Is it a good thing that Elsevier bought Mendeley?

When rumors sprang up in January about the scientific journal publisher Elsevier (see disclosure) buying British reference manager and academic social network Mendeley, the reaction was negative in some quarters. Elsevier has a bad reputation among many academics over the amount it charges for access to its journals, which are generally populated by taxpayer-funded research. Mendeley’s community is all about open collaboration, so the takeover rumors inspired a #mendelete Twitter campaign.

So, now that the takeover has come to pass (the Financial Times reports the deal value as £45 million (USD $69 million), or around £20 per user), what fallout should we expect?

Cleaner data

According to Mendeley CEO Victor Henning, everything should be just fine. Mendeley will “stay an independent site” with plans to expand its 50-strong team to 80 within the next 18 months, he told me, adding that the deal would give both parties better data:

“All those resources will help us do two things. One is more integration — the biggest gap in our product offering is that it’s too difficult for users to get to full text content. When people found something on Mendeley it was usually just the metadata with a link to the publisher’s website. Elsevier publishes around 20pc of the world’s scientific output and has deals with other publishers for its Scopus database. We’ll be working to integrate Mendeley with Scopus and ScienceDirect to make it easier for our users to enrich and clean up the content we already have — our content is crowdsourced. Elsevier has a lot of clean structured data we can use to clean it up, and our data can enrich Elsevier’s because we have rich social information.

“We can now also take a more long-term perspective about monetization versus feature development and user growth. As an independent startup we were always trying to break even as soon as possible, and were under pressure to monetize new features. Now we can pick up certain things for the roadmap, for example hiring a fully-fledged mobile team. There will be a new iOS app soon, and we’re going to start building an Android app from scratch.”

Henning added that Elsevier’s existing 17 million author profiles would also have a positive effect. “Now, once we’re integrated, when you sign up to Mendeley we will immediately be able to present you with your profile to claim,” he said. “It will make it easier for users to get started.”

But what about all that criticism of Elsevier? There, Henning insisted there was little risk of users taking flight:

“People have criticized Elsevier for things they’ve done in the past but, particularly last year when they were subjected to criticism for their stance on open access publishing, they’ve taken that feedback to heart. They’ve doubled the number of open access journals that they publish. They do support open access publishing and they will expand on it in the future. Another move they made last year is, people were saying they’d like to text-mine content that you have, and they opened up to the community about that.”

Elsevier, meanwhile, also said in a blog post that Mendeley was “open, social and collaborative, and it is important to [Elsevier] that it retains all of those traits”.

“Elsevier has all the power”

However, not everyone is sounding so positive. One notable perspective is that of Jason Hoyt, Mendeley’s former R&D head and, since leaving the company, founder of open access publisher PeerJ.

Hoyt said in a post on Tuesday that Elsevier had previously hampered or outright stymied open access projects at Mendeley, including the service’s PDF preview functionality and a scheme to automatically put papers filed with Mendeley into the open access archive of the author’s institution:

“If one is honest, from a business perspective the Mendeley founders did the right thing to comply with Elsevier’s demands. My personal passions about Open Access hindered that, so no surprise it didn’t work out for more than a few years… I think that Mendeley as it stands today will continue to be useful even at Elsevier. That said, I think it will be challenging for Mendeley to become a truly transformative tool in science, which is what had originally convinced me to move from San Francisco to London four years ago.”

Meanwhile, open access blogger Mike Taylor noted that “Elsevier has all the power in the relationship” with Mendeley:

“So Mendeley say things like ‘very little will change for you as a Mendeley user’ and ‘we will continue to support standard and open data formats’, and I’m sure they believe them. But it’s dependent on the whim of Elsevier. The moment it becomes inconvenient or financially disadvantageous for them to do these things, they’ll stop.”

It will be worth keeping an eye on the user numbers of Mendeley and its main academic community rivals (such as ResearchGate) and reference management rivals (such as Zotero) to see which way the scholarly users themselves feel the wind is blowing.

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