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Openness debate follows Mendeley acquisition

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Elsevier has bought Mendeley. Sian Harris investigates why the companies have chosen to join forces and how the research community is responding

If scholarly publishing were a pantomime, then some might cast publishing giant Elsevier as the rich, evil baron. On the other hand, some would have picked the reference-sharing startup Mendeley for the role of the hero or heroine, potentially challenging and disrupting the rule of the likes of the evil baron.

The research community could watch and boo at the ‘pantomime villain’ and cheer at the efforts of ‘the good guys’.

But what if real life isn’t like the story? What if it emerges that the rich, evil baron has wooed the heroine? What if Elsevier buys Mendeley?

That, of course, is what has been rumoured since late January and confirmed by the two companies earlier this week. So what has brought two seemingly so different companies together?

Victor Henning, one of the founders of Mendeley, told Research Information:

‘From Mendeley’s perspective we didn’t see this outcome but we’ve worked with Elsevier since the start and had already spoken about ways to collaborate. We are both focused on how to help academics in their workflow. We realised we were sending people away from Mendeley with links and so it wasn’t an integrated experience.’

Olivier Dumon, Elsevier’s managing director of academic and government markets also anticipated potential benefits to users, saying ‘We realised that we could do more for users. When we started to compare roadmaps we realised we share the same vision.’

The companies say they are looking at ways to integrate Mendeley better with Elsevier’s tools such as ScienceDirect and Scopus. This has some obvious advantages for the two companies. Over recent years Mendeley has been working on delivering detailed analytical insight into researcher behaviour and information usage based on what researchers actually upload, access and share on the platform.

However, the part of the puzzle that was missing was the more structured information about things like author affiliations, funders and citations, an area that Elsevier has a wealth of information through Scopus and ScienceDirect. For example, Scopus has been instrumental in helping people populate their ORCID records, while Elsevier data on funding sources is used in the FundRef project.

As one delegate at this week’s UKSG conference noted in a show-floor conversation, ‘This combination will give Elsevier a lot of behavioural information and also a lot of information about their competitors.’

From Mendeley’s point of view, the move also brings an injection of money. Neither company has officially disclosed the details of the acquisition but a source close to the deal said that the Financial Times' figure of £45 million was quite accurate.

As Henning pointed out, ‘We can now build tools that we’ve been planning but didn’t have the resources to do.’ Top of the list of such tools are iOS and Android versions of the platform, things that Henning said users have been requesting.

The commercial motivation for the sale seems clear, as do the potential technical benefits of integration. However, public perception of the two companies is very different and the news – indeed even the rumour of the news earlier this year – has provoked an angry reaction from some in the research community. Like with a pantomime, the ‘audience’ has been booing – although in this case it’s through the medium of a Twitter hashtag.

Since the rumour first emerged, the #mendelete tag has encouraged researchers to delete their data from Mendeley in protest against the sale – with links to instructions of how to do so.

Henning noted, ‘To a large extent concern was because people were speculating that Mendeley would be shut down.’ There is a precedent for that with many acquisitions – including some by Elsevier. However, Henning continued, ‘Now we can confirm the news and allay people’s fears. We hope that people will give us time to back up our words with actions.’

The companies say that Mendeley will remain an independent brand. Henning said that the development will not change the relationship that Mendeley has with Swets on the Mendeley Institutional Edition (MIE). He added that the company’s partnerships with other publishers will continue too. The team will stay in the same office in London and is now hiring. A couple of people from Elsevier will join the Mendeley team in London and Henning takes on the role of a vice president on Elsevier's strategy team.

Henning continued, ‘We are figuring out how to do the integration. We want to get the most out of this union.’

However, reactions on Twitter suggest that confirming the news has not allayed fears and there has been a renewed interest in the #mendelete hashtag. Some of the concerns have focused on the way that a popular start-up has been acquired by a large publisher that many researchers have negative views on. What’s more, some of the concerns are about the very thing that the two companies are planning: the integration of the two companies’ analytical data.

Heather Piwowar ‏(@researchremix), a postdoc at Duke University, USA and cofounder of Impact Story, for example, tweeted, ‘I'm going to #mendelete because I choose not to strengthen Elsevier with my papers, my reviews, or my click data.’

