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A Scientist and the Web


Massively Multiplayer Online Bibliography contrasted with Elsevier’s Mendeley

There’s been a minor Twitter storm caused by one of my tweets about MMOB and Elsevier’s Mendeley. Twitter is a poor medium for discussion (asynchronous and character-limited) and since I had intended to blog about these issues and this is a useful time.

I regard machine-readable Bibliography as “the map of scholarship”, detailing who published what when and for what reason. I have a serious criticism of academia in that they haven’t built an Open Bibliography. There is no bibliography of scholarly publications, partly because there are (very imperfect) commercial offerings and libraries prefer to buy commercial products than create and publish their own.

3 years ago I ran a JISC-funded project on “Open Bibliography” involving Cambridge University and the Open Knowledge Foundation. ( ). We built much of the metadata structure for OB including the BibJSON protocol and worked with libraries (BL, CUL) to make their monograph collections Open.

Unfortunately we cannot easily do the same for journal articles. Publishers do not make their bibliography openly available or allow re-use of it. Many such as Elsevier expressly forbid the compilation of an index of “their content”. Although it’s technically easy to do (and we have software for this, PubCrawler) the publishers are the problem.

To tackle this problem of missing bibliographies Wikimedia has launched Massively-Multiplayer Online Bibliography MMOB ( ). Their goal is:

a series of crowdsourcing projects to perform significant feats of online bibliography in a fun, collaborative, and principled way, that would be useful to everyone and acceptable to professionals. It will rely on volunteer labor, free software, and open Web standards.

It is run as a bottom-up collaborative community project and I will certainly hope to get involved. So I tweeted:


Wikimedia starts MMOB, get Involved

This was commented by William Gunn @mrgunn (whom I know) of Elsevier’s Mendeley

mrgunn @mrgunn
@petermurrayrust Very Interesting! #openbibliography – I like to think of Mendeley as a sort of MMOB.

And since I do not like to think of Mendeley as equivalent to a MMOB I replied

@openscience It’s not. It used customers without consultation to build resource which belongs to a monopolistic owner

This led to a series of Twitter exchanges and rather than repeat them I shall blog my position and offer blog-comments for anyone to reply. First you need to understand Mendeley. To avoid bias I shall refer you to In August 2008 ago Mendeley launched. It offered a useful SoftwareAsAService to manage personal reference lists (bibliographies) for scientists. From Current Mendeley website ( ) it is:

a free reference manager and academic social network that can help you organize your research, collaborate with others online, and discover the latest research.

  • Automatically generate bibliographies
  • Collaborate easily with other researchers online
  • Easily import papers from other research software
  • Find relevant papers based on what you’re reading
  • Access your papers from anywhere online
  • Read papers on the go, with our new iPhone app

And from Wikipedia:

Mendeley requires the user to store all basic citation data on its servers—storing copies of documents is at the user’s discretion.

WP also comments (I think accurately):

Elsevier purchased Mendeley in 2013.[10] The sale caused quite a fuss on scientific networks and in the media interested in Open Access,[11] and upset some Mendeley users who felt that the program’s acquisition by publishing giant Elsevier, known for implementing restrictive publishing practices and provoking scandals,[12] was antithetical to the open sharing model of Mendeley.[13]

This is a primary concern. Wherever you read Mendeley you should add “Elsevier”. I assume the following:

  • That Elsevier has a controlling interest in Mendeley
  • That Elsevier could close Mendeley down, close some or all of its current services, add new services
  • Elsevier could unilaterally change Terms and Conditions
  • That the user “community” has no say in governance

These make it completely different from the principles and practice of Wikipedia’s MMOB.

I was neutral about Mendeley before it was purchased. I thought the idea was clever, and it worked and it provided a useful service. I was concerned that Mendeley appeared to have aggregated a huge number of full-texts of the articles with no indication whether this was legitimate. I believed that users regarded Mendeley as a useful reference managed and (though I don’t know) a useful social site. They did not expect to have a voice, and they probably were not too concerned about giving their personal data to a commercial organization. I would not have referred to Mendeley before the purchase as “monopolistic”.

I doubt Elsevier bought Mendeley for the revenue it generates looking to a wide value. This includes:

  • A very large collection of online scientists
  • An effective way of creating a bibliography for Elsevier (though this has not been explicit)
  • An effective way of collecting scientific articles (including from competitors). The ToC says that these must be legal but I doubt there is a transparent audit

This is a very powerful resource. If you can steer the way scientists behave, and at the same time generating value from them (they admit to anonymised data analytics) you have something of considerable value. If you then use it as a way of routing Elsevier ideas and products to these scientist you have a lot more. So I stand by my tweet:

  • Elsevier is effectively monopolistic and with the purchase of Mendeley has a quasi monopolistic position in bibliography
  • Users were not consulted about the direction of Mendeley’s development (e.g. being bought by Elsevier)
  • Users may now be concerned about Elsevier possessing all Mendeley’s content.

The potential uses of Mendeley data within Elsevier are massive. Even anonymised (and there is no independent audit) the analytics can be massively valuable. Which papes are used? By whom? For what? This allows Elsevier to decide what new products to create, what journals and how to price products.

The major message is that the academic community must build its own information infrastructure. Libraries have sleepwalked into buying products from publishers which can be used to control scholarship. We must change that.

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