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A social networking site is not an open access repository

“What’s the difference between ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and the institutional repository?”

“I put my papers in ResearchGate, is that enough for the open access policy?

These and similar questions have been been common at open access events over the past couple of years. Authors want to better understand the differences between these platforms and when they should use one, the other, or some combination.

First, a brief primer on what each service has to offer:

ResearchGate and Academia.edu

ResearchGate and Academia.edu are social networking platforms whose primary aim is to connect researchers with common interests. Users create profiles on these services, and are then encouraged to list their publications and other scholarly activities, upload copies of manuscripts they’ve authored, and build connections with scholars they work or co-author with. Essentially these services provide a Facebook or LinkedIn experience for the research community.

Both services are commercial companies. Although Academia.edu has a “.edu” URL, it isn’t run by a higher education institution. The domain name was registered before the rules that would now prohibit this use went into effect, and the address was grandfathered in and later sold to the company. On its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission it uses the legal name Academia Inc.

Open access repositories

Open access repositories come in two basic flavors:

  • Institutional repositories (IRs) are generally library-run websites that enable authors to upload a version of their manuscripts for public “open access” display. UC’s is called eScholarship. The primary aim of institutional repositories is to make the scholarly outputs of the university as widely available as possible and to ensure long-term preservation of these outputs.
  • Subject-based repositories collect publications in a particular discipline or a range of disciplines, so that authors in a field can share and solicit feedback on their work from colleagues in that field, regardless of where they work.

Next, let’s take a closer look at some of the major differences between these two kinds of services:

Table comparing repositories to scholarly collaboration networks

Openness and interoperability

We are often asked by researchers already using ResearchGate or Academia.edu why they should use a repository operated or recommended by the library instead (or as well), or alternatively: Why can’t the library just take my information from ResearchGate or Academia.edu and use that to populate the institutional repository?

The simple answer is: ResearchGate and Academia.edu do not permit their users to take their own data and reuse it elsewhere, nor do their terms of service permit the library to extract that data on the authors’ behalf.

  • ResearchGate: “Users must not misuse the Service. Misuse of the Service includes, without limitation: … automated or massive manual retrieval of other Users’ profile data (‘data harvesting’).”
  • Academia.edu: “You agree not to do any of the following: … Attempt to access or search the Site, … through the use of any engine, software, tool, agent, device or mechanism (including spiders, robots, crawlers, data mining tools or the like).”

Interestingly, ResearchGate permits you to import publications from other applications, but provides no method for getting that same data out of the ResearchGate ecosystem (well, not without some creative acrobatics). Similarly, Academia.edu previously supported import, but now makes it impossible to bring data in or out of their system.

Institutional repositories, on the other hand, are largely committed to complete openness and re-use of data.

These kinds of activities make open access repositories good places for publications you want people to be able to find.

Some IRs also offer APIs that further expand what researchers can do with the publication data they provide. ResearchGate previously discussed offering an API so that the data they collect could help foster open science, but over two years after announcing this intention, no progress seems to have been made.

Long-term preservation and access

Open access repositories are usually managed by universities, government agencies, or nonprofit associations. Affiliation with a larger institution (with a public service mission) means that repositories are likely to be around for a long time. They often employ librarians and data specialists who specialize in ensuring long term archiving. The content in UC’s eScholarship repository, for example, is preserved in the Merritt Preservation Repository.

Academia.edu and ResearchGate are independent for-profit companies that could theoretically close up shop at any time (anyone remember pets.com?). Both sites disavow any duty to warn users if they shut down:

  • Academia.edu “reserves the right, at its sole discretion, to discontinue or terminate the Site and Services and to terminate these Terms, at any time and without prior notice.”
  • ResearchGate “reserves the right to change, reduce, interrupt or discontinue the Service or parts of it at any time.”

Business models

Less theoretical is the likelihood of a shift in these sites’ profit strategy. ResearchGate and Academia.edu are commercial sites, whereas most open access repositories are non-profits.

These academic social networking sites have each raised large amounts of initial funding: $17.8 million for Academia.edu, and $35 million for ResearchGate. They share funders with Uber, Snapchat, and Upworthy.  Academia.edu’s largest funder is in a prolonged battle with the Surfrider foundation and the California Coastal Commission over preventing public beach access. This isn’t particularly notable for a startup company, but it’s unusual for an “academic” site.

