Mendeley and the Power of Open Communities

Recent reports about Mendeley show the extent to which its open approach for sharing scholarly research seems to be catching on. The five-year old company, part citation manager, part collaborative research platform, and part social network, now claims to have nearly 2 million users. Mendeley’s origin, and still the heart of its value, is in a desktop tool that helps scholars capture and manage bibliographic citations, a fundamental and tedious element of scholarly research.

It was a latecomer to this market, lagging two popular products, EndNote and RefWorks, but it offered a twist – it was built explicitly around the idea of collaboration with other users. The most direct evidence of this is that Mendely requires users to store their citation information on its servers, which has paved the way for a range of collaborative services. Mendeley’s citation manager has proven to be a Trojan horse, as users have gone on to upload nearly 65 million scientific papers and to participate in a variety of Mendeley’s collaborative services, including sharing their professional profiles, identifying research partners, sharing citations with other researchers, and tracking the readership of posted papers. One of the latest signs of the power of Mendeley’s openness is the growth of third-party apps that tap into Mendeley’s database and perform analyses of the articles and bibliographic citations it contains. The company claims that it now has 240 such applications, whereas Elsevier, the largest commercial publisher, which thus far has controlled access by third-party apps, has around 100 such apps, according to a recent TechCrunch article. Mendeley gets over 100 million data queries per month through such apps, according to its CEO, Victor Henning, in TechCrunch. As science continues to become more inter-disciplinary and collaborative, tools like Mendeley serve as both evidence of and potential drivers of the need for increasing collaboration.

The growth of apps may be one of the most important developments for Mendeley as well as for the field of scholarly research. While social networks for professional users have tended to become more specialized over time, no organization, commercial or nonprofit, can keep up with user demand for specialized applications without opening up its system so that users and interested third parties can do independent application development. Though still young, Mendeley appears to be on the right road.

About Lee Greenhouse

Longtime strategy consultant focused on the business of information content, applications, and services.
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