Sale to Elsevier Casts Doubt on Mendeley's Openness

Courtesy of Mendeley

Victor Henning, chief executive of Mendeley.
April 09, 2013

For months rumors have been circulating that the publishing giant Elsevier was going to acquire Mendeley, the popular reference-management and PDF-organizer platform. Now both companies have confirmed that the rumors are true: Elsevier has bought Mendeley for an undisclosed sum.

The Financial Times reported that the purchase price was £45-million (about $69-million), but neither company would confirm that.

Both companies said combining forces and integrating platforms would allow them to serve scholarly users better. "Good things are about to happen!" was the headline on the Mendeley blog post announcing the move. (The publisher went with a more muted headline for its announcement: "Elsevier Welcomes Mendeley.")

But the news triggered dismay among some researchers concerned about what the acquisition would mean for Mendeley's commitment to openness. Some of its 2.3 million users said on Twitter that they were going to delete their Mendeley accounts (many used the hashtag #mendelete) or that they were considering alternative services, such as Zotero, run by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Victor Henning, chief executive and co-founder of Mendeley, said in an interview that joining forces with Elsevier would make it possible for Mendeley to do several things it has wanted to do. First is to make it easier for users to actually view content. One big item on the agenda is to integrate Mendeley with Elsevier's Scopus bibliographic database and the ScienceDirect repository of more than 11 million journal articles.

"The goal is to make it completely seamless," Mr. Henning said. Elsevier's authentication software will make it easier to identify whether users already have access to those services through institutional subscriptions, he said.

Second, merging into Elsevier will put more resources at Mendeley's disposal. What that means is "we can take the long perspective again," without having to figure out how to pay for each new iteration or feature, Mr. Henning said. For instance, Mendeley will be hiring a team of developers immediately to come up with a mobile version for Android phones.

"Third is the new stuff we can do now," Mr. Henning said. Mendeley can use Elsevier's "amazing, structured database" to clean up and complete its perhaps messier but uniquely rich crowd-sourced data.

Skeptical About Intentions

Olivier Dumon, Elsevier's managing director of academic and government markets, said in the same interview that Elsevier wanted not just Mendeley's data but its talent and workflow. Mendeley's employees can stay on, and Mr. Henning will become part of Elsevier's strategic team.

Both Mr. Dumon and Mr. Henning said that a shared vision had ultimately brought the two companies together. After collaborating with Elsevier on several projects, the Mendeley team realized that "they were as obsessed as we are with plugging gaps in users' workflow," he said.

In his Elsevier-welcomes-Mendeley blog post, Mr. Dumon explained that vision: "We can make this combined platform the central workflow and collaboration site for authors," he wrote. "In addition, we will be able to provide greater access to a growing repository of user-generated content while building tools that will enable researchers to search this growing body of research more precisely."

Mr. Henning acknowledged that many researchers are skeptical about Elsevier and its intentions. The Cost of Knowledge boycott last year, for instance, made that skepticism very public.

"Certainly Elsevier has gotten criticism for their actions in the past, but my feeling is they've taken those criticism to heart," he said. According to Mr. Henning, Mendeley intends to keep offering a free version as well as premium services to both users and institutions. (The Mendeley Institutional Edition went live last year.) "The API remains free," he said. "I'm hoping that the people who are very skeptical today will give us a few weeks and months" to make good on those promises and demonstrate the benefits of the arrangement with Elsevier.

In discussing the implications of the Elsevier acquisition, Mr. Henning emphasized both openness and business concerns. "Does it mean we will stop being a provider of open data through our API? We can tell people that Mendeley will remain free," he said. But Mendeley has "from the start been a business model," he added. "All the data that's there now will remain under an open license, but if we introduce new data, we might charge for that. That's always been the case, independent of Elsevier."

No Longer an Open-Access Darling?

One high-profile skeptic is Jason Hoyt, co-founder of the new open-access publishing platform PeerJ. Mr. Hoyt worked for Mendeley from 2009 to 2011. In a blog post on Tuesday, he called the news "a win for the Mendeley team." As an early employee, he still holds shares in Mendeley, he said. But he expressed doubts about what joining forces with Elsevier would mean for the company's long-term values.

"In terms of mission success, however, I am uncertain if this was a win," Mr. Hoyt wrote. "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."

In his post, Mr. Hoyt detailed three projects he'd been involved in at Mendeley that he said ran into resistance from Elsevier. For instance, with PDF Previews, a feature that allowed users to get a taste of a few pages of an article, "Elsevier came out hard to limit what we could do," he wrote.

"I think that Mendeley, as it stands today, will continue to be useful even at Elsevier," Mr. Hoyt concluded. "That said, I think it will be challenging for Mendeley to become a truly transformative tool in science."

Sean Takats, a professor of history at George Mason, is director of research at the university's Center for History and New Media. He oversees Zotero as part of that job.

Elsevier's acquisition of Mendeley is a big deal for its employees and investors, Mr. Takats said, but he thinks it could diminish Mendeley's influence in the research-management space. "If anything, it's taking Mendeley out of the game as the new shiny thing and the darling of open access," he said.

Correction (4/9/2013, 5:17 p.m.): This article originally misidentified a former Mendeley employee. He is Jason Hoyt, not Jason Boyd. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.