Who is Mendeley for? Researchers? Universities?

Posted by Rory on January 18th, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

Elsevier buying Mendeley?

Techcrunch reported yesterday that Elsevier is in talks to purchase Mendeley for around $100M.  It that’s true it’s a significant milestone not only for Mendeley, but also in the evolution of the way researchers access, manage and share information about publications, their own and others’.  If Mendeley is worth $100M (or thereabouts) to Elsevier, it’s worth asking the question: who is Mendeley for?  To do that it’s first necessary to define briefly what Mendeley is.

What Mendeley does now

Mendeley enables researchers to access and manage their and other researchers’ papers and communicate about the papers, for free. Mendeley also provides  an Institutional Edition which, in the words of Robert Knight, a Mendeley programmer, “provides an analytics dashboard that allows institutions to see what journals, papers, tags etc. are popular amongst Mendeley users at their institution and also the impact that their members’ publications are having across the whole Mendeley userbase.” The Techcrunch post says that early customers include the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Nevada, Reno, the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Research Council Japan.

Four possible futures for Mendeley

In an interesting and entertaining post made a few hours ago, Roderic Page discusses the Jekyl and Hyde sides of both Elsevier and Mendeley, and speculates about directions in which Mendeley might be developed by Elsevier.   He posits four possibilities.  I’ve listed each of them below and added in square brackets an example of a company with an analagous business model.

  1. Mendeley becomes the iTunes of papers and charges, say, $1 to access a paper [Apple]
  2. Elsevier uses data from Mendeley to construct impact measures, and sells this data [Google]
  3. Elsevier uses the reference lists in Mendeley to evolve into an authoring platform [Wordpress]
  4. Mendeley evolves into a post-publication review forum by encouraging comments on bookmarked papers [Amazon – Kindle]

All four of these possibilities strike me as plausible – fascinating stuff!  But it is the first two that seem more likely to be explored in the short term because they offer the most immediate routes to monetizing the two main assets Mendeley has built up, i.e. (i)  the researchers who use Mendeley and (ii) data about those researchers.  In both cases there is a clearly identifiable set of customers who would be willing to pay for what Elsevier/Mendeley is offering.  And that brings me back to the question I posed in the title of this post:  who is Mendeley for?

Who is Mendeley for?

In the iTunes model the customers are researchers, who presumably would be willing to pay very small amounts to access papers.  Their institutions, or grant funders, could support this activity by providing researchers with a budget to fund this activity in whole or in part, but the direct customer would still be the researcher.    In this model Mendeley is for researchers.  You could say it is a more logical model than the prevailing one because the people who actually use papers — researchers — rather than the institutions they work at — are paying for the papers.

In the impact measures model the customer would be the institution — which would purchase  information about papers and how researchers use them from Elsevier/Mendeley in order to help evaluate researchers. In this model Mendeley is for institutions, and what institutions are paying for is data.

Mendeley: vehicle for a publishing oligopoly, or a new monopoly?

Both these possible models exist in an undeveloped form in Mendeley right now.  The basis for the  iTunes model is the ability to access, manage and share papers, and the basis for the research impact model is charging institutions for information about how their researchers carry out this activity.   What’s different – and it is a transformative difference — about the fully developed versions of these models that could come into existence if Elsevier acquires and develops Mendeley is that Elsevier’s plentiful resources could be used to transform Mendeley from a promising experiment into a dominant platform, i.e. to giving Elsevier the same kind of oligopolistic position in the online era that Elsevier and a few other publishers established in the print era.  In other words a vehicle that Elsevier can use to maintain its oligopolistic position.

If that analysis has any merit, we can expect other publishers to find ways — through acquiring and developing competing platforms like ResearchGate and acadmia.edu and/or building their own versions of a transformed Mendeley — to ensure that they retain their seat at the oligopolists’ table.  In that case the market could come to look a bit like Apple (Elsevier), followed by Android (a second publisher) and Windows (a third publisher) in the mobile space.  If Elsevier is successful and the others don’t find a way to compete, then Elsevier could conceivably establish, at least until the underlying technology changes, a monopolistic position like Google occupies in search. Both researchers and academic institutions might find the control this enabled Elsevier to wield distasteful, or even unacceptable.  It would be interesting to see what steps they might take to limit, regulate or even take over the service or services that Elsevier had developed.

As Roderic Page says, interesting times indeed!

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