seeks to connect researchers with one another in order to aid one’s own research (by meeting other people in the field and learning from their expertise) and gain a greater understanding of what work has already been done. In fact, the marginal role held by documents arises when one searches for a term like “thesis” in the Academia.edu search box – the search is performed for “People,” “Research Interests,” “Universities,” and “Departments,” but no results are returned from “Teaching Documents.” Performing a search for a paper known to be on Academia.edu again returns no results since “Papers” are not a category Academia.edu pulls from to perform a general search. Instead, a user has to perform a search separately using the “Papers I’ve Read” link on his or her profile (note that even within the “Teaching Documents” section, there is no search functionality, which makes it difficult to find teaching material on the site). By only searching the sections “People,” “Research Interests,” “Universities,” and “Departments,” and making searches for papers and books separate searches that can only be accessed from one’s profile instead of a ubiquitous text box, Academia.edu implies that the primary method of finding others who share the same interests is based on the four categories “People,” “Research Interests,” “Universities,” and “Departments.” Attempts to research by coming across recent scholarship on a particular topic is restricted to an entirely different search and is thus a secondary method. Unpacking the implications of these primary and secondary search methods is helpful to the ProSE project, because it will help ProSE developers think through the implications of their own processes. For instance, by not searching the “Papers” category unless a separate search is performed or allowing the “Teaching Documents” section to be searched, Academia.edu suggests – whether intentionally or not – that finding documents to facilitate research is not as important as finding people. ProSE, which views documents and people equally, would do well to learn from Academia.edu such that the ProSE system does not replicate the hierarchy of people over text in ProSE’s own processes (like search).
Significantly, Academia.edu perpetuates the primacy of people over text as agents through the tag line, “Who’s researching what?” By framing research in this way, the responsibility of research rests with the people who perform that research, which ignores meaningful relationships between texts, relationships which might even be stronger than the those between the authors of the texts. For instance, a novel like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union would have more in common with another novel like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (because both are alternative histories to World War II) than the authors would have to each other.
Although Academia.edu foregrounds relationships between people, the organizing principle is a family tree structure that underscores hierarchical top down connections between people rather than meaningful sets of relationships. For example, for research purposes, it is less helpful to know Stephen Greenblatt is a faculty member in the Harvard English department than that he is an expert on Shakespeare and the Renaissance and considered to be one of the founders of New Historicism. In contrast, ProSE, in emphasizing clusters of relationships, focuses on contributions to research in a move that disregards hierarchy because status does not indicate how a person adds to a body of knowledge. Additionally, in specifying contributions to research, ProSE zeroes in on relationships. When researching Shakespeare, for instance, it is perhaps even more helpful to see a text like Will in the World in relation to Shakespeare than the person Stephen Greenblatt, who is also the author of texts like Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley, a text that is not part of a Shakespearean body of knowledge. Stephen Greenblatt is still a significant relationship, but ProSE can focus on varying degrees of connection.
Academia.edu, as one manifestation of how to utilize social networking to link people and documents, performs the difficult task of not only connecting people but also demonstrating how these connections are deeply rooted in reading practices, which are beginning to migrate into online environments in more complex ways. Indeed, Academia.edu offers one solution to creating a social network that does not already exist on top of a digital repository of documents – the site allows for users to upload their own documents and also links users to documents via outside connections like Google Book Search. While ProSE will undoubtably connect with other projects that have access to a variety of documents, Academia.edu provides a model for how to integrate whole texts into a social network, albeit in a limited fashion. ProSE, should it seek to allow users to add their own documents, should learn from Academia.edu’s tendency to view texts as part of an already existing profile, and ideally allow users to create separate – but linked and searchable – web pages for these documents such that texts form part of a meaningful network of relationships rather than occupy a marginalized role as a link on a profile.
Resources for Further Study: