Mendeley growing rapidly; alternative model for repositories

John MacColl, Mendeley scrobbles your papers, HangingTogether, September 24, 2009.

Mendeley is a social web application for academic authors that has been receiving quite a lot of attention recently. Victor Keegan wrote about it in The Guardian last week, likening it to the streaming music service

How does it work? At the basic level, students can “drag and drop” research papers into the site at which automatically extracts data, keywords, cited references, etc, thereby creating a searchable database and saving countless hours of work. That in itself is great, but now the bit kicks in, enabling users to collaborate with researchers around the world, whose existence they might not know about until Mendeley’s algorithms find, say, that they are the most-read person in Japan in their niche specialism. You can recommend other people’s papers and see how many people are reading yours, which you can’t do in Nature and Science. … There are lots of research archives. For the physical (but not biological) sciences there is ArXiv, with more than half a million e-papers free online – but nothing on the potential scale of Mendeley. Around 60,000 people have already signed up and a staggering 4m scientific papers have been uploaded, doubling every 10 weeks. At this rate it will soon overtake the biggest academic databases, which have around 20m papers.

The site has grown fast, aided by significant investment capital from investors associated with, Skype and Warner Music Group. …

If it realises the potential many people are now predicting, the library community is bound to ask why a web application based on an entertainment model should have proved so much more attractive than the painstakingly built repositories we have been holding under the noses of our academic authors over the last several years?

I think there may be a few reasons for this. First, its appeal is intuitive. Put your papers in our service and we will give you lots of webscale data back on how popular they are. The system can show you instantly how your research profile compares with the average researcher in your field. Second, it is instant. The map of research adjusts daily as new papers are added. Want to find out who is the most popular author in your field today? Mendeley can tell you. … And third, the demands it makes are low compared to the benefits it provides. A range of simple tools allow you to ship your papers into it. … [Y]ou can scrobble. Scrobbling is the word uses to describe the use of a tool that works invisibly in the background to add your music choices to your account. … In Mendeley, the same notion is applied via the “Watched Folder” facility. With it, you can designate folders on your hard disk that Mendeley will monitor, and from which it will suck new papers as they appear.

By adopting these approaches, Mendeley has grabbed the attention of users because it understands what they like. They like simplicity. … What do they not like? Tedious rules about copyright (the Mendeley FAQ, perhaps ironically, quotes the E-prints Self-Archiving FAQ to reassure authors about the extent of Open Access tolerance among publishers). They don’t like rigorous requirements for metadata (Mendeley automatically extracts metadata, and asks users to help it make corrections where it gets things wrong). In other words, the requirements libraries often put up front are almost dismissed as non-issues. …

Comment. To me, the better analogy may be Napster. I don’t necessarily mean that pejoratively: both Napster and Mendeley watch a folder on the user’s computer and automatically share files in that folder. That takes the effort out of sharing, which means more documents get shared. It also means that metadata will often be incomplete or inaccurate. In addition, since there’s less emphasis on copyright compliance, I’d suspect that some authors may share documents in ways that violate their publisher’s contract — more so than traditional repositories. In short, the Mendeley model seems to have some major advantages over traditional repositories, but also some significant shortcomings vis-à-vis traditional repository goals. I think there’s a place for both in a healthy scholarly communications ecosystem, with both competition and collaboration.

See also our past posts on Mendeley.

Update. See also Dorothea Salo’s comments.