Mendeley Revisited

A while ago, in a post titled Yet Another Publication List?, I ranted about the proliferation of online reference managers and speculated about their business models. A comment by William Gunn, Head of Academic Outreach for Mendeley, sheds some light on Elsevier’s strategy.

In his recent blog post When Is a Feature a Product, and a Product a Business?, Joseph Esposito takes Mendeley as an example for making his point about features and products (which is not of interest to us here):

What we discovered in time was that Mendeley was not a business but a feature. Its acquisition by Elsevier proved the point: of little or no economic value on its own, when bolted onto Elsevier’s existing operations, Mendeley added new value to its users but especially to Elsevier itself, which was now in a position to get a wide view of the usage of a huge amount of research material, its own and the publications of others. Not incidentally, this was in part a library bypass strategy, as Mendeley provided Elsevier with a great deal of end-user information, an area where librarians are stubbornly unhelpful. As a feature, Mendeley may ultimately prove to be a great success, perhaps on the order of one-click purchasing from Amazon (a feature, not a product or a business) or the “retweet” function in Twitter. As a business it was “meh.”

I find this analysis quite convincing, and apparently William Gunn of Mendeley thought so as well, since felt compelled to break his “long-standing embargo against commenting.” Of course he can’t agree with Esposito and rejects the idea that they had sold Mendeley to Elsevier due to a lack of a business model. And Elsevier, of course, didn’t buy Mendeley just for the usage data:

Nor was our value to Elsevier just about usage data. In simple terms, Elsevier, along with the rest of the forward thinking publishing industry, realizes that they have to become a technology company in order to evolve to serve the changing needs of researchers. We’re part of a suite of tools that meet needs across the research lifecycle. Digital Science is another example of this ecosystem strategy. So we’re a component of a larger ecosystem now, but we never were “just a feature”.

This business lingo is quite impressive, but what does “ecosystem strategy” actually mean? Well, it means lock-in. Elsevier’s idea—and in business terms it’s a very compelling idea—is to move the whole research process onto their own platform. Their traditional business model, which is only concerned with selling the final publication, is threatened by Open Access, which is increasingly mandated by funding agencies. By embracing the whole process, which begins way before a researcher actually starts writing a paper, and by offering institutions an integrated platform to “support” this process, they will be able to decrease their dependence on the sale of publications.

I figure that quite a number of institutions will find such a platform very attractive, as it will allow them to outsource a large part of their research infrastructure. The carrot for researchers will be “integrated services,” such as reference management.

The increasing momentum of Open Access has it made relatively painless for universities to cancel journal subscriptions, and it limits the negative impact for its researchers—they may not be able to read some articles.1 However, it will not be so easy to go get out of a contract with Elsevier once all your researchers critically depend on their “ecosystem” for doing their work. Forward-thinking indeed.



For example, the universities of Leipzig and Konstanz.

Author: Michael Piotrowski

Computational linguist, computer scientist, professor of digital humanities at the University of Lausanne.

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