Luis J. Villanueva, an ecologist and PhD student at Purdue University, USA, is similarly moving his data away from Mendeley, writing in his blog, ‘[Mendeley] could have waited for Elsevier to show a true commitment to right their wrongs, but [now] they want to become part of the rag Elsevier uses to try to clean up their image. Elsevier has been denounced by editorial boards, libraries, thousands of researchers, and many other groups for their greedy behavior over content that is not generated by them.’

But the reservations have not all been about Elsevier. For some, there were already concerns about the openness of Mendeley.

When the rumour first emerged, (palaeo)limnologist & quantitative ecologist Gavin Simpson ‏(@ucfagls) told Research Information via Twitter that he was ‘never happy with Mendeley's closed source. The threat of buy-out just brought that issue to the fore. For me closed source code is a problem. Could live with that if Mendeley working for community, but not if part of Elsevier.’ He added:  ‘hope #mendelete helps raise awareness of the issues & need for open tools in science & helps people delete account if they want.’

Interestingly, such concerns with openness may be addressed more quickly thanks to the acquisition and the resulting funding injection. Henning said that Mendeley will be moving to an open API. The company has also upgraded its user storage space this week. ‘In the next few weeks we will be looking at how we can increase the benefits of sharing and collaboration for users,’ said Henning.

And the account deletion may not be such a significant factor. There has been a flurry of angry tweets and blog posts but Mendeley has nearly 2.3 million members. In a comment on a recent article, William Gunn, head of academic outreach for Mendeley, wrote, ‘While there have been a few account deletions, we’ve also seen an increase in new signups, so things are not quite as simple as it may seem.’

Meanwhile some are simply watching and seeing how things develop. Martin Fenner, medical doctor and cancer researcher at the Hannover Medical School Cancer Center, Germany and technical lead for the PLoS Article Level Metrics project, makes some interesting observations about the move in his blog, saying: ‘What this acquisition signals to me is that commercial publishers are now moving into the software tools for scientists business at full speed. They have always done this, but with ReadCube by Digital Science (a Nature Publishing Group sister company) in 2011, the acquisition of Papers by Springer last year and now Mendeley, reference management now often means using a tool owned by a publisher – this market used to be dominated [by] academic software such as Zotero and commercial software vendors such as Thomson Reuters (Endnote) or ProQuest (RefWorks).

'For me this trend signals that publishers have realized that we are moving into an Open Access publishing model, which in contrast to subscription publishing is not about owning the content, but about providing valuable services around content that is free to read and reuse.’

Some insider opinion comes from Jason Hoyt, formerly Mendeley’s head of R&D and now one of the founders of PeerJ. He commented in his blog: ‘In terms of business success, regardless of your stance on Elsevier acquiring Mendeley, this was a win for the Mendeley team, so congratulations. I hear many saying that Elsevier overpaid, but Elsevier is smart and they are getting a huge team in Mendeley that knows how to operate like a startup.’

However, he went on to add, ‘In terms of mission success, however, I am uncertain if this was a win. Mendeley had become known as the darling of openness, which in my view was already closing off when I left. Selling to Elsevier sets up a new challenge to maintain that open ethos, and unfortunately we can’t immediately gauge what the outcome will look like.'

How the details pan out remain to be seen but now that the rumour has been confirmed we now at least have the answer to that age-old pantomime discussion: ‘oh, no, they won’t’ - ‘oh, yes, they will’!

Some further reactions and comment from around the internet

'Thoughts on Mendeley and Elsevier' - blog post by Roderic D. M. Page, University of Glasgow

'The Empire acquires the rebel alliance: Mendeley users revolt against Elsevier takeover' - Paid content

'Elsevier: All your data belongs to us' - Salon.com

'Word of the day: “mendelete”' - blog post by Jason B Colditz, University of Pittsburgh

'Elsevier acquired Mendeley. It's not as bad as I thought.' - blog post by Tim Poisot, Université du Québec à Rimouski

W. Gunn's answer to: ‘Mendeley: Is Mendeley's open character at risk after its acquisition by Elsevier?'