And as Kathleen Fitzpatrick recently pointed out when writing about Academia.edu, venture capital funds don’t last forever. “There are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.” What are their options?

ResearchGate offers to help companies “reach the right professionals in science and research with targeted, on-page advertising.” Academia.edu hopes to be able to track what topics and articles are trending with their users and sell that information to R&D companies. [Note: subsequent to this post, Academia.edu’s CEO Richard Price told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the company is no longer planning on pursuing that idea.] Both companies host job listings, and either charge for premium placement of the job ad or the ability to list it at all.

Open access repositories, as mentioned above, usually get their funding from a host entity like a university or a government agency.

Use of your contacts and personal data

ResearchGate and Academia.edu don’t have a lot in common with open access repositories, but they do have a lot in common with other social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. They even encourage users to connect those and other services and contacts to their ResearchGate and Academia.edu accounts – sometimes aggressively.

Part of Academia.edu’s account setup process automatically tries to connect to a user’s Facebook account. If the user is signed in to Facebook, a pop up appears, saying “Academia.edu will receive the following info: your public profile, friend list, email address, work history and education history.” The options for moving past this screen are “Find Facebook Friends,” “Back,” or “I don’t have a Facebook account.” No “No Thanks” or “Skip this step” – you have to fib or fork over your data.

Both sites have a long list of possible types of email notifications, all of which can be turned off, and all of which appear to be turned on as a default. ResearchGate faced criticism in the past for sending unwanted emails not only to users themselves, but also to users’ co-authors that claimed, erroneously, to be from the users themselves.

For better or worse, open access repositories are not social networking sites. Users can search for work by a particular author, but authors can’t build a friend or collaborator list, and usually can’t manage a profile page. The success of ResearchGate and Academia.edu demonstrate that this is a functionality that scholars find valuable, and new efforts like MLA Commons are trying to fill the gap.

The fine print

Whenever you sign up for a service, it’s a good idea to read the Terms of Use. Academia.edu’s terms give the company a license to make derivative works (like translations?) based on articles users upload to the site “in connection with operating and providing the Services and Content to you and to other Members.” ResearchGate’s terms include an agreement to have the user’s relationship with the company be governed by German law. And both sites have an indemnification clause, asserting that if the site faces any legal claims arising from things users upload to the site, the user will bear the cost.

Ok, great. But really: what should I use?

In the end, both types of services have unique offerings, and both likely hold some value for researchers. Academic social networking sites, such as ResearchGate or Academia.edu, might be valuable when trying to find others in your field conducting related research, or for providing access to your papers to those people you know use the site.

The value provided by the institutional repository, however — particularly the long-term preservation and commitment to open access, should not be overlooked. Until some public commitment has been made, it should not be assumed that the other services provide this, and they will not be considered “open access repositories” that meet the requirements of participating in UC’s open access policies.

If your colleagues find a social networking site useful and you can manage the email notification settings, that site might be worth your time. On the other hand, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick writes, “everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu.” If the typical behavior of commercial social networking sites bothers you – gathering users’ information for their own purposes – be as wary of those that target academics as you are of those with a more general audience. Whether or not you decide these social networking sites are right for you, remember that institutional repositories (such as UC’s eScholarship) enable you to share your research widely without trying to mine your address book. If you’re not already using eScholarship or another open access repository, take a few minutes to check out the services available to you, at no charge, from organizations who offer similar tools for broadening access to your publications, but who have no interest in making a profit from your work.


  • David Crotty

    One thing perhaps worth mentioning is that some publishers have very different policies regarding reuse of articles, encouraging reuse in institutional and subject repositories, but specifically forbidding reuse on for-profit commercial repositories. One example is Elsevier:nhttps://www.elsevier.com/connect/elsevier-updates-its-policies-perspectives-and-services-on-article-sharingnAccording to their policy, non-commercial repositories can host the full text of the Authors Manuscript version of articles, but commercial hosts cannot do so unless they have signed an agreement with Elsevier (and to my knowledge, neither ResearchGate or Academia.edu has done so).nnSo where such policies are in place, researchers may be in danger of violating these terms of service when they post an article on a commercial site, but no such problem exists for institutional repositories.

  • understand your point, but GitHub breaks the mold of the headline. You can use it for anything you want, and it falls under the social networking moniker.

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