Seriously, Mendeley people, what did you expect?

April 15, 2013

I think the most painful part of the Elsevier-eats-Mendeley deal has been watching good people acting as apologists for Elsevier and then feeling hurt when people don’t accept their protestations. You can see a good example (but far from the only one) in the comments to Danah Boyd’s post on her #mendelete.

I don’t know what Elsevier have been feeding their new minions, but whatever it is it seems to be working. They seem to have swallowed the party line uncritically. Yes, Elsevier have been making nice statements about what their intentions are with respect to Mendeley. They are exactly the sort of statements you’d expect them to make. And there is not one whit of a reason why anyone should believe them. Time and again, Elsevier have shown that the truth is just another tool for them, to be used when it’s useful and discarded when it’s not. (Fake journals, bribing reviewers, equating open access with lack of peer-review, the list goes on.)

Who will bet that Elsevier aren’t at least involved in, if not the prime movers behind, the New York Times’s recent open-access slander? It’s 100% in keeping with the Dezenhall strategy and the history of the PRISM Coalition (“scientific censorship” indeed).

The only question here is why the Mendeley folks seem so convinced that this time will be different, this time Elsevier really have changed, they really do have our best interests at heart.

Really, Mendeley people? Really?

Now look. We all understand that Mendeley was always a commercial operation. It was always a for-profit, and it was started not only to advance OA but also to make money for its founders and investors. There’s nothing wrong with that. And Mendeley did some great pro-OA work before its acquisition. The founders and investors deserve their pay-day, and good luck to them. But Mendeley, the Elsevier subsidiary, is dead to me, and should be to anyone else who is about openness. Mendeley did some good work, and now that’s finished.

You can’t have your cake and eat it, Mendeley people.

So in his comments on the Dana Boyd article, William Gunn rightly points out that “We participated in the SOPA/RWA blackout, we wrote comments to the OSTP, we campaigned vigorously for the petition”. All true, and all commendable. It’s great that the old Mendeley did all that stuff. But anyone who believes that the Elsevier subsidiary Mendeley is going to do these things is sadly mistaken.

Elsevier may not have bought Mendeley to shut it down. But who can seriously doubt that they are going to defang it?

Update (eight hours later)

Let me be 100% clear that I am not saying any of the Mendeley people are lying. I think they genuinely believe the stories that Elsevier have told them. And I think they are dead wrong, just as Celebrimbor and the elves of Eregion were when they believed that Sauron, in his fair guise as Annatar, had repented of his history as lieutenant to Morgoth Bauglir the oppressor. All I’m saying is, don’t come running to me when you find that those pretty rings you’re forging with Elsevier’s counsel turn out to be under the command of the One Ring, and a Second Darkness covers the land.

9 Responses to “Seriously, Mendeley people, what did you expect?”

  1. I’ve seen several people say that Mendeley was set up to ‘advance OA’, but I’m not sure I see how that was ever true. I can see how PeerJ are doing this; and PLOS and eLife et al. But it’s not too clear for Mendeley.

    At one level, Mendeley is something like citeulike, in that it’s a social-system for sharing metadata and recommendations about papers. That’s a cool thing.

    At another level, it’s a place to put your own collection of pdfs so you can get at them ‘from the cloud’, and a bunch of nice tools for managing them. Also cool.

    At yet another level, Mendeley is a mechanism for sharing copyrighted material that you’d otherwise have to pay for (albeit sharing restricted to smallish groups). I suspect this was a huge part of its success; at least it was one of its unique features. And surely when people talk about Mendeley as being ‘disruptive’, this is the bit I would guess they’re referring to. Someone recently said ‘it’s quite easy to disrupt the local park’s ice cream business by taking ice cream from the other vendors and giving it away for free; but that’s not a sustainable business model’ (I’ll spare their blushes — they are quite close to ‘the industry’ and probably don’t want that attributed to them).

    Although really useful features, and all beautifully executed, its not obvious to me how any of these advance OA in any meaningful way.

    As for the de-fanging, if I’m interpreting the tweets from William Gunn correctly, the PDF-sharing feature will be disabled at some point soon. As a start-up, there was little point in the big guns getting their lawyers out to sue Mendeley. But now they have cash, and I can’t see how Elsevier will get away with giving Springer content away for free, and probably aren’t too keen on the same being done for their own material either. Interesting times.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’d agree with all that, Steve, but I’d note that in broader open-science terms, Mendeley was more of a win. Seems to me that the real win in terms of open citations would be to have all the systems out there (Mendeley, CiteULike, Zotero, others) freely interoperating, so that the world can have one huge, free bibiolographic database.

    I’d not seen the PDF-sharing-going-away-soon tweets. I’ll go and look for them in a minute. But it’s the least surprising news I’ll hear all day.

  3. Hi, this is Mendeley people speaking. There are no plans to remove the PDF sharing functionality. We want to foster collaboration, not curb it.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for that statement, Victor. I believe that you believe it.

    Steve, can you point to the tweets from William Gunn suggesting that the PDF-sharing feature will be disabled at some point soon?

  5. I’ve made a clumsy storify of the exchange at

    which captures the essence of what was said. I accept there’s perhaps room for more interpretation than my earlier post suggested (though it still seems like a fairly clear statement; just obviously wrong). I don’t interpret this as meaning anything other than that it was a busy day and that twitter isn’t a great medium for such exchanges!

    So if PDF sharing remains part of Mendeley now that it has the backing of Elsevier, that really could be interesting…

  6. victorhenning Says:

    Hi Steve – thanks for clarifying. What William said wasn’t wrong: We have never allowed PDF sharing in public groups, only in private, invite-only groups with a limited number of members.

    For now, that isn’t changing. In the future, we hope to enable additional PDF sharing in public groups, once we have implemented some of the authentication tools Elsevier uses in their Scopus and ScienceDirect databases.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    We hope to enable additional PDF sharing in public groups, once we have implemented some of the authentication tools Elsevier uses.

    Thanks, Victor. Does this mean that the PDF sharing will only work for articles that the would-be reader already has institutional access to?

  8. victorhenning Says:

    Hi Mike – the honest answer is, I don’t know. We’ll have to look into it over the next few months. At the moment, however, when you discover interesting content via our recommendation engine or the public groups, you can’t access the content on Mendeley even if your institution has subscribed to it, because we don’t have any authentication technology. We simply send you away to the publisher’s website (via DOI) or to your library (if you have an OpenURL resolver enabled). That’s going to change and become easier.

  9. Matt BK Says:

    My main beef with Mendeley has always been that they don’t fix problems with basic functionality. With Elsevier owning them now, I’m pretty intent on leaving.

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