Academia.”edu”: A Site of Many Questions

American Book Review, Volume 38, Number 2, January/February 2017

Johannah Rodgers

The first question, “Why Are We Not Boycotting”, which was also the title of a December 8, 2015 symposium organized by Gary Hall and Janneka Adema at Coventry University, is undoubtedly a crucial one.  Unfortunately, it is also, at this moment in time, an apparently easy one to answer. The main reason “we” are not boycotting is because, as an organization backed by an estimated $17.7MM in venture-capital funding, has been able to successfully fulfill a need for a well-designed, easy to use, freely accessible, global repository of scholarly work across the disciplines.  In fact, there is so much scholarly content posted currently on the site, including, it is worth mentioning, information about the 2015 Coventry University symposium, that has become difficult to avoid.       

Yet, as a privately-owned, venture-capital funded commercial venture, has also been the object of some scrutiny, thanks largely to the attention brought to the it by the 2015 Coventry University symposium, an event recorded and archived at the website.  The subject of two 2015 articles in the U.S.-based magazines The Atlantic and The Chronicle of Higher Education, was, more recently, profiled and criticized in the Canadian magazine University Affairs for its ongoing use of the .edu domain despite the fact that has no educational affiliation.  And, however educational its wider mission to facilitate access to scholarly work may be, its business model, ever evolving and not publicly disclosed, is a for-profit one that depends on the free donation of intellectual property originally funded by a range of government and non-profit sources.   

The publicly available facts about are astonishingly consistent: It has a, somewhat inexplicably [1],  large and growing user base that totals an estimated 46MM account holders (2016) and 36MM unique visitors per month.  It is free to use for its registered users and it is designed and architected to be at once easy to use and feature-rich, meaning, even if you do not regularly visit the site, it will stay in touch with you via e-mail to keep you abreast of new research posted by those “academics” whom you “follow” and the “impact” of your work based on the number of users accessing it.  Further, unlike other existing scholarly databases, such as JSTOR or ProjectMuse, offers users access to analytics related to the reception and readership of scholarly work and a daily-updated percentile rank, i.e., top 1%, 4%, etc., of work and profile views relative to others posted on the site. Designed at once to appeal to university administrators looking for quantitative statistics related to research employees’ overall “impact factor” and to time-pressed and post-PTSD full-time and adjunct faculty members raised and perhaps fueled by comparative, and particularly, percentile rankings, clearly understands its target audience.  As a privately held company, is not required to disclose any financial records and how the company is generating or plans to generate revenue is a work in progress.  However, possibilities for monetizing its very rich and freely donated content, which, aside from information about its ever growing user base [1], currently totals 16.9MM “academic” papers, range from the highly ambitious plan of data mining content for innovative and profitable product development plans, to the more mundane and currently operational one of hosting and selling advertisements for job vacancies on its site, a fact that is all the more ironic in light of the increasingly irrational economies fueling the growth industry that is now known as “U.S. higher ed.”       

Though not an educational institution, retains the right to use the .edu domain address because it purchased the name prior to October 29, 2001 when new guidelines related to the use of the domain were implemented.  In other words, with respect to its use of the .edu domain, is “grandfathered” in.  While this fact has been widely reported, and as much as Richard Price, the founder of can be congratulated on his foresight and financial acumen in registering the domain name on May 10, 1999,  the company’s right to the continued use of the .edu domain is not guaranteed since this use is subject to U.S. government policies that can be amended.  In April, 2012, a proposed amendment to current .edu policy was introduced to assess the intent and purpose of the sites maintained by existing .edu domain holders and to disqualify those sites with “Use Inconsistent with the Purpose of .edu.”  Though never ratified, the amendment was open to public comment through July 3, 2012, and the eighteen comments posted pointed out both the long-overdue need for such an amendment and its potential drawbacks, particularly with respect to its somewhat intentionally vague language.  A lengthy comment posted by founder Richard Price opposed the amendment in no uncertain terms, arguing that it was the scope of the definition of terms such as “educational” that were at issue and subject to debate,interpretation, and application.  

