By Ling Ge September 14, 2012 9:37 pm
As a scientist, I have often dreamed of cataloguing my research library in the same way as I organise music in iTunes. A key aspect of scholarship is to amass hundreds of papers, citing them in your own work to show how your studies are grounded in existing literature.
London-based start-up Mendeley has provided two million researchers around the world with productivity software similar to iTunes, to manage and annotate research documents and compile bibliographies for publication. It extracts data from individuals about the papers they are reading and aggregates this information for sale to institutions. Subscribers can learn who is reading what, when and why – far more quickly than through conventional citation analysis.
“We asked ourselves why are there all these cool, fun and helpful applications in the fields like music, photo sharing and social networking, but nothing for our domain, the area of science? So we started Mendeley,” says president Jan Reichelt, who founded the company in 2008 with fellow Germans Victor Henning and Paul Föckler. The then PhD students noted the gap in the market while struggling to organise hundreds of research papers. They named their start-up after two 19th-century scientists: Mendeleev and Mendel.
Mendeley is a huge time-saver – the bibliography compilation of hundreds of articles can be achieved within minutes. Although it occasionally failed to extract information from the 1,000 papers that I imported, it was largely successful. You simply drop a PDF document into its library; it does the hard work of gathering information about the contents, and flagging key attributes such as who wrote it, what it is about and so on.
Like Amazon recommendations, Mendeley has a “suggest” feature. “It can be unnervingly good at finding such articles, often ones I have missed by the rather more random procedures humans tend to use for this purpose”, says Henry Rzepa, professor of chemistry at Imperial College London.
“While humans ‘network’ with other scientists by attending meetings, or joining email discussion groups, Mendeley achieves a social network based instead on the research papers one is interested in,” he adds. “It is an ability simply not previously available to us scientists.”
Mendeley has seen tremendous growth since its launch in 2008. Today its libraries contain more than 250 million documents, making it one of the world’s largest research-collaboration platforms and academic databases.
It does not directly promote the “open access” model of scientific publishing, in which the authors or their research funders pay the costs and anyone can read research papers for free. Instead, when users find a paper in the Mendeley database and want to download it, they are directed to the publisher’s website, and still need to pay for it.
The business model of Mendeley is “freemium”. Although the basic service is free, revenue comes from individual premium accounts (similar to the way companies such as Dropbox or Evernote charge for extra storage space), team packages (researchers who wish to keep their work secret while sharing within the group) and the new data dashboard product for institutions. The institutional edition provides insight into a university’s impact on the wider research community. For example, it can help spot rising stars and trends in scientific research.
The three co-founders started the company in London for several reasons: English is the common language in academia; London has top universities with Oxford and Cambridge nearby and attracts a deep pool of global talent; and the business start-up network is well established. Mendeley currently has 40 staff in London and New York.
The potential market is huge, Reichelt says. There are 150 million prospective users worldwide, including undergraduates, graduate students and scientists.
Ling Ge is a nanotechnology researcher at Imperial College London and a British Science Association Media Fellow at the FT