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In academia.edu's terms of service, it says

By making available any Member Content on or through the Site or Services, you hereby grant to Academia.edu a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, view, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site or Services.

This seems crazy, and posting anything there would clearly violate even the most lenient publisher agreement (for instance, many math publishers allow me to post the final paper on the internet, but not to sell it). Furthermore, these terms seem potentially very harmful to the users. What is their rationale for employing such terms? And why would anyone in their right mind even consider posting a paper there?

Note (as of July 2016): this part of the terms of service have changed and seems slightly less horrific. Though other parts seem more insane, and also in contradiction with each other, like they own all your intellectual property rights.

  • 5
    I'm not sure the question in the title is answerable, other than with: "because they can" – EnergyNumbers Jan 22 '14 at 13:36
  • I get an empty page at that link...perhaps the server is swamped from AC.SE requests (although other pages seem just fine)? Perhaps they are reconsidering their terms. – earthling Jan 22 '14 at 14:00
  • I think the final question is a much better one....What is the motivation for people to post their papers there? – earthling Jan 22 '14 at 14:04
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    I would guess that the people running academia.edu haven't actually thought carefully about this issue. Some people think of terms of service as boring, arcane lawyer stuff and don't pay much attention to them. If such a person ends up running a business, then it might genuinely not occur to them that anyone would carefully read and care about these terms. In that case, they wouldn't be intentionally making a risk/reward tradeoff, but rather just failing to recognize a risk. – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 22 '14 at 14:44
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    I am not sure there is really a question here, but the issue is important enough it deserves a +1. – StrongBad Jan 22 '14 at 20:58
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It's not necessarily crazy for academia.edu to ask for these things (although, as I say below, I certainly don't think users should agree to these terms). I imagine their lawyers advised them to use an agreement that covers all possible use cases as their business model evolves. For example, if they decided to charge their users membership fees, and only users who paid the fees got access to the site and could view profiles and download papers, then that would be tantamount to selling the papers and other user data (so they couldn't do it unless they had permission to sell this content). Posting ads on their web pages could be considered a form of commercial exploitation of the data, so they want to make sure they can do it. They might someday want to change file formats, such as converting PDFs into future super-PDF formats, and having permission to modify content submitted by users guarantees that they could do this. Even if they intend to take things down upon receiving requests from users, having irrevocable permission to post them means users cannot sue them for failing to take them down quickly enough. Basically, this agreement says they can do anything they want, which is obviously very convenient for them.

For comparison, Harvard's model open access policy also retains very broad rights (although not the right to sell papers for a profit). I believe the motivation is that universities can be trusted, and it's better for them to retain more rights than fewer, in case they need them someday. See the notes to line 7 in the model policy for more discussion of this point. Of course, the difference is that academia.edu is a commercial website, and even if they are trustworthy now, they might become less so in the future or be bought by someone untrustworthy.

On the other hand, even if it's not crazy for the site to ask for these rights, it's certainly crazy for users to agree! I'm amazed that these terms of service are being used, and I assume just about nobody using the site has actually read them and understood that they are permanently granting the right to sell arbitrarily modified versions of their papers. I hope you send them a complaint, as well as publicize this on the internet, because they need to change these terms as soon as possible. In addition to being completely unreasonable, they clearly conflict with a large majority of copyright agreements for papers, as you point out.

  • is there a school of ethical-as-in-more-free-software-like lawyers somewhere that advises sane terms to companies, like not opportunistic-cover-everything-just-in-case-all-rights-reserved kind of terms? – n611x007 Sep 16 '15 at 12:00
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    Many, if not most, users of academia.edu have never read those conditions. There's a lot of automated promotion of the site, and people just click-click-click through it without being warned they are (supposedly) agreeing to all of that stuff. Actually, I am entirely uncertain those conditions would actually be binding. – einpoklum Apr 12 '17 at 15:41
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It's "member content", not just papers.

Data analytics is a huge thing for web sites like Academia.edu. If they wanted to, for example, add advertisements on the sidebar, they might use your user data (post history, your messages, the contents of the post you're reading) to recommend ads that are relevant and pertinent to your interests. In that situation, they're using your member content.

If they come out with an advertising campaign talking to academics about why Academia.edu is awesome, maybe they'll have someone on camera with the web site in the background. That would be using the content in promotional videos. They don't want to have to ask the commenters for explicit permission to do that, so you waive that when you sign up.

Usually, it's not worth it for the lawyers to try to separate academic papers that are posted here from everything else, so they just say "member content".

If you don't like papers being there... then don't post your papers there.

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The "General Prohibitions" Section of academia.edu's Terms of Service, starts as follows:

General Prohibitions

You agree not to do any of the following:

Post, upload, publish, submit or transmit any Content that: (i) infringes, misappropriates or violates a third party’s patent, copyright, trademark, trade secret, moral rights or other intellectual property rights, or rights of publicity or privacy; ...

Combined with what the question points out from these Terms of Service, their business model could even "secretly hope" to directly compete with scientific journals.

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    I think this clause means that if they sell your papers and the publishers sue, you will be liable -- not academia.edu. – David Ketcheson Jan 23 '14 at 10:46
  • @David Ketcheson By uploading to academia.edu you grant them rights that you usually are not permitted to grant -if your paper has already been published by a publisher. So you will have to choose: either publish it in a journal, or upload it to academia.edu. You cannot do both without breaking the Terms of Service of both parties. So, in practice they force you to choose. – Alecos Papadopoulos Jan 23 '14 at 14:13
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    @AlecosPapdopoulos But that's not how they say you should use their site. They want you to upload journal articles (whether in pre-print or final form). See, for instance, blog.academia.edu/post/53204075764/kindling-impact. – David Ketcheson Jan 23 '14 at 17:33
  • @David Ketcheson I give more weight to Terms of Service and to what they imply. Also I wrote about a "secret hope" i.e. a prospect which is not necessarily in their core business model. And if I am grossly misunderstanding them, then they should change their ToS yesterday -the other answers correctly noted their total incompatibility with the current publishing legal framework. – Alecos Papadopoulos Jan 23 '14 at 18:30
  • Preprints are often redistributable, and while you cannot post the journal version, you are free to do with your manuscript as you want. – Davidmh Jul 28 '16 at 10:55

protected by Alexandros Dec 26 '17 at 22:51

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