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Recently, David Crotty observed that scientists are not joining social networks. The comments indicated that this might not be a fair generalization, and that adoption in some fields might be quite high. In addition, the use of social media tools remained unaddressed.

In an analysis published in the October 30th issue of Cell, Laura Bonetta quotes a number of scientists who are using Twitter to broadcast awareness of papers they find interesting while learning about papers others find interesting. Most of those quoted have 1,000+ followers. In addition, scientists Bonetta found are Twittering from meetings to help peers follow along.

Interestingly, one of the controversies Bonetta uncovers originated at Cold Spring Harbor Labs (CSHL), where David works. Tweets from a meeting caught the attention of the meeting organizers thanks to tattling by Genomeweb, which was upset because its journalists were being scooped by Twitter:

Because of the complaints, a month later CSHL released a statement that “any participant intending to blog, twitter or otherwise communicate or disseminate results or discussion presented at the meeting to anonymous third parties must obtain permission from the relevant presenting author before communicating any results or discussion to third party groups, message boards, blogs or other online resources (other than your own lab or departments).”

As an aside, Genomeweb is here the “traditional” provider, yet is built on Drupal, which “supports a variety of websites ranging from personal weblogs to large community-driven websites.”

Apparently, there was enough impact from science Twittering to give a non-traditional (now, traditional) provider cause for concern.

Digging into this brought me back to David’s assertion that scientists aren’t joining social networks. Clicking through to his primary source, I found the curious opening sentence:

A quick analysis of online social networks, such as LinkedIn and Xing would suggest that a mere 1 in 7 research scientists use such tools as part of their work.

An adoption rate of 1/7 is a little over 14%. But you have to parse the sentence closely to see that this is probably an underestimation, possibly quite severe. First of all, it was a “quick analysis,” which I think sub-texts into “I barely scratched the surface.” Then there are the networks examined — LinkedIn and Xing, which are networks targeted at businesspeople wishing to keep their contacts up, not necessarily collaborative social networks and certainly not flexible social media tools like Twitter.

Reading further into the same source, there is this even more curious sentence from the author:

Now, personally I know a lot of scientists who are using social media and social networking tools. I have enlisted more than 600 members in a Twitter group after all, and hundreds of my contacts in research are on FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook etc.

Now, I didn’t start writing this post with the intent of quibbling with David. But digging into these links led me to see some things differently, and I have to quibble now.

It seems there’s plenty of evidence that scientists are using social networks (from general ones like Facebook and LinkedIn to more specialized ones like and others), as well as social media tools, from blogs to Twitter to RSS.

It’s often hard to pin down new cultural developments, especially when there are many scattered initiatives, making it hard to aggregate information and spot trends. Yet, it seems scientists are finding value in social tools, and are moving into social networking.

And while you can argue that they won’t want to because they’ll have to divulge secrets, this is like saying they won’t go to parties because they might have to talk shop. Social media requires social skills and social know-how. Scientists know how to chat about what they can and keep secret what they must. This familiar social terrain is hardly a barrier to adoption if there are new advantages to be found in social media.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


29 Thoughts on "Scientists Are Using Social Media Tools (and May Be Using Social Networks, Too)"

Thanks for taking up the virtual gauntlet. I guess I could’ve tightened up those statements a little in my original post. However, when I talk to scientists who are using social media, it often turns out that they are the only one in their department with an interest.

Moreover, the “communities” claiming tens of thousands of members may have persuaded people to sign up, but how many are actually actively using them?

I’d love to see more scientists using social media, once we pass a critical mass it will become so much more relevant. But, I think there’s a hardcore membership that use everything, a softcore who use one or two and the vast majority are to busy scrabbling for funding to make the most of tweetups and pokes…

First, let me state that I do think scientists should be using social media–there are many great advantages they could gain from it. But I stand behind my statement that it has not seen uptake by the majority of scientists and it is far from a mainstream activity. As the Cell article you cite specifcally says:

“Although few established academic researchers have embraced Twitter…Although science Twitterers, and their followers, are out there, “those are still small numbers compared to the numbers of scientists who could join,” says Bradley.”

Given the 20 million plus scientists in the US alone, a few hundred tweeters is a meager showing. As noted in previous articles, the openly public nature of Twitter makes it difficult for many, particularly scientists in the commercial realm (the majority of scientists, by the way). Also, I think the way many of the tools have been pitched to scientists has been wrongheaded, without a good understanding of the culture of the field. Initial efforts have all been built around things that work elsewhere that aren’t really relevant, or are even counter-productive for scientists.

