Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.–Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park

We’re at the end of an era where we’ve all drunk the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid about how everything digital is a revolution that is good for society, and we’re finally starting to take a serious look at where this particular flavor of connectedness has led us. Facebook, Google and the many other social media channels do indeed offer us much good, but their business models, mostly built around surveillance and ad selling, are having serious consequences. Between Altmetrics and Scholarly Collaboration Networks (SCNs), academia has started down the same path as the rest of society. Is this really where we want to go?

surveillance camera
Stencil by Banksy, image courtesy of nolifebeforecoffee

A recent article in the London Review of Books does a superb job of clearly delineating just exactly what Facebook is and I highly recommend reading the whole (long) article. Key points focus on their business model, and how this drives how the site works:

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.

The need to serve their true, paying customers — the advertisers — means that what you see on this sort of social network is not driven by an algorithm that looks for the things important to you, but the content that is most likely to serve the needs of those advertisers:

Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

This means that fraudulent content isn’t really a problem for Facebook, as long as it drives ad sales. They’re only starting to take this issue seriously because of the increasing public recognition of this, and the potential that a loss of trust could decrease the amount of time people spend on the site viewing advertisements.

Google similarly offers results that favor its own business purposes over offering the best possible answers to the queries it receives. Microsoft researcher Dana Boyd has been tracking how this creates incentives that actively change content:

They [hackers] also learned how to game social media, manipulate its algorithms, and mess with the incentive structure of both old and new media enterprises. They weren’t alone. I watched teenagers throw brand names and Buzzfeed links into their Facebook posts to increase the likelihood that their friends would see their posts in their News Feed.

As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop, Boyd believes things are going to get much worse:

If you don’t have a structure in place for strategically grappling with how those with an agenda might try to route around your best laid plans, you’re vulnerable. This isn’t about accidental or natural content. It’s not even about culturally biased data. This is about strategically gamified content injected into systems by people who are trying to guess what you’ll do.

With that in mind, perhaps we need to rethink the growing reliance on the use of these advertising-based ventures in scholarly communication. Although I’m not aware of any institution or funder using Altmetric scores as a serious driver of hiring, promotion or funding decisions, their profile continues to rise. Recent articles on The Scholarly Kitchen have taken a hard look at the use of citations as the basis for metrics (here and here). While both authors ask important questions on just what exactly a citation means, it is at least clear that a citation at least means something, some measure of effect felt by the scholarly author community. Can the same be said for a Facebook “like” if its core purpose is driving advertising revenue? If a retweet is not an endorsement, then what is it?

As is the case with Facebook, this creates incentives that are at odds with the best interests of their users, who, once again, should not be confused with either site’s real customers.

The growing use of SCNs, copyright issues aside, is equally troubling. The current business models available for networks that hope to survive outside of just being a feature of some other company’s product, are all based around surveillance and advertising. ResearchGate and Academia.edu want to spy on users to use that data to promote ad sales (or to sell that surveillance data to anyone interested, if such a market exists). As is the case with Facebook, this creates incentives that are at odds with the best interests of their users, who, once again, should not be confused with either site’s real customers.

Do you want your scholarly reading material being chosen based on serving advertiser’s needs? We know Twitter and Facebook have been used to target particular populations and sway their opinions. Will we end up gamifying scholarly articles, including mentions of particular products or ideas in our papers in order to increase our likelihood of visibility and impact?

None of this sounds like a very good plan for the future of scholarly communication.

How else then, can we get the communication offered and the benefits of digital networks and tools without falling prey to serving someone else’s agenda? Jonathan Margolis, writing in the Financial Times, suggests that the solution could be a move toward a paid search or social network product, making the user the actual customer whose needs are to be met by the service. Academia.edu (always worth pointing out, not a true .edu but a for-profit business that bought the URL from someone else) has tried several times to create a “freemium” service, where paid users could upgrade what they get for a fee, even including content apparently licensed from Encyclopedia Britannica. Researchers, at least so far, don’t seem all that impressed with the offering. This fits with Margolis’ conclusion, that we’re simply not there yet:

…even if private searching and social media would not have enough momentum to succeed now, if the big beasts of the internet continue to dial up the creepiness, the idea’s day may yet come.

I suspect that the allure of “free”, essentially something-for-nothing, remains difficult to overcome, particularly because we’ve been so conditioned to expect it from everything online. Since it is increasingly clear that this is illusory, and that there are costs for all these “free” services, the question is whether bending to the will of advertisers is a price the scholarly world is willing to pay. The subscription model may not be the ultimate answer (though it has clearly become the choice du jour for the music and film/tv industries), but we need to be aware of the consequences of relying on the surveillance/advertising model, and the impact it can have on our perception the truth.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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Discussion

14 Thoughts on "The Facebooking of Scholarly Research"

Excellent, David, thank you for the topic.
These so-called networks sell us the utopia! We became “advertisible” and facebooked products, alas.

We certainly need to pay attention to what’s happening with these “free” social networks and search engines. They come with quite a heavy cost to us and we have no idea what kind of social experiment is being conducted on us (intentional or not). The recent revelations bout how easy people are to manipulate through fake news and fake outrage seems almost impossible to undo at this point.

I would totally pay to use a “clean” Facebook or tracking free Google. I don’t think we want to turn scholarly publishing into this model of advertising biased/influenced activity; however, our users are going there with or without us.

The humanities are trying to address the Facebook/academia.edu issue at least somewhat. The MLA started Humanities Commons (https://hcommons.org/) as an attempt to be a board run by the scholars for the scholars.

So far it has had a slight impact, but at least it is an attempt. Maybe as people realize the downsides of academia.edu/FB/etc., it will gain more traction.