Words, Their Values, Valuations, and Costs

I very much agree with Price’s assessment of the situation.  It is issues of definition that must be discussed, both what words mean and who is in charge of the dictionary, meaning, increasingly, directory, being used as a reliable reference source to define them [2].  The U.S. Department of Commerce oversees the policies related to the use of .edu domain name, and, though it has outsourced, in exchange for $54K per year, the administration of the .edu domain to the not-for-profit educational information technology association Educause, an organization with 2015 revenues of $32MM and a director who was paid a $450K salary in 2015, it must address what this word education and its virtual place-holder .edu signify to U.S., state, and local governments in 2016 and update its policies accordingly [3].      

Government investment in network and communications technologies related to the internet were intended to serve both commercial and public purposes.  Just what the appropriate balance is between these two aims is open to debate. However, the privatization and commercialization of public resources, which are then monetized and sold back to the public, seems to be both a shady business practice and decidedly not in the public interest.  What is more,’s actual cost to public information and educational initiatives is ever growing and needs to be quantified. As university administrators look increasingly to private companies and their “free” services to supplement and, increasingly, replace internal information technology initiatives related to instructional, research, and curricular support, the question of what words mean, where and how their definitions are verified, and what real and virtual value is attached to them becomes all the more pressing.[4]  For, the last, if not the least, of the many questions that need to be posed regarding is one that applies equally to both public and private Higher Education in the U.S. generally: “Is monetize a for-profit word?” [5]

[1] As a registered user of, I have some first-hand experience with the site’s functionality, its ease of use, and, as a result of both, several questions about its user base and the demographics of its 36MM unique monthly visitors.  Although advertising itself as a platform with 46MM registered academics, the lack of any requirements for registering an account means that its user base is highly diverse and almost certainly not comprised of 46MM “academics,” unless that term is understood in the very broadest sense possible.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 there were just over 1.3 MM job positions in post-secondary education in the U.S. Assuming that the U.S. represents the largest post-secondary job market globally, the fact that this number, in its entirety, represents less than three percent of’s user base is just the most obvious indication that the demographics of’s user-base are wide-ranging.  Further, having posted the table of contents to my 2014 first year writing textbook on, I know from comments posted by users downloading this material that over two thirds of those accessing this resource are undergraduates.  While I am not suggesting that undergraduates should be prevented from accessing nor that they should not be encouraged to access research on the site, I do think it is worthwhile pointing this out as one discrepency in’s advertised claims regarding its user base.

[2] In her December 11, 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Ellen Wexler documents some of Price’s further thoughts on issues of definition, quoting him as saying “‘“Monetize” is not a for-profit word.’” 

[3] Regarding answers to the question of whether academics should or should not use, there is, to date no consensus.  Although most universities now maintain repositories of scholarly articles published by their faculty and these can be somewhat easily accessed by scholars unaffiliated with the sponsoring institution, unaffiliated users cannot deposit material to these repositories.  The 2016 MLA Commons/CORE initiative is the most recent publicly available repository of scholarly publications.  However, this project, like the Humanities Commons project is only for scholars in the Humanities.  While I applaud these initiatives, both of which are “related” to the Scholarly Commons project at CUNY, where I am affiliated, I continue to believe that all of these initiatives need to be combined.  The centralization of and its ease of use is unparalleled compared to any other scholarly repository that I have accessed. That said, I advise academics to post LINKS ONLY to and upload their intellectual property to repositories hosted by unversities.       

[4] The Twitter “conversation” related to #deleteacademiaedu revealed that some universities–Arizona State, for instance–is in the process of “getting rid” of faculty websites.  The college where I was employed, The New York City College of Technology at The City University of New York, has also made it harder, not easier, for faculty to create and host publicly available web sites at the college.  

[5] See Footnote [2]

Some Alternate Titles

What’s In a Name?  At, About $17.7MM  What’s In a Name?  Lots of Questions

As Social Media and Academia Collide, It Increasingly Appears That None of Us Are Wearing Any Clothes.  However, University Librarians May Have Some We Can Borrow.                

MLA citation:

Rodgers, Johannah. “Academia.”edu”.” American Book Review, vol. 38 no. 2, 2017, p. 9-13. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/abr.2017.0007.

APA citation:

Rodgers, J. (2017). Academia.”edu”. American Book Review 38(2), 9-13. doi:10.1353/abr.2017.0007.


© johannah rodgers