Academia.edu

I suppose you’ve seen this site on the news or perhaps links have floated your way on the webs of inter. The idea behind this site is that “It displays academics around the world in a tree format, according to what university/department they are affiliated with.” It also allows you to have a profile page where you can upload your CV, research interests, publications etc

So, Facebook for academics? Not quite. There are some social networking functions but unfortunately the main focus is on the tree, not the people. I’ve signed up, just to give it a try, and so far the experience isn’t very positive.

A site that would make it possible to find people based on their department and/or research interest would be at least interesting, and possibly even useful. You could spread word about conferences, projects or publications to those in your field, and could use the site as a way to keep up-to-date with research projects, job openings and such, or even make friends and find collaborators. A dedicated site for academic use would bring together only the right people and nobody else, and it would also mean that you could focus on functions relevant for these purposes and leave out sheep-throwing, groups whose only purpose is to get lots of members, fake profiles and other features that make Facebook less suitable for anything but procrastination.

So, with great expectations I signed up, and while I realise this is a work in progress, at the moment it just doesn’t do what I was hoping it would. Of course, it delivers what they say it would, display people in a tree and give you the profile page, but that’s kind of meaningless if there’s nothing else.

There are just under 7000 people signed up so far, which I think is a good amount for a young site with a relatively tight focus. The potential is much larger, however, and one issue for any social network is that people only use them if their friends are there, too. And unfortunately the user experience blows, making this unlikely. The interface presents the whole top level of a tree, all the time. Each university is a box, in a row of boxes. This means the screen is about 46 kilometres wide. You can scroll using a bar with alphabet on it, or by grabbing the indicator. Or, you can drag the background to move left and right. None of these work. The tree is already at this stage so massive that the indicator moves 100 universities at a time, the alphabet only show about 5 first universities that start with that letter (especially bad with “U” with all the “University ofs” under there), and the dragging comes with a lag of several seconds that make it unfeasible.

Well, you can also use search. This is critical, as to sign up, you need to find your university first, and then from that, the right department. If yours hasn’t been added already, you can add it. Or, you can just not bother scrolling sideways (because it’s so hard and the search only covers the top level, not the department level) and enter the department again. Even misspell it, or add “Music” when there already is “Department of Music” etc. Under the University of Cambridge, for instance, you have duplicates or even triplicates of all faculties, both with and without the “Faculty of” and then some with misspelled versions on the side.

After that you can add yourself or anyone else. If you add yourself, you need to enter email address and password to create an account. Then you can pick research interests. These come in a drop down list that scrolls like a hedgehog in amber – i.e. it doesn’t. The lag at this point was up to about 10-20 seconds, with any attempts to tick a box resulting in 5 other, unrelated boxes being ticked. I gave up once at this stage, as pressing “cancel” aborted the whole process, not just this last stage. At least if you just skip this stage, you can edit these later in your profile, this time with a much better interface. You also get more options for “subfields”. Stupidly, you can only add these subdivisions from the graphical tree-interface that, as said, doesn’t work properly.

The death knell for this site at the moment comes in form of the inane browsing limitations. Using the graphical interface, it only displays 40 people who are listed in a given department or research interest. Just as well, because it already takes several minutes to scroll through this lot. But there is a link-based interface for finding people, which is much better, or would be, but for some incomprehensible reason it only displays 50 people, those first in alphabet, from a given research interest or department. So, when I was checking out who else has cognitive science among their interests, I could only see those with surnames starting with A or B. Thanks to the possibility to make subdivisions, there are niches (such as psychology of music, under psychology) where there are less people and you can actually see them all. But, this is where the true weakness of the tree format is revealed. There are as many academic fields as there are sub-genres in punk rock. Everyone has a name for their own interest and while they might be doing exactly the same as someone else, due to differences in traditions or just wanting to be special, the labels are different, or same but in different branches of the tree. Thus, the main reason for signing up, finding those with similar interests, is lost.

So, academia.edu is an interesting start-up. In a way, it’s “yet another social network”, which now that some people have already declared Web 2.0 dead, makes you doubt if it is such a good thing, for instance, will they have necessary resources to add server muscle if/when this grows even larger? On the positive side, it does have a clearly defined niche, but it seems to lack functionality, and most definitely it lacks usability. You can’t really do anything much after you’ve created your profile, apart from updating the profile. The options for interacting with others are very limited, but luckily searching and browsing are so limited and clumsy you won’t find anyone there anyway.

Kill your darlings, say the editors. If you’re in love with a chapter, section, sentence or saying, the text will probably be better without it. The folks at academia.edu should kill their tree structure, and focus on people and interaction instead. They could of course keep the tree as a graphical way of representing and browsing the departments and research interests, but they’d have to make it much lighter. A good way to start would be to get rid of the top level – if I’m interested in the University of Jyväskylä, I’m interested in its departments and people in them – or alternatively people who do similar things. I have no interest what so ever in other universities that might be close to JyU in alphabetical order. Dragging all those along when trying to focus the screen to one of JyU’s departments is just a very bad idea. And for Pete’s sake, let me browse as many profiles as I like. I know people whose surnames start with P, or even T!

Anyway, add me as a contact if you decide to sign up.

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