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Summary:

Mendeley, an open collaboration platform for scientific research, has promised that it won’t become less open after being acquired by journal publisher Elsevier, but some prominent users aren’t waiting around.

In a much-rumored deal announced on Tuesday, academic publisher Elsevier (please see disclosure below) is acquiring Mendeley — a widely-used open platform for collaboration and networking related to scientific research — for about $70 million. While the founders of the network maintain that they are committed to the “open access” movement, and argue that having Elsevier’s resources will allow them to expand their work and make it even more accessible, a number of high-profile users have said they aren’t convinced that Elsevier has changed its stripes, and they are taking their work elsewhere.

One of the most prominent, Microsoft researcher danah boyd (who spells her name without capital letters), said on Twitter that the takeover was “sad,” and that she doesn’t believe Mendeley can help Elsevier repair the reputation it has developed for being against open access to research — a reputation that is based on the publisher’s support of the failed anti-piracy legislation SOPA, among other things.

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Another prominent critic of the acquisition is David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a co-director of the university’s Library Innovation Lab, which played a role in designing the new Digital Public Library of America project. Despite the assurances of executives at Mendeley that it would remain open — including its access API — Weinberger expressed scepticism that the company would be able to resist Elsevier’s attempts to make it more closed (he expanded on this on his blog).

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Some of those who responded to the news of the acquisition seemed to see Mendeley’s acceptance of the takeover as a breach of faith, since the company had been such a vocal supporter of the open-access movement — a movement that many saw as directly opposed to the interests of companies like Elsevier. At least one observer compared it to “Haliburton buying Greenpeace,” and others made comparisons to the Empire in the Star Wars movie universe, or the Borg from Star Trek — both evil forces who eventually absorb or destroy the heroes of the story.

Mendeley’s director of academic outreach, William Gunn, responded to many of the critical comments about the acquisition, and said that the company plans to remain as open as possible following the deal:

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Elsevier has been the target of a sustained attack from open-access advocates who organized a boycott of the company’s journals, galvanized by Fields Medal-winning mathematician Tim Gowers — arguing that its publications are too expensive and keep valuable research locked up in a virtual cartel. One commenter on a news story about the Mendeley acquisition said: “They spent their whole life as a company arguing they were the next big thing in open publishing only to sell out,” while a commenter on a thread at Hacker News about the deal said:

“Mendeley should be ashamed, and you personally should be ashamed for perpetuating this nonsense. Within a year your company will be effectively dismantled and anyone left over who actually cares about open access can start over from scratch. I wish them luck.”

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News of the acquisition re-ignited interest in the “mendelete” hashtag on Twitter, which was devoted to criticisms of the deal and the exploration of alternatives such as Zotero. One commenter said: “Was Mendeley more about its values or its services? Some of its biggest supporters have become its shrillest critics #mendelete.” If nothing else, these kinds of responses show just how much work Elsevier has ahead of it when it comes to reassuring academics and others that their commitment to openness is real. As Emily Bell at Columbia University put it:

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Disclosure: Reed Elsevier, the parent company of science publisher Elsevier, is an investor in GigaOmniMedia, the company that publishes GigaOM.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Luis Santos

  1. Matt, I know you’re trying to tell a story here, but why pick tweets from three people, mentioning my name, and not include a single one of my tweets?

    While there have been a few account deletions, we’ve also seen an increase in new signups, so things are not quite as simple as it may seem. More answers to questions here: http://blog.mendeley.com/press-release/qa-team-mendeley-joins-elsevier/

    1. Thanks, William — I did include one of your tweets, after you mentioned this on Twitter, plus David’s response includes one of your comments as well.

  2. “the Empire in the Star Wars movie universe, or the Borg from Star Trek — both evil forces who eventually absorb or destroy the heroes of the story.”

    Yeah… in both those series I think you’ll find that the good guys actually win ;)

    1. That’s a good point — so perhaps there is hope yet :-)

      1. A New Hope, perhaps?

        1. Sure but that always ended with the heros blowing up the mothership…. we can only hope :)

  3. I was surprised to hear this. The company was very promising and I loved the service. That they would sell out to Elsevier for what seems like a small amount is depressing. I’m not saying that it’s a question of money but given their aspirations to give up for this amount of money seems pathetic.

