hand over moneyLast week, I wrote a post about insurgent startups in scholarly communication. I dispensed some unsolicited advice about stakeholders and value propositions. Essentially, I suggested it’s a mistake to create a product, service or platform that serves one stakeholder but asks a different one to pay. Of course, perceived value is subjective and I’m sure that every scholarly communication startup that asks publishers to pay to integrate with them would say that they are providing value to the publisher, if only by enabling them to provide some feature or service to researchers.

By pure coincidence, a well known startup in our industry, Academia.edu suffered what some would regard as a public relations snafu, with their latest plan to monetise the content that users have uploaded.

In short, Academia.edu sent an email to some of its members on Wednesday inquiring if they would be interested in paying to submit their articles to Academia.edu’s editors to be ‘considered for recommendation’. There’s a more in depth account of the initial incident, the Twitter storm, and the backlash, at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Since then Academia.edu have played it down by emphasising that it was just one idea among many that they were considering.

In an email interview with Inside Higher Education, Adnam Akil, the Product Manager at Academia.edu that sent the original emails, likened the business model to a super cheap version of Gold Open Access, where the author themselves, or at least their funder, pays for accreditation, amongst other things. Some on social media and the blogosphere have accepted the logic of this. Particularly Paolo Mangiafico, Coordinator of Scholarly Communications Technology at Duke University noted that researchers have a choice about where to put their scholarly outputs, and how much control (or cash) to hand over in exchange for whatever level of service is on offer. I agree and in the end, if Academia.edu were to launch such a service, it would be up to individuals to decide whether they thought a recommendation from Academia.edu’s editors was worth the money paid to have it considered, factoring in the risk that they (presumably) might reject the article.

So why did this small scale user consultation spark such outrage? My personal thoughts are that Academia.edu, as well as some other players in the space have created for themselves an unrealistic and arguably disingenuously high moral bar. To be clear, founding a company in order to change scholarly communication for the good of science or the academy is a good thing to do. I’ve been involved in a number of such companies, but there is a danger. When a for-profit company is seen a part of a movement that feels like monetisation is a bad thing, it naturally becomes hard to make any money.

As I wrote last time, it’s impossible to build a successful company that seeks to provide value to one stakeholder while getting another to pay for it. This is made even harder if the company is trying to disrupt the very companies that they’re trying to sell to, and just hoping they won’t notice. When on top of that, your supporters find the idea of paying for your service distasteful, the number of potential revenue lines start to look a little sparse.

So how is it possible to build a business in this unique and interesting landscape? It’s all about transparency. To build a successful, profitable company you can’t act like you’re not trying to make money. It’s no good pretending that you are providing a service to a particular group without getting something in return. That doesn’t mean that you can’t improve scholarly communication without directly charging researchers, you can, but the service you provide has to form part of a product or service that meets the legitimate needs of another stakeholder, namely publishers, libraries or funders.