April 11, 2013

Elsevier buys Mendeley, a million OA advocates groan


They’ve got the “shiny screens of doom” look down.

In a disturbing turn of events for the world of academic publishing, the announcement came yesterday that Mendeley, the British start-up that combined a research management system with a social network for academics, was bought by Reed Elsevier for approximately £45 million. The academic world erupted in howls of protest: Elsevier’s power over academic publishing—flaunted in their ludicrous prices and journal-bundling schemes—is exactly what companies like Mendeley were created to fight.

This is also the second time in two weeks that a small company has been bought by a larger firm for the user data it holds, specifically the detailed information about the reading and searching habits of thousands of users. This data was willingly offered by users to a company that they trusted—it’ll now be controlled by a company whose priorities are very different.

The academic response online was swift and scorching: the hashtag #mendelete spread on Twitter, along with a flood of comments on the Fake Elsevier account, and the immediate creation of a new Fake Mendeley account. Sardonic tweets were issued:


Users offered evidence of having deleted their accounts, instructions on how to do it, and—in what must surely be especially painful for Mendeley to watch—guidance on how to move their data to competing platforms like Zotero.

Significant figures in the community have also come out against the sale: David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-director of the Library Innovation Lab, who’s recently been working with the Digital Public Library of America, posted in no uncertain terms that:

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.

And Jason Hoyt, who was previously head of R&D at Mendeley, before leaving the company to found Peer J, an open access journal, offered insight into what had happened during earlier collaborations between Elsevier and Mendeley: namely, Elsevier resisted making any attempts to make their material more widely accessible through the Mendeley API and other aspects of the platform. And they won—meaning that, for all the optimism Mendeley’s founders are voicing about their ability to change systems from within and preserve the company’s values, they may not be in as strong a position as they think.

Sauropod Vertebrae of the Week, a blog that covers both its titular subject and OA development concurs:

Mendeley’s ability to be a force for openness is dependent on a company that is implacably opposed to openness. That’s all there is to it.

Over at the Scholarly Kitchen, Kent Anderson was able to interview Mendeley’s CEO Victor Henning and Elsevier representative Olivier Dumon, and he came away with mixed impressions: on the one hand, the possibilities for Mendeley to bring its discovery tools to bear on the giant content holdings of Elsevier are great, and could result in a “discipline-spanning scientific search engine to end all search engines.”

On the other hand, they don’t seem to have thought through some of the most basic issues, like whether users have the right to share .pdfs that they have access to through their institution’s subscriptions. So far, Mendeley has dodged the issue by assuming, through its terms of use, that .pdfs being shared are the “user’s Content.” But this does not address more recent developments, such as the recent ReDigi ruling, that put the sharing of digital content back into more troubled territory. And it’s my guess that when the content is Elsevier’s, the impetus will be towards closing down, rather than actually trying to assess the way content is best used and work towards a system that supports that.

In any case, it’s not an auspicious change of direction for the company that was once hailed as “on course to disrupt academic publishing.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.