    At first I thought they sold out for $500M or something which is probably too much money for the investors in Mendeley to turn down. It would seem that the business prospects for Mendeley were still limited. To be fair to them we can’t expect bright people and their backers to toil away without end if it’s not clear that a sustainable living is possible from the effort.

    Finally I think this underscores the value of looking at open source solutions, even if they are less featured, to use as a basis for important long term initiatives since at least we will all be able to use the code.

  4. Interesting that those who oppose this acquisition are so bitter, but none of them have articulated a specific reason. The accusation that stands out is “fake journals” — which I take, in this politically correct era to mean that they published science that does not comply with the global warning agenda, and thus, therefor, must be “fake”.

    1. engineer – then you’ll probably want to google “fake scientific journals”. The most egregious examples (http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/27376/title/Merck-published-fake-journal/) occured in the pharmaceutical industry.

  5. petermurrayrust Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    We have to build our own Open alternative. Academia spends 10 billion/year on #scholpub – it can afford to create the metadata

    1. Peter: Have you looked at http://www.zotero.org/, an open alternative?

  6. > Disclosure: Reed Elsevier,
    > the parent company of
    > science publisher Elsevier,
    > is an investor in GigaOmniMedia,
    > the company that publishes GigaOM.

    why is gigom taking money from elsevier?

    now i don’t trust _you_.

    -bowerbird

  7. Everyone must realize: A HUGE number of Internet-based companies were only created *with the intent of making shareholders rich*. It’s a pure money-grab. Users are just pawns on the chessboard. The goal is to get a large userbase–maybe monetized, maybe not–and sell out to make investors and the founders rich. The sooner you realize this the sooner it will all make sense. If you want an organization that will stand the test of time then start a non-profit and make it very public that the organization exists not to make people rich but to provide true value to society. Then, you are worthy of trust.

  8. I’m confused. Mendeley was always a commercial company that aimed to make a profit while at the same time doing something to transform the way that research is distributed, and to connect academics. I never thought of them as the face of open access research, or as a noble organisation out to fight the evil publishers.

    They exist to make money, and to change the way researchers engage with each other. They’ve made some money and are still doing exactly the same thing that they were doing last week. Why all the hate?

  9. This is the problem with relying on software as a service. To ensure openness you can’t just put your faith in a single company, Mendeley, Google, whatever. We need distributed tools and open protocols. If all your data is on one company’s servers you are vulnerable. It is reminiscent of the recent Google Reader controversy. If you’re looking for solutions to the fundamental problem in such situations you need two things.

    1. All the software needs to be open source (or at least have open versions available) so that it can’t be “taken away” by a single company or individual.
    2. Anyone should be able to install their own server and have that server and their client be able to talk to other servers/clients.

    This is why email is so great.

    Remember these abuses if you are a Dropbox, Facebook, Google or Twitter user. What happens when the company gets taken over by someone “evil” or the company simply decides that profits trump its “products” i.e. you.

  10. Allow me if I may to poit our a few assumptions that are being made so we can examine if they’re valid:

    > “If you want an organization that will stand the test of time then start a non-profit ”

    So grants never dry up and non-profits never have a problem with sustainability?

    > “This is the problem with relying on software as a service.”

    This is a POTENTIAL problem with software as a service. Is it going to be a problem in this case? That remains to be seen, but Mendeley’s had a stellar track record over the past 4 years and Elsevier knows that killing the community would squander their investment, so think it’s not likely.

    > “All the software needs to be open source (or at least have open versions available)”

    There are currently no open versions of Mendeley available, but the API is open and it’s possible for someone to develop an open source client that communicates with the Mendeley servers and maybe that client could also communicate to other clients P2P or to other servers. At Mendeley, that’s what we say “keeps us honest”, even though I can personally say no one on the team needs this pressure to do the right thing.

    > “Remember these abuses”

    There are no abuses to point at in the current situation and while it’s not hard to imagine some, to presume they are necessarily going to happen is premature, especially given the importance of the community to the value of Mendeley.

    1. “but Mendeley’s had a stellar track record over the past 4 years and Elsevier knows that killing the community would squander their investment, so think it’s not likely.”

      Myspace… enough said.

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