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April 9, 2013

Elsevier acquires Mendeley + all the data about what you read, share, and highlight

I liked the Mendeley guys. Their product is terrific — read your scientific articles, annotate them, be guided by the reading behaviors of millions of other people. I’d met with them several times over the years about whether our LibraryCloud project (still very active but undergoing revisions) could get access to the incredibly rich metadata Mendeley gathers. I also appreciated Mendeley’s internal conflict about the urge to openness and the need to run a business. They were making reasonable decisions, I thought. At they very least they felt bad about the tension :)

Thus I was deeply disappointed by their acquisition by Elsevier. We could have a fun contest to come up with the company we would least trust with detailed data about what we’re reading and what we’re attending to in what we’re reading, and maybe Elsevier wouldn’t win. But Elsevier would be up there. The idea of my reading behaviors adding economic value to a company making huge profits by locking scholarship behind increasingly expensive paywalls is, in a word, repugnant.

In tweets back and forth with Mendeley’s William Gunn [twitter: mrgunn], he assures us that Mendeley won’t become “evil” so long as he is there. I do not doubt Bill’s intentions. But there is no more perilous position than standing between Elsevier and profits.

I seriously have no interest in judging the Mendeley folks. I still like them, and who am I to judge? If someone offered me $45M (the minimum estimate that I’ve seen) for a company I built from nothing, and especially if the acquiring company assured me that it would preserve the values of that company, I might well take the money. My judgment is actually on myself. My faith in the ability of well-intentioned private companies to withstand the brute force of money has been shaken. After all this time, I was foolish to have believed otherwise.

MrGunn tweets: “We don’t expect you to be joyous, just to give us a chance to show you what we can do.” Fair enough. I would be thrilled to be wrong. Unfortunately, the real question is not what Mendeley will do, but what Elsevier will do. And in that I have much less faith.


I’ve been getting the Twitter handles of Mendeley and Elsevier wrong. Ack. The right ones: @Mendeley_com and @ElsevierScience. Sorry!


August 18, 2010

[2b2k] Mendeley and the ecology of science

Perhaps the coolest thing about writing a book is that you have an excuse to interview people you otherwise wouldn’t get to talk with.

Today I interviewed Victor Henning, the co-founder of Mendeley, a very popular desktop app for researchers that indexes your PDFs, provides social reading and researching tools, and aggregates anonymized information about what researchers are actually reading and annotating. There’s a lot packed into Mendeley, all designed to help researchers find out what they need to know, primarily though social means.

Victor and some friends founded Mendeley as grad students when they discovered that although they were in different fields, their research needs and processes were very similar. In the twenty months since its launch in January 2009, it’s grown to 450,000 users, with 33 million documents in its database.

I’m thinking of using Mendeley as an example of how the scientific landscape has changed. Although it’s hard to find uncredentialed amateurs who, thanks to the Web, have made large individual contributions to science — for most of the sciences, you need lots of training and access to expensive equipment — the Net has changed the world in which credentialed experts work. For example, Mendeley is able to provide a much more responsive picture of the trendlines in scientific research than the “impact factor” by which journals measure their significance; the impact factor looks at the number of citations of the articles in a journal over the prior two years, divided by the total number of articles in the journal. Two to three years is a long time to wait to measure impact. Plus, as Victor points out, Mendeley can be much more granular.

As Victor says: “My personal opinion is that some form of credentials will always matter. It’s a heuristic to decide if some other person can be trusted. But credentials will not just be that someone is a tenured profession or is at a top isnstution or is published in Science or Nature. In the Mendeley context it may be that his paper has lots of readers, or lots of rankings or tags.”

The old authorities and credentials are still there and are likely to continue to have weight. But the ocean in which they swim is now filled with a lot more fish.