The Empire acquires the rebel alliance: Mendeley users revolt against Elsevier takeover

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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

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