When Scott F. Johnson got an email on Wednesday from Academia.edu asking if he was interested in paying "a small fee" to get his future papers considered for recommendation by the website’s editors, he thought it was a scam.
Mr. Johnson, an assistant professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, took a screen shot of the email, from Adnan Akil, product director of the online platform, and posted it on Twitter to see what others thought.
It turns out that other professors on Twitter had a lot to say, and none of it supported the idea that Academia.edu — a social network for researchers to share academic work — would begin to charge for consideration by its editors. The message went viral overnight and spawned a storm of back-and-forth conversations with Mr. Akil, with many critics saying such a proposal would be very "problematic" at the least.
Mr. Johnson, who mostly stayed out of the storm after his initial tweet, said he had thought the email was fake because, "typically, at least in the humanities, [we] think paying for promotion of your work is irresponsible and intellectually dishonest."
Many other Twitter users chimed in, calling the potential business model little more than "vanity publishing." With the incentives created by cash payments, they said, editors’ recommendations would lose credibility.
But Richard Price, chief executive officer of Academia.edu, insisted that the idea was not a "pay to play" model and that the for-profit company had not decided whether to adopt such a plan.
While he said the Twitter storm was "unexpected," Mr. Price defended Mr. Akil, saying his employees may periodically email users to get feedback on "crazy" ideas.
But that was news to Mr. Johnson. "He didn’t advertise [it] as an idea they are kicking around," he said.
While Mr. Price agreed there had been "pushback" from users on social media, he did not say Academia.edu wouldn’t develop the feature in the future. He compared the practice to open-access journals’ charging authors fees to keep their articles freely available online. Academia.edu, which registered its domain name before ".edu" was restricted to colleges and universities, now has a user base of more than 30 million members.
Mr. Johnson, who has publicized seven books and almost two dozen articles and book reviews on Academia.edu, said he would never pay for his work to be recommended by the website, and he doesn’t believe many other scholars in the humanities would either.
"I don’t get the sense that humanities [scholars] are willing to pay for this, particularly because we don’t have subventions from funding bodies," as is common in the sciences, he said. "There are going to be a lot of people, if they pursue this, who leave."
In fact, the controversy has led some Twitter users to cite the hashtag #DeleteAcademiaEdu and post messages that they were deactivating their accounts.