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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16 Responses to Massively Multiplayer Online Bibliography contrasted with Elsevier’s Mendeley

  1. Peter, I was not aware that Elsevier (other publishers too) are disallowing building open bibliographies systematically. Do you think (or know) if this is the reason, perhaps, why CiteULike is not pushing their CiTO functionality more? I love to donate my CDK paper citation data (using CiTO), aggregated in CiteULike:

    • Umm... missing question mark. I meant: "(other publishers too?)"

    • pm286 says:

      Many publishers sell their tablesOfContents. By default everything a publisher offers could be regarded as their copyright (including metadata). I challenge this.

      Elsevier and many others forbid the use of robots indexing subscription material.

  2. Mr. Gunn says:

    So Mendeley has, and will keep, an open API from which you can download all the bibliographic metadata you wish. If this changes, you'll be correct to raise hell, but as long as this resource is available, why not use it?

    Please understand there are open advocates inside Elsevier and your tearing off everyone with the same brush hurts us and strengthens those you oppose.

    and your comment box doesn't work properly with android keyboards, but that's a separate issue

    • pm286 says:

      I cannot find any mention of this on . There is no mention of re-use / CC-BY, no program or creating a bibliography independent of your users. (There's 1 paragraph under the Developer section )

      I am sure there are open advocates within Elsevier. I expect they are well-meaning and they are ineffective. All I see is you and the Director of Universal Access.

      If you were serious about creating an unfettered Open Bibliography there are
      no signs of it. Even if there were, I would need additional conditions.

      • Mr. Gunn says:

        So you found the license. Good. That means the sentence "There is no mention of re-use / CC-BY..." in your statement above is incorrect and invalid. Just wanted to get that straight.

        Here's the point, Peter. Many people within Elsevier do support OA, but they don't like to get into fights on the internet, so they keep their heads down. If they could speak up occasionally without having to get into a fight with people such as yourself, then they would probably do so more often. Mendeley has made more high quality bibliographic metadata available under an open license than any other project ever, and our data is what has made things like Impact Story possible. All we're asking for is due credit, instead of constantly having to defend ourselves from people whose main contributions seem to be making noise on the internet. Making noise is a valuable contribution, don't get me wrong, but there's a fine line between making your voice heard and being "that guy". Don't be that guy.

  3. Note that the under the terms for Elsevier's 'Open Archives':

    "Open Archive articles: are protected by copyright and may be used for non-commercial purposes. Users may access, download, copy, display, redistribute, adapt, translate, text mine and data mine the articles provided that:

    They cite the article using an appropriate bibliographic citation (i.e. author(s), journal, article title, volume, issue, page numbers, DOI and the link to the definitive published version on ScienceDirect)

    They maintain the integrity of the article

    They retain copyright notices and links to these terms and conditions so it is clear to other users what can and cannot be done with the article

    They ensure that, for any content in the article that is identified as belonging to a third party, any re-use complies with the copyright policies of that third party

    Any translations, for which a prior translation agreement with Elsevier has not been established, must prominently display the statement: "This is an unofficial translation of an article that appeared in an Elsevier publication. Elsevier has not endorsed this translation."

    Use of published articles for commercial purposes is prohibited. Commercial purposes include:

    Copying or downloading articles, or linking to such postings, for further redistribution, sale or licensing, for a fee

    Copying, downloading or posting by a site or service that incorporates advertising with such content

    The inclusion or incorporation of article content in other works or services (other than normal quotations with an appropriate citation) that is then available for sale or licensing, for a fee

    Use of articles or article content (other than normal quotations with appropriate citation) by for-profit organizations for promotional purposes, whether for a fee or otherwise.

    Use for the purposes of monetary reward by means of sale, resale, license, loan, transfer or other form of commercial exploitation."
    ( - accessed 22 September 2013)

    you can probably run PubCrawler over it as long as you don't sell the result or host it on a website with advertising.

    Since all of Elsevier's mathematics journals are in the Open Archives past a four-year moving wall, there are current, not-yet public efforts to make full use of the freedom these terms give.

    • pm286 says:

      Many thanks.

      No we shan't advertise. and yes I am interested in the last sentence

        • pm286 says:

          Can you clarify the point? One pointer is to Elsevier's Open Access Archives (which is a handful of journals - probably < 1% - of Eslevier). The rubric says...

          Elsevier also provides access to archived material through our Open Access Archives. These articles are published in a subscription journal and after a journal-specific embargo period, Elsevier enables these articles to become open access.

          Once the articles have been made open access, they will have specific user rights defined by a bespoke license tailored for the research environment, detailed below:

          Open Archive articles: are protected by copyright and may be used for non-commercial purposes.

          • That is a mathematics-specific selection. The Open Archives more generally comprise more of a cross-section, but I can't say what proportion of all their journals are in there.

            It's not great, but it's reasonable if you're a mathematician, as it's all their maths journals. This was one of the sweetners to get us back on board, but grateful as I am, I'm still not going to provide them with free content (and Elsevier publish the journal which is probably the top one for my field, which I grind my teeth and accept).

            The bespoke license is similar but not quite CC-BY-NC, but we are explicitly told that scraping/mining is permitted, so I would run with it while it lasts. Use all the slack that is given, even if the pesky NC-clause says you can't sell the immediate result.

    • Jason Hoyt says:

      "Open Archives" doesn't sound very open if one cannot make commercial use of any text mining, etc efforts.

      In addition, navigating Open Archives and actually getting to the full-text of any article is a Byzantine nightmare; indeed seems nigh impossible for some articles.

      Why is this?

      • pm286 says:

        I don't know what "Open Archives" is. I asked the "Director of Universal Access" for a list of Elsevier's Open Access articles and she couldn't give me one. The best is a search query. Given the very poor labelling that I have detected in Elsevier I doubt that they know what is and is not Open.

        • Mr. Gunn says:

          Elsevier is constantly telling libraries about their "no double-dipping" policy, so they must have some record of it somewhere, but it's not in the machine readable metadata on any of the article pages as far as I can tell. Definitely something I'd like to see, not only at Elsevier, but at all journals.

          Peter - I totally understand the value of keeping the pressure on for improvement, but again I'll invoke the fine line and suggest that, based on the mentions of your name I've heard, that you may have crossed over from "a critic but worth listening to" to "an example of someone who's always critical no matter what and thus no longer listened to."

          Rod Page was often very critical of Mendeley, but his criticisms were fair. He may have ranted, but he never said things that he knew to be untrue, such as "There's no mention of CC-BY on their site anywhere". He also had more impact on the development of Mendeley than a thousand "Mendeley is Evil because Elsevier owns them" posts ever will.

          None of this is meant to discount the past history with Elsevier and I can't do anything about that, all I can say is that there is an olive branch being extended, and it's your choice if you'll accept it in kind or just thrash me with it.

  4. Asaf Bartov says:

    Hi there.

    I would just like to point out that MMOB is my own initiative, in my volunteer capacity as a longtime (volunteer) digital librarian and metadata geek and Wikipedian. Being a Wikipedian, I used the Meta-wiki site to begin the public brainstorming about the idea. I also happen to work for the Wikimedia Foundation, in a capacity unrelated to this, but that's quite irrelevant.

    MMOB is something I'm trying to start as a volunteer (and others have already expressed support, so MMOB is already a group effort), not a Wikimedia project, and should not be presented as such.

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