Mendeley, we hardly knew ye

In a frenzied bout of writing for The Connective‘s 48-hour crowd sourced magazine (associated with Wired), I stumbled on some news I somehow missed. Mendeley, the popular organizational tool for academic references, was bought out by Elsevier this month for about $1 million.


Om nom nom, open access!

Mendeley is a program that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve been using it since the start of my grad student career 4 years ago, which is just about the time Mendeley itself popped into existence. So we’ve kind of grown up together. As a reference management tool, I can’t help but sing its praises. There are tons of features that I’ve become way too enamored with to ever help giving up now: auto-searching of article meta data (authors, publication name, year, issue, etc.), tagging and foldering, exporting of ref info for citation management, and in-text searching are really high on my list of awesomeness.

But I’ve really been impressed with is Mendeley’s gradual but systematic online-focused push toward openness, sharing, and collaboration. There are options for networked group sharing, which I’ve used with lab-mates to make reference hunting a dream. And they’ve introduced recommendation and discovery options, in which social media-like connections are synthesized based on user data. “Hey, that series of German papers on metal-catalyzed coupling chemistry which you just added to your database?Well 90% of people who have in their databases also have this one, in case you missed it.”

I was excited to see where Mendeley would continue to go. Now, I’m hesitant. That’s because Elsevier just bought Mendeley. And Elsevier is the epitome of a closed access scientific publication giant. They made over $1 billion in profit last year, largely based on the subscription and access fees to their articles. So that’s worrying.

On top of that, Elsevier was the subject of a big academic boycott starting last year. If you didn’t hear, thousands of researchers (largely mathematicians, but not exclusively), decided to boycott all of Elsevier’s nearly 3000 journals. No publishing in them, no peer-reviewing for them, the works. The main argument was that Elsevier has prohibitively at best (and intellectually destructive at worst) financial practices. The money they want is waaay more than the money they need. Tim Gowers, the researcher whose blog post launched the whole boycott, but it succinctly:

In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.

There’s a bit of cynicism in me that thinks the acquisition, at least in small part, may be a bit of an attempt to save face. Elsevier, to no one’s surprise, is touting the acquisition as a move toward openness. They’ve got a somewhat underwhelming Q&A with Mendeley to address folks like me who are spilling a lot of digital ink about the situation. And there are a few of us.

I’m skeptical at best. But the best approach is to probably wait and watch and hope Mendeley gets to keep its awesomeness coming, rather than being strong-armed to the business interests of Elsevier.


2 thoughts on “Mendeley, we hardly knew ye

  1. You should consider Zotero. Because of the recent acquisition of Mendeley by Elsevier, there was a spike in the pace of development on Zotero. In the near it will get much better than Mendeley by a large margin.

    Zotero, that exists as extension for Firefox and as a standalone program has all the features of Mendeley and more with two small exceptions. It’s also open source and has enormous community ready to help you out.

    The exceptions I talk above are, the online recommendation system. This never worked correctly on Mendeley. Suggestions were always wrong, with dozens of false positives. The second one is the amount of available free space. Only 300MB on Zotero against 1GB on Mendeley.

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