While I completely agree with the need to fully understand how Facebook and Google operate, there does seem to be a sort of syllogistic fallacy here regarding altmetrics and scholarly communication. Something along the lines of “altmetrics rely on non-citation based metrics to measure research impact; Facebook is a non-citation based metric; therefore, all altmetrics are Facebook (and Twitter et al). ” Social media, with all its complexities, is one non-citation based metric, but so are blog posts, course syllabi, policy papers, & news outlets. And social media isn’t simply Facebook and Twitter; there’s Reddit, Wikipedia, LinkedIn. etc. Arguing that we should be careful to clearly look at what we catch when we start fishing with a net instead of a pole shouldn’t be confused with an argument for simply sticking with better made poles.

Yes, I agree, and thank you for clarifying my perhaps too narrow statement. Why I guess my thinking is colored in this manner though, is the high visibility of Twitter in Altmetrics in my experience. For the fairly broad set of journals where I work, we see hardly any activity on Reddit, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, etc. We do see an awful lot of tweets though, and the occasional blog post or newspaper article, which seem to be the major drivers of the scores we see.

Let’s not forget institutional repositories (which operate on different funding models) as an alternative to the other networks you mention.

Institutional repositories can help provide the access to papers that seems to be driving most of the traffic to SCNs, at least according to studies (and do so in a legal manner, supported by most publishers). But they don’t provide the same potential for community building and communication.

There’s a recent interesting blog post that talks about the struggles that academically-driven, and not-for-profits see in these sorts of spaces:
http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/10/11/open-source-commercial-non-profit-for-profit-what-power-have-you-got/
ResearchGate and Academia have been vastly more successful than libraries at getting researchers to upload copies of their papers to an online repository. I suspect this is mostly down to their vastly larger marketing budgets and near-constant levels of email spam, things that librarians don’t have and wouldn’t do.

It seems smug to suggest that people are completely unaware that Facebook exploits its users for advertising. Worse, it assumes that people don’t simply block all the ads or reconfigure the page to block unwanted messages. I use fbpurity (a free app) on my web browser. Sure, Facebook knows more than I’d like, but they’re not monetizing my personal participation (because I never see any advertising) unless they can somehow profit off my friends and family association with me. My two favorite features are the deletion of useless information (sometimes entire columns) and any messages that contain words that I block, like Trump.

If you think that the majority of Facebook users are installing sophisticated third party ad blockers and additional software on their devices, I suspect you may not have an accurate picture of the technological capabilities of the typical internet user. Regardless, using an ad blocker is irrelevant here. Just because you don’t see the ads, it doesn’t mean that the content you are being presented with isn’t determined by those same advertisers, as noted in the LRB article. And yes, even without you seeing those ads, they are still relentlessly selling your data to all comers, so they are indeed profiting off of you.

Bev Skeggs (International Inequalities Institute, LSE) has done some fascinating research which looks at the extent to which you are being tracked by Facebook even if you have ads blocked.

Video: http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=3883

Slides: http://www.lse.ac.uk/assets/richmedia/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/slides/20170927_1830_youAreBeingTrackedEvaluatedAndSold.pdf

Once again, a good take on a difficult topic.

One additional point to consider relates to the manipulation possibilities: these so-called alt-metrics raise the issue to a whole new level. If money (grants, tenures, or whatnot) will be involved somewhere some day, it is guaranteed that bots will also take over.

What is more, despite of some reassurances from the alt-metrics people, academic publishers and related parties are hardly in a position to build effective defenses. I mean even governements are failing — Twitter and Facebook are the platforms of choice for waging the current “information warfare”.

Hard times indeed are upon us. It seems academia is doomed to either submit to the silicon valley’s “free” platforms and be abused by advertisers, or pay ransom to commercial “services” whilst still holding no guarantee whatsoever of not being data-mined all the same.

Let’s not forget that once upon a time books carried ads in the back, including ads for cigarettes. And until the digital age came upon us, academic journals depended on ads for a small but significant stream of revenue. There was no surveillance function going on, of course, but it’s not as though commercial advertising was not part of the publishing business. As for the effectiveness of advertising on Facebook and on TV, for that matter, it is easy enough to ignore the ads completely, as I do, by taping all the TV shows I watch and never clicking on any ad on Facebook. I suspect there are many people who act as I do, so one has to wonder how effective all this advertising is.

Hi Sandy,
Some very big differences here. As I’m sure you know, every reputable publisher builds a very strong firewall between their ad sales department and their editorial department. Newspapers for years were reliant on ad sales moreso than subscriptions, and if they were a good newspaper, they didn’t let advertisers control the content that was published. The same goes for books and journals. Here, Facebook has no editorial department, and is not creating content. They are letting the advertisers call the shots, and what content gets pushed out to users is determined by advertiser needs, not by a completely separate mechanism that puts the needs of the reader (or the needs of journalism, scholarship, etc.) at the forefront of that decision. Facebook thinks of themselves as a neutral platform, and is in fact an advertising sales company at heart. This is not true of the other media of which you speak.

it is easy enough to ignore the ads completely, as I do, by taping all the TV shows I watch and never clicking on any ad on Facebook. I suspect there are many people who act as I do, so one has to wonder how effective all this advertising is.

Here’s the thing though, as I responded to another commenter above. Even if you never look at a single ad, the content you are seeing on Facebook is still being shaped by those advertisers. Further, everything you say or do on the site is being surveilled, not to mention everywhere you go on the web after signing into Facebook, and that data is being sold to those advertisers so they can better plot their strategies or their products to their advantage.
See also the links in the comment above from Helen King (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/10/12/facebooking-scholarly-research/#comment-71496). Not looking at the ads doesn’t make you immune to the pernicious effect they generate.

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