I think Twitter has great value as a way to put together ad hoc discussion groups around things like meetings, a way for disparate people who don’t know each other to connect over an event. But I don’t see many scientists using it as a daily diary, the way many continue to push it. As I stated before, social media for science needs to think in terms of the social groups that scientists really work in. I think more private forms of communication will win the day. As an example, Yammer offers much of what Twitter does, but conversation is not openly visible to the public. A lab, or a group of collaborators could share papers, results, meeting commentary there without worries of exposure.

My main point was to show that we really don’t know. Like you say, Yammer and other tools might slip under the radar. Labs also could build their own tools using Drupal and other common platforms. Given that, along with the consistent message across all the articles we’re bandying about, which reminds us that these things take time to grow and take hold (social networks have a different growth pattern — slower and then more geometric), I think we need to get back to a point of open observation.

I also found myself questioning the point that social networks don’t work for scientists with secrets. One thing I’ve learned in my work with social networks is that social rules apply. You can date, go out to dinner, go to parties, go to sporting events, and attend kid parties, all while keeping your secrets. So, I don’t think there’s a real barrier here.

This will be a topic of interest over the next few years, I think. I think we’ll be linking to these conversations down the road, but I’m not sure what we’ll be saying.

Well, my evidence is perhaps anecdotal, but I do regularly speak with hundreds of scientists, and I often give talks at major universities and I’m seeing an extremely consistent pattern. You’ll note that nearly every article on the subject quotes the usual fairly small group of scientists who are gung-ho on the technologies. It’s kind of like stating that open access publishing is overwhelming traditional publishing because there are lots of articles quoting a group of people who like it. Those who publicly blog and tweet are not surprisingly very vocal, but they’re the outliers, not the norm.

As for rules, if you need to self-censor to use a tool, then aren’t you strictly limiting what you’re going to get out of it? Wouldn’t it be better to find a means of communication where you don’t have to be secretive and can get the same back from those you’re interacting with? Why bother if you’re crippling use of the tool from the get-go?

I have to agree with David (Crotty) here: I too meet regularly with many scientists, and most dismiss social networks as useless (to them).

Significantly, the vocal minority who do engage (science writers/editors aside) do not include the high-profile researchers whose voices the community actually wants to listen to. Put simply: most scientists think that if you have the time to ‘network’ online you probably aren’t someone with anything important to say.

Yes, but that’s normal. It happened with email, web journals, mobile phones — the farther entrenched you are in a career, the less likely you are to mess with new technologies. I see it all the time. They “get it,” but are getting a lot of value out of what they’re doing now and how they’re doing it. When the “edge” becomes the center, they will join as late-adopters. I don’t think this is anything but an observation that “the adoption curves here are typical.”

I still think the idea that scientists were slow to pick up electronic journals, e-mail and cel phones is a myth. Scientists were one of the first communities to pick up e-mail. As a graduate student in the 1980’s, I got an e-mail account and the only other people I knew that had accounts I could contact were other scientists. Electronic journals spread like wildfire where I was doing research because it meant you didn’t have to go to the library and make copies, and everyone was thrilled with them. I’m not sure why people think there was great resistance to these things.

That said, things like e-mail, web journals, mobile phones all replaced things a scientist was currently doing with a superior technology for doing the same thing. Corresponding with other scientists by mail or phone was already happening. E-mail and cel phones made this more efficient. Journal reading was already happening, getting them online instead of in the post or at the library was more efficient.

And that’s the problem with most social media, it’s either a new activity altogether for scientists, or it’s a less efficient way of doing what they’re already doing. Blogging or tweeting does not replace an every day activity for most scientists, so uptake is not as obvious a thing to do. Directed communication is still much more efficient for people who are strapped for time, and strapped for funding in a highly competitive field.

I’d also add in that the science community reflects humanity in general here. It takes a certain personality type to blog or tweet. Not everybody enjoys it or finds it to be rewarding. It has appeal for a fairly small percentage (like ourselves) who enjoy the sound of their own voices. I don’t expect scientists to be any different from any other group in expressing this personality type.

OK, but isn’t this just a failure of imagination? If someone were to create an instrument that enabled communication with extraterrestrials, that wouldn’t replace an everyday activity for anyone, but people would still adopt it, right?

If you don’t like social media, that’s fine, but many scientists do and are finding it rewarding, so can we stop with the “scientists” aren’t using it?

