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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Story Behind the Elsevier Purchase of Mendeley - Interview with Co-founder Victor Henning


Anyone with an interest in technology, open access, altmetrics and education cannot have missed the recent news of publishing giant Elsevier acquiring the social reference management tool Mendeley for something in the region of $69 - $100 million according to TechCrunch.
I first came across Mendeley in early 2009 and was instantly struck by its genius, it was one of those ‘Web 2.0’ that just jumped out at you like Dropbox, Prezi and Google Docs. In my department we’d been teaching our postgraduate students Reference Manager for the last decade and it was a no-brainer to move them over to the free, flexible tool that allowed them to work anywhere (they were mostly international students), create networks and find interesting research all in one place for the cost of nothing - what’s not to like?




I was so taken by Mendeley that I enrolled to be one of their first advisors and over the last few years have taught hundreds of our students, colleagues and external parties on the software. Despite never really using reference management software that much I knew that this was going to be big, and have enjoyed watching it’s development via the advisor forums, meet-ups online and even a trip to their London headquarters.

Mendeley didn’t just happen, it was created by three academics, Dr. Victor Henning, Jan Reichelt and Paul Föckler, all of whom had seen how academic knowledge was locked down in a Web 1.0 world and information sharing was often at the behest of large publishing companies. It came around the same time as other notable social reference tools such as CiteUlike, Connotea and Zotero. Mendeley like Zotero came in two flavours, with a downloadable interface, which allowed the user to access their papers and annotate them anywhere. This was one of the most popular functions and also the one which most irked the academic publishing community and the copyright officers. Nevertheless the company grew and grew thanks to a large community of advisors and financial investment. For advisors like me it felt only like a matter of time before a big fish would come and buy the company. The rumblings on the Web started a few months ago and were finally confirmed a week ago as Elsevier announced the purchase.

Since there has been an awful lot of chatter on the Web, with many articles written all trying to predict what this means for both companies and academic publishing as a whole. The news led the New Yorker to publish the article ‘When the Rebel Alliance Sells Out’, a piece documenting the major differences between the two companies in terms of their business models and ethos. The truth is that no one really knows what impact this will have on the open access and altmetrics movements just yet. In addition how it may impact digital copyright, as many saw Mendeley as not only the iTunes of Reference Management, but also the Napster. Certainly the iTunes model is a possibility as some have branded the idea of the application being used as a front end for researchers to purchase papers directly from Mendeley. Certainly, whatever happens Elsevier is in the business of making money so will have already got ideas on how they can utilise their new purchase to make a return, although some fear that Elsevier have just bought Mendeley to reign in the biggest threat to their empire with over 2 million users and over 100 million papers.

I had met co-founder Victor Henning at one of the Mendeley Advisor days and via various contacts on Twitter and have found him to be always willing to talk about the software and support advisor initiatives like my Minute Mendeley website. So with that in mind, I decided to contact Victor to ask if I could run a short interview to get the Mendeley side of the story, something I think all Mendeley users should hear before they make a rash decision to close their accounts as some advisors have done in protest. Now don’t get me wrong, I was concerned by this purchase as much as the next advisor, as like so many others had put great trust in supporting this tool and following the recent news that Google was shutting down their brilliant Google Reader tool was wary of other such mothballing of great applications. I was also concerned by a potential step backwards in the fight to make knowledge more accessible, on the Cloud and via publishers.

As I said earlier I think it is too early to decide on what the future holds, as with last week’s BBC Radio 4’s Material World show which featured interviews with Henning and ImpactStory’s Jason Priem the debate is finally starting to open up to a wider audience. The Mendeley purchase has brought the issue of academic publishing to a very big table. How Elsevier treat this or how other groups who share the Mendeley ethos will react nobody can say, but this feels like the end of one chapter and the start of another. Whether this chapter will be behind a paywall time will only tell.

Here is the transcript of the interview with Victor Henning - CEO and Co-Founder of Mendeley.com - I’d like to thank Victor for taking the time to respond to my questions.

The article is published under a Creative Commons By Attribution Licence - please feel free to share and repost.

The Elsevier purchase has been on the horizon for a some time, what were the reasons for going with them?

You're right - they had actually been supportive of us for a long time. First, by recommending users of their 2collab tool to migrate to Mendeley, then by sponsoring our Science Online London conferences which we organized together with Nature Publishing and the British Library, and then by being the first publisher to build an "altmetrics" app on our Open API.

Late last summer, we were introduced to Olivier Dumon, who had just left eBay to join Elsevier and lead their database and web businesses, like ScienceDirect and Scopus. Because he came from a tech background, we immediately hit it off - he understood our vision for Mendeley, of trying to build a platform that served researchers' workflow needs. In fact, he had a similar vision for Elsevier's web businesses!

So we started comparing our respective roadmaps and found that they were perfectly complementary. The one thing that's always bugged me about Mendeley's user experience is how hard it is for our users to get access to full-text content - even the content that their library has already paid for! Users discover metadata in Mendeley, but are then sent away via DOIs or OpenURLs. Elsevier knows a lot about authentication solutions and access entitlements, and we can use that to make content access easier.

Conversely, Elsevier felt they needed to understand their users better. They knew when one of their PDFs was downloaded from Scopus or ScienceDirect, but then lost track of it. Mendeley helps them get a better sense of research trends in the academic community on an anonymized, aggregate level - which lets them improve the content they publish. Also, our recommendation technology allows them to improve content discovery for Scopus and ScienceDirect users.

