Firestorm Over Elsevier Acquisition of Mendeley

Elsevier’s long-rumored acquisition of Mendeley was finally announced a week ago, touching off a reaction that demonstrates the ongoing tension between large academic publishers and their users as well as the pitfalls of open, networked communities.  For Elsevier, Mendeley is a strategic gem and well worth the $70 million unofficially-reported price.  Mendeley launched in 2009 by a group of PhD students as an open, cloud-based system for academic researchers to download, annotate, and manage the articles and papers they use for their research and also to manage their references – the articles and papers they cite in their own published works.  Reference management is a fundamental part of the research process and had been served for many years by software products, such as EndNote and Reference Manager, owned by Thomson Reuters.  Mendeley has caught on quickly because its cloud-based architecture combines reference management with social networking. For example, users can share their lists of citations, search for potential collaborators, share their own professional information and papers, and develop applications that tap into the content users store in the system – features that scholars have found very compelling.

Another appeal of Mendeley is that it was designed and run by scholars and wasn’t beholden to any publishers or large corporate interests.  And that’s where the firestorm starts.  Since the announced acquisition, many Mendeley users have spoken out in harsh terms about both Elsevier and Mendeley.  Using terms like “evil empire,” “repulsive,” and “sellout,” many users have taken to blogs and Twitter to denounce the acquisition and many, including some high-profile academics, have said that they will no longer use Mendeley.  For some critics, it’s a matter of principle but some say that they are also concerned about trusting their data (i.e., their personal lists of most-important articles) to Elsevier.

Critics may find it more difficult to leave than their protests suggest.  Mendeley already has over 2 million users in 180 countries and to the extent that these users are taking advantage of the open, social aspects of the platform, it will make it hard for individual users to exile themselves.  Furthermore, Mendeley, which has been built on a freemium model, has been moving from individual memberships to institutional memberships that cover entire universities or at least whole departments.  While it is still early in these efforts, institutional memberships make it harder for individual scholars to opt out when their colleagues are all using a common platform.  Elsevier brings an extensive worldwide institutional salesforce that can help accelerate institutional adoption.  Finally, separatists have few alternatives.  Mendeley’s competitors, such as ResearchGate and Zotero, offer similar functionality, but they have much smaller communities of users and lack Mendeley’s market momentum.  It’s not unprecedented for new online services to overcome the head start of established players (witness Google vs. incumbent search engines), but services that have successfully exploited network effects are much more difficult to overtake.

About Lee Greenhouse

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