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Humanist Archives: April 18, 2020, 8:40 a.m. Humanist 33.778 - on using academia.edu

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 778.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2020-04-18 07:21:42+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.757: on using academia.edu


Gabriel Egan wrote:

> Norman Gray thinks that personal websites are less effective at
> the "long-term curation" of our writings than services
> like Academia.edu are. Personal websites that are entirely
> free and open are archived by the Internet Archive. I just
> checked and their Wayback Machine has 115 snapshots of my
> personal website  taken between now and
> 2003 when I first created the site. I browsed these snapshots
> and, yep, all my writing is there.

I certainly didn't intend to endorse academia.edu in this way, but
re-reading what I wrote, I think I could have expressed myself better.
So thanks to Gabriel for the prompt to (attempt to) do so.

In the message Gabriel is quoting, I principally intended to suggest
that there is a hierarchy of value here, that academia.edu is rather far
down it, and that institutional repositories, by being higher up, have
an important place in that ladder for those who have access to them (and
that people in institutions should demand access to them).

I think academia.edu is a couple of grades less attractive than a
disciplinary repository for much the same reasons that Gabriel mentions:
they're commercial, their goals are not necessarily aligned with the
academy, they may disappear without warning, and without there being a
plan for preservation of what they are currently providing.  I don't
mean to pick on academia.edu, which I don't really know much about (I
hope I'm not being unfair to them), but they're a convenient
representative of a collection of roughly similar organisations which
include researchgate and even perhaps LinkedIn.

Where Gabriel and I probably at least partially disagree is that I
believe a personal website is _low down_ on this hierarchy of value,
precisely because it is _not_ archived in an important sense (and I
speak as someone who does look after a personal website, which I very
much care about).  That's because the 'long-term curation' I mentioned
is about more than looking after the bits.

The Internet Archive does look after at least some bits, but their
interest is in 'the internet', and their collection policy is
correspondingly and rightly broad and non-specific (see eg [1, 2] for
the International Internet Preservation Consortium, and [3] for
specifically the Internet Archive (IA)).  They happen to have snapshots
of some of my webpages, too (in one case going back to 8 May 1997, oh
happy days), but if they didn't, or if they decided for whatever good or
bad reason to 'deaccession' them, I would have no right to complain.  I
haven't handed over any preservation responsibility to them; they're
_only_ preserving the bits.  Note: my saying this is not a complaint:
this is merely a remark about their (excellent) accession and curation

An archive or a repository, on the other hand, _does_ take over (not
share) responsibility for objects actively deposited with it.  They
might mint a DOI for it, curate metadata for it, share information about
it with peers, have possibly expensive plans for managing what happens
to the archive contents (and the DOIs) if funding fails, and so on.
Archivists have full-time jobs, doing detailed work that we generally
don't notice, that goes well beyond simply preserving objects.

But none of that is guaranteed to happen if IA opportunistically take a
copy of my webpage.   For example, [4] is a document at IA, but I can't
_rely_ on it being there, not because I think IA are 'unreliable', or
because I actually think they might delete it, but because the IA have
made no 'institutional commitment to persistence'.  With an echo of
another current Humanist strand, I would not be happy using [4] in a
bibliography, other than as an act of desperation, or unless I was
talking specifically about changes in webpages; that is, unless I was
talking about 'the internet', which IA is data for.  As far as I'm
concerned, the page [5] has disappeared, and [4] is simply a contingent
copy of it, not an archive version of it.

Put another way, [4] at IA exists for the benefit of 'historians of the
internet', and not for the benefit of eccentrics who wanted to read the
original document which was once at [5].  In that sense, and in one
typology, the Internet Archive is a 'museum' rather than an 'archive' or

Thus, walking up the ladder:

   4. My personal website is 'not archived', in the arguably slightly
technical sense I've aimed to make clear, and the various documents on
it are, perhaps, 'made available' rather than 'published'.  If you find
something you like there, take a copy of it rather than a bookmark,
because I or my executors may forget to renew the domain registration
(lord preserve us!).
   3. academia.edu (and friends) at least aim to take responsibility for
things posted there, and provide stable-URI services.  I don't myself
place a lot of store in the multi-decadal prospects of that, for the
reasons Gabriel and I probably agree about, but it's not nothing.
   2. My institution has been around for a while, and I hope would
regard its institutional repository as a very long-term commitment.
It's not their main business, but I hope they would feel at least a
_bit_ bad about dumping it, if it came to a funding showdown between the
repository and the College of Arts [6].
   1. A repository like arxiv.org exists in order to provide archival
services.  arxiv.org will presumably go under at some point, but in that
sorry eventuality I have some confidence that they have a plan to make
their published IDs still resolvable by, and their content still
retrievable from, their successor organisation.

(Journals fit in here, too, but that's for another thread, perhaps).

Thanks for forcing me to think through this in a little more detail.

Best wishes,


[1] http://netpreserve.org/about-us/
[2] http://netpreserve.org/web-archiving/about-archiving/
[3] https://archive.org/about/
[5] http://www.astro.gla.ac.uk/users/norman/lists/epub.html
[6] 'So the question you've got to ask yourself, Dean, is "do I feel

Norman Gray  :  https://nxg.me.uk
SUPA School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow, UK

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