Academia.edu bills itself as a platform for scholars to share their research. As a start-up, it still provides mostly free services to attract more users. Last year, it tried to make some money by selling recommendations to scholarly papers, but the backlash from academics was swift and harsh. That plan was shelved immediately. [Scholars Criticize Academia.edu Proposal to Charge Authors for Recommendations]
All scholarly publishers sell recommendations, albeit artfully packaged in prestige and respectability. Academia.edu's direct approach seemed downright vulgar. If they plan a radically innovative replacement for journals, they will need a subtler approach. At least, they chose the perfect target for an attempt at creative destruction: Scholarly communication is the only type of publishing not disrupted by the web, it has sky-high profit margins, it is inefficient, and it is dominated by a relatively few well-connected insiders.
If properly designed (and that is a big if), a scholarly network could reduce the cost of all aspects of scholarly communication, even without radical innovation. It could improve the delivery of services to scholars. It could increase (open) access to research. And it could do all of this while scholars retain control over their own output for as long as feasible and/or appropriate. A scholarly network could also increase the operational efficiency of participating universities, research labs, and funding agencies.
All components of such a system already exist in some form:
Personal archive. Academics are already giving away ownership of their published works to publishers. They should not repeat this historic mistake by giving social networks control over their unpublished writings, data, and scholarly correspondence. They should only participate in social networks that make it easy to pack up and leave. Switching or leaving networks should be as simple as downloading an automatically created personal archive of everything the user shared on the network. Upon death or incapacity, the personal archive and perhaps the account itself should transfer to an archival institution designated by the user.
Marketplace for research tools. Every discipline has its own best practices. Every research group has its preferred tools and information resources. All scholars have their idiosyncrasies. To accomplish this level of customization, a universal platform needs an app store, where scholars could obtain apps that provide reference libraries, digital lab notebooks, data analysis and management, data visualization, collaborative content creation, communication, etc.
Marketplace for professional services. Sometimes, others can do the work better, faster, and/or cheaper. Tasks that come to mind are reference services, editorial and publishing services, graphics, video production, prototyping, etc.
Marketplace for institutional services. All organizations manage some business processes that need to be streamlined. They can do this faster and cheaper by sharing their solutions. For example, universities might be interested to buy and/or exchange applications that track PhD theses as they move through the approval process, that automatically deposit faculty works into their institutional repositories, that manage faculty-research review processes, that assist the preparation of grant applications, and that manage the oversight of awarded research grants. Funding agencies might be interested in services to accept and manage grant applications, to manage peer review, and to track post-award research progress.
Certificates. When a journal accepts a paper, it produces an unalterable version of record. This serves as an implied certificate from the publisher. When a university awards a degree, it certifies that the student has attended the university and has completed all degree requirements. Incidentally, it also certifies the faculty status of exam-committee members. Replacing implicit with explicit certificates would enable new services, such as CVs in which every paper, every academic position, and every degree is certified by the appropriate authority.
A scholarly network like this is a specialized business-application exchange, a concept pioneered by the AppExchange of Salesforce.com. Every day, thousands of organizations replace internal business processes with more efficient applications. Over time, this creates a gradual cumulative effect: Business units shrink to their essential core. They disappear or merge with other units. Corporate structures change. Whether or not we are prepared for the consequences of these profound changes, these technology-enabled efficiencies advance unrelentingly across all industries.
These trends will, eventually, affect everyone. While touting the benefits of creative destruction in their journals, the scholarly-communication system successfully protected itself. Like PDF, the current system is a digitally replication the paper system. It ignores the flexibility of digital information, while it preserves the paper-era business processes and revenue streams of publishers, middlemen, and libraries.
Most scholars manage several personal digital libraries for their infotainment. Yet, they are restricted by the usage terms of institutional site licenses for their professional information resources. [Where the Puck won't be] When they share papers with colleagues and students, they put themselves at legal risk. Scholarly networks will not solve every problem. They will have unintended consequences. But, like various open-access projects, they are another opportunity for scholars to reclaim the initiative.
Recently, ResearchGate obtained serious start-up funding. [ResearchGate raises $52.6M for its social research network for scientists] I hope more competitors will follow. Organizations and projects like ArXiv, Figshare, Mendeley, Web of Knowledge, and Zotero have the technical expertise, user communities, and platforms on which to build. There are thousands of organizations that can contribute to marketplaces for research tools, professional services, and institutional services. There are millions of scholars eager for change.
Build it, and they will come... Or they will just use Sci-Hub anyway.