Academia.edu, which is “accelerating the world’s research”, has become notorious among academics for its relentless email appeals to upgrade to their premium service, which allows us to delve beyond the teasers of their free product, and to see things like who is reading us, who is mentioning us in their papers, and all the other things that reportedly appeal to us vain academics. So I was supremely intrigued when one day this summer, my mother, who is not an academic, asked me who were those Academia.edu people who kept emailing her with requests to “upgrade to premium”. One recent email even informed her that her name “is mentioned by one of the top 3% most read authors on Academia”.
I started investigating. It has been a voyage of discovery to say the least.
My mother, like my father, is a fine person in every way. Both my parents, for example, are recipients of the Québec Lieutenant Governor’s Medal, awarded for a lifetime of community service. My mother, however, is not, nor has she ever been, an academic, leading or otherwise. She is therefore an unlikely target for Academia.edu’s repeated attentions.
My first question was: Why is Academia asking my mother to “upgrade”? The answer to that was easy to find. There is in fact an Academia page in her name, under the category “independent”. Her name, and the combination of the location in Québec, makes it exceedingly unlikely that this is a different person. And after all, she has been getting Academia.edu emails at her personal address, so…
She assures me that she has never created the page in question, and being a key member of her IT support team, I fully believe her. Stranger still, she is tagged on the page, just under her name, as “First Pioneer in Québec”. Now, I doubt she will be upset if I note that she has not been considered young in a while, but even my young daughter, who regularly asks us how things were “in ancient times” when we were young, would be surprised to learn that her grand-mother is considered a first pioneer of Québec. Regardless, I would be shocked if the label was self-attributed.
This raises a few rather interesting questions: How was my mother’s Academia.edu page created? How did it somehow get linked with her personal email address? Why is her name mentioned in papers by a top 3% academia user? Why the idiosyncratic label?
My mother’s page has three views as of this writing, two of which I believe are mine, generated in the course of my research for this post. More interesting yet, she has one follower, a history researcher from the Université de Montréal. Significantly, about 20 minutes after I accessed my mother’s follower’s Academia page, I got an email from Academia telling me that my name is mentioned in a paper in the follower’s research area, history, accompanied by the usual appeal that I upgrade to find out more. That’s a fairly broad claim and probably true, but at least a spam generation strategy is starting to appear from the mass of seemingly random prompts to upgrade.
Next, I discovered that my mother is indeed a cited author on Google Scholar. In 1980, she published a now prescient article on the growing numbers of school-children who needed accommodation for learning disabilities. At the time, she was director general of a non-profit organization that raises awareness about learning disabilities in Québec. That article was cited in 1983 by a report on French language acquisition in schools. So strictly speaking, my mother does have an academic profile. Her H-Index of 1 is better than some.
After reading an early draft of this post, my mother pointed out that she had contributed to another scholarly paper, in 1965, before she was married, and under her patronym. Purely for historical interest, I will note that the official publication date is a full 14 days before my parents’ wedding day. That one has no citations on Google Scholar, so her H-Index remains at 1.
She also acknowledged that she was indeed part of a group of early pioneers in Québec, in the identification and accommodation of learning disability in French schools, to which the label on her page might be referring. She said that when they started, (my translation) “The Montreal Children’s Hospital [in the English sector] was already 10 years ahead of us, and in France and Belgium they were decades ahead, just as in the US”, but there was nothing in the French sector in Québec. Pioneer status confirmed, then. This would mean that whoever created the page and the label was aware of her history.
Still, no amount of intense midnight googling has turned up any link between the follower and my mother or her work, which seem to be unrelated. Despite my research, there is still no hint of how the page was created. The label makes some sense. But I have been unable to find my mother’s name, married or unmarried, in an academic publication likely to have been written by one of the top 3% most read authors on Academia.edu.
I am genuinely curious about how that last statement is construed to be true. The one about me being mentioned by someone in some history paper is easy to consider true. The one about the top 3% author mentioning my mother (“top 3% is oddly specific, isn’t it?”) might be more of a challenge. But it was in an email, so it must be true. And according to the marketing wizards at Academia.edu, we should feel compelled to find out more.
5 thoughts on “My strange trip through Academia.edu’s spam”
A nice to read narrative and example of OPSINT research;-) Thanks for sharing it, had a good smile.
PS: Discovered myself being qualified as “mentioned by the top 2% read authors”, even:-D
Thanks. Here is the follow-up.