Mendeley injects some pace into academia with fast, big data

Just look around at the likes of Evernote, Springpad, Lawloop and DocTrackr and it should be obvious: managing documents online is a pretty busy space right now.

But there’s one service that has quietly been making waves — and now it’s about to stage a real revolution.

London-based Mendeley doesn’t get a lot of press because it focuses on a very specific part of the market: the academic world. But it’s a big, valuable market worth billions of dollars each year, and one that’s ripe for disruption. And the site has become a big hit with academics and researchers, signing up nearly 2 million members from universities and institutions all over the world, because it allows them to keep tabs on all the research papers, documents and files.

Now, thanks to that popularity, the startup is rolling out its first big data product — and it’s a doozy.

Mendeley Institutional Edition, announced on Monday, is a new data dashboard that takes all of the activity on the site and presents it to universities as a way of gaining deeper insights into what their researchers are doing.

“The biggest problem in academia is the long waiting time: it can take three to five years from the time you have done research to get it published — all the decisions you make in an academic career are based around that time lag,” Victor Henning, Mendeley’s co-founder and CEO told me.

“We’ve developed a product that’s packaged into a data dashboard and allows universities to see what’s happening right now: what are the journals they’re reading? What are they not reading?”

It’s not just about optimizing efficiency by dropping unread journal subscriptions, or watching which areas are growing fast. The service can also let universities see the other side: which members of their faculty are publishing most? Who’s being cited? What areas are they active in? Those are things that institutions care deeply about — but struggle to find right now because most data out there is old data.

The system is built on the back of data that’s constantly streaming in from the service’s 1.8 million users. Between them, the site’s members have uploaded some 260 million documents, representing around 65 million unique research papers and studies — around 50 percent larger than any of the existing commercial databases. By mining those documents and watching activity around them, Mendeley’s able to help institutions understand the trends as they emerge… not years afterwards.

In fact, some universities see this effort as so vital that it’s already signed up its first seven partners, including the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. And plans on rolling out the product to more places soon, through a distribution partnership with Dutch library giant Swets.

“Our data is now helping some of the world’s best universities work more efficiently and get to life-changing discoveries faster,” said Henning. “My inner nerd is going: Wow, this is freaking amazing.”

There are a number of companies trying to work in this area, including social networks like ResearchGate and document management services like Digital Science. But the biggest players are academic publisher Reed Elsevier (see disclosure) which has been subject to a boycott over its profiteering tactics recently), and the information giant Thomson Reuters.

Thomson, specifically, publishes its Impact Factor — a rating of how well-received or well-cited a paper is. But that also suffers from a lag. In the end, Henning says, he’d like to replace that rating with one based on immediate, real-time data uncovered through Mendeley — something he thinks would be hard to compete with.

“The real incumbents who have the best chance of dominating this landscape are Thomson Reuters and Reed Elsevier,” he said. “But killing us is difficult because they’d have to replicate what we do. We’ve built up a big user base over the past three years and I think you really have to understand how to do that if you want to compete with us.”

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