Olivier and us also began to imagine how we could improve Mendeley's crowdsourced, and thus sometimes messy, data with the clean, structured data from Scopus. Scopus also has data which we don't have: Citations, and 17 million user profiles generated from those citations. We can use that to build amazing new services, for example to alert you when one of your publications, or any of the documents in your Mendeley library, receives a new citation.

We would never have been able to realize these ideas as a simple partnership or side project - as a start-up, Mendeley had to focus on becoming profitable. However, as part of Elsevier, we need to worry less about monetizing every new feature, and can think about these long-term goals instead. That's why both Elsevier and Mendeley felt that it made sense to go "all in".


What do think the reaction has been from the Mendeley Community, in particular the strong network of Mendeley Advisors to the Elsevier purchase?

Understandably, there has been a lot of concern about what it means for Mendeley - will it still remain free? Will we continue to support collaboration and sharing? Will we maintain our Open API, and will be keep our data open under a Creative Commons CC-BY license? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

Fortunately, while our Mendeley Advisors voiced the same concerns and had a lot of questions, they generally continue to support us based on our track record of listening to our users closely. We promised to them that this wouldn't change, and I think they will hold us accountable.

On Twitter and elsewhere, there have also been angry voices about why we would sell to Elsevier, or to a publisher in general. It wasn't an easy decision, but as I explained earlier, one that we felt made sense for us and will ultimately benefit our users.

What are Elsevier's plans, will the software or the pricing change much in the near future?


As I outlined earlier, we are now in the fortunate position that we are under less pressure to monetize. We've already doubled our users' cloud storage space for free and upgraded our Mendeley Advisors to free Team Accounts. We're currently reviewing how we can make sharing and collaboration easier and more affordable.

Apart from that, the plan is to focus on integration between Mendeley, Scopus, and ScienceDirect. Ultimately, we're aiming for single-sign-on, meaning you can use the same account on all three websites, which will make it easier to search for content directly within Mendeley, or save articles to Mendeley more easily.

Do the Mendeley Advisors still have a part to play in all of this?

Yes, absolutely. They've been great at teaching Mendeley to students and faculty on their campus, and we continue to rely on them to provide us with feedback from their campuses around the globe. Next week, we've actually scheduled three days of user testing session for new features at the Mendeley HQ.

Considering what Elsevier does and how it operates, do you think this purchase will help the Altmetrics and Open Access movements in the long term?


I believe so. Elsevier already supports and provides data to ImpactStory, the popular altmetrics tool. Mendeley will keep offering altmetrics data via our API, and thanks to access to Scopus data, our data will be cleaner, richer, and more complete.

As for Open Access - while Elsevier is certainly not know as a big OA publisher yet, this is changing. They have doubled their number of OA journals last year and introduced additional hybrid options, and acquisitions like Mendeley will enable them to build new business models around OA.

Do you think the purchase will have opened the doors for similar applications in Altmetrics such as Figshare and Impact Story to reach a wider audience or will it make academics interested in this area a little more wary - considering how many feel about the publishing giants.

Yes, I think so. Altmetric.com and Figshare are already owned by a major publisher - Macmillan/Nature - and when Elsevier starts to integrate Mendeley's altmetrics data, it will be brought to a much wider audience. Elsevier has 10 million monthly users!

Do you think the purchase will help loosen very tight copyright laws that prevent the sharing of information, or at least the accessibility of academic content within the Cloud for individuals and their own access and groups?

In my mind, the laws are not necessarily the issue - they keep getting more permissive anyway, for example with the UK Hargreaves review. To me, it seems that we simply don't have an easy solution to determining who should have access to which piece of content. The information about this - e.g. a user's affiliation or multiple affiliations, the various holdings of the different libraries of a single university, authentication methods - is too decentralized. We hope that Mendeley can indeed make this easier and thereby increase the accessibility of content.

What will yours, Jan's and Paul's involvement be with Mendeley from now on?

We're still in the same roles: Jan runs our day-to-day operations, Paul manages projects and interfaces between business requirements and technology, and I work on the strategy and product vision. Additionally, I will join the Elsevier strategy team as VP of Strategy.

Looking back 6 years ago, could you have ever imagined that Mendeley would be where it is today?

To be honest: Yes :-)

We always hoped, and passionately believed, that this idea could turn into something big - and I think it's fair to say that it has! Of course, it hasn't always been a smooth ride, we've had many setbacks and catastrophes along the way. The friendship between Jan, Paul, and I played a big role in overcoming those challenges - we supported each other and kept believing in our idea.

Are you working on any other projects or are you planning to concentrate on your own research more again?

No - Mendeley is keeping me busy enough, and that won't change for the foreseeable future!

Though my girlfriend Michelle just finished her diploma in nutrition, and I'll help her get started with her own nutrition and health coaching projects. Can I plug her amazing food blog? It's here: http://phelanhungry.tumblr.com/. Of interest for academics, she also just published an article in Wired Magazine called "How to eat yourself smarter": http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/03/how-to/how-to-eat-yourself-smarter

Food for thought...


Dr. Victor Henning is the Co-Founder & CEO, Mendeley Ltd. @mendeley_com


Tattersall, A. (2011) References, Collections, Corrections and Mendeley. MmIT Journal, 37 (4) 11-12.



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