In the most recent edition of Reading in a Foreign Language, Tom Cobb observes that the Academic Word List isn't really so academic. It was built upon the General Service List, which was never designed to be simply a high frequency word list. (It has other problems, such as being built on a small corpus of magazines.) West, who constructed the GSL, removed high-frequency items that were largely synonymous with other words in the list and replaced them with lower frequency words that provided broader semantic coverage. In effect, then, the AWL largely fills in the holes the West left behind. Words like area are really just broadly frequent words and not really academic at all.
Tom and I have been playing with the idea of updating the AWL by basing it not on the GSL but rather on Paul Nation's British National Corpus word lists. As Nation himself has pointed out, "the BNC is not a great corpus for making a wordlist of the high-frequency words because it is largely adult, formal, and exclusively British," but we'll take it as good enough for now. We then took the most common words in the academic sub-corpus of the Corpus of Current American English, removing those that were not common in all subsections (e.g., law, med, history, etc.) and that didn't appear in at least half of the publications in the corpus. This corpus is also not ideal, being only journal articles and only American, but again, it's freely available, and it will do for now.
If you'd like to see how much coverage our interim list has, you can test it out on Tom's Lextutor Site using the cut-and-paste method. Scroll down to the very bottom of the results page.