I don’t think the question “Are scientists using social media?” is important to anyone except those who seek to market stuff to scientists or are trying to justify their own use somehow.

It’s like the discussion about the future of journalism: People always ask “What’s the business model” for new journalism. Who cares?

I agree that the issue here is a failure of imagination. Rather than really understanding the needs of scientists, and coming up with innovative new solutions that improve efficiencies, we’ve got a horde of “myspace for scientists” (or rather, “facebook for scientists”) sites that take a “me-too”, low-hanging-fruit approach, trying to get by with just copying things that have worked for cultures that differ vastly from science. If someone came up with a site that did something as useful as extraterrestrial communication, it would rapidly be adopted, but “find collaborators” and “spend time answering technical questions for first year graduate students” doesn’t quite seem to have that same appeal.

I do like social media, but I don’t have a lot of spare time, so I tend to use it in very directed ways. I’ve found a local parents’ network that’s been incredibly helpful for me as a first-time parent in finding local activities for my child. I should note that this is a private, invitation-only network, and it wouldn’t work as well if it were open to the public, and I probably wouldn’t participate if it was–something that might make a difference for the increasingly tight-lipped culture of science. One can say that “scientists are using social networks”, just as one can say that “Americans are involved in Morris Dancing.” There are, after all, 150 morris sides in the United States, and the community is very vocal and consider themselves ahead of the cultural curve. All of their friends morris dance, and they probably even have a small meeting they all go to once a year to pat each other on the back. That doesn’t mean that morris dancing is an American Idol-level cultural phenomenon.

Keep in mind that this is a blog written by members of the publishing industry, generally aimed for a readership within that same industry. Questions like “are scientists using social networks” and “what’s the business model for new journalism” are tremendously important to us because they have a direct relevance to the way we make our living. Understanding the way people communicate is vital if we’re to serve our customers’ needs.

On a personal note, I’ll add that journalism is vital to a free society. Someone has to act as a watchdog and curb governmental and corporate abuse. If professional journalism disappears as a way to make a living, reporting, and our society in general suffers. As Clay Shirky has pointed out, revolutions break things faster than new things can come in and replace them. Often, important and valuable things are lost, and the results of a revolution are not always positive, sometimes things get worse.

OK, fair point about the publishing industry being interested in business models. I won’t attempt to speak for the average scientist and whether or not they care, but I also think present company could use some restraint in that department as well.

The reason I’ve taken this up as an issue is simply that I hear all this stuff about what scientists supposedly know or like or want and it’s all anecdotal or shallow or often just wishful thinking, and this happens from both people pessimistic about the business models of social networking and those trying to build social networks. As a scientist, I’m used to building one idea on the foundation of the ideas that came before with the addition of new evidence, and what’s happening in the debate about the utility of social media or Web20 for science is that the same arguments and ideas are rehashed over and over again by educational institutes and associations without any new data being collected or any indication that one association has read anything that has come before. Rarely do I see these associations coming into the communities online and introducing themselves and watching and asking meaningful questions. Maybe if they did, they wouldn’t keep making these proclamations about what we are doing or not doing us that sound so silly to me, coming from afar.

We’re definitely in agreement that “Facebook for Scientists” is a bad idea and a flawed model, but those aren’t the social networks that scientists are using. They’re using the same ones everyone else is – Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, Flickr, Youtube, Mendeley, and their own ad hoc networks (which probably represents the majority and doesn’t figure into anyone’s stats). Let’s not forget that and the community of independent science bloggers are a social network, too.

Mendeley is a good example of a company that does fit in a scientist’s daily routine. They’re organizing, sharing, and finding papers already and they don’t have to tag them or have a network of contacts to get value from it. Are you still using and liking Papers?

I do freely admit that much of my evidence is anecdotal, but my experience is common to anyone regularly in contact with large numbers of scientists. I would also argue that when one surveys membership and activity on social networks for scientists, the results are fairly obvious and the participatory numbers are strikingly small (given 20 million plus scientists in the US alone) and infrequent. After the initial hype of their launch, most networks pretty quickly plateau and stall out, and new ideas are needed.

I’m not sure how helpful it is to go into the online communities to ask these sorts of questions because at that point you’re preaching to the converted, and those already sold on and evangelizing social networking are not going to give you a clear picture of what’s missing for everyone else. We need to address the needs of researchers who aren’t part of those communities. I find that many who are heavily invested in online communities seem more interested in them than they are in actually doing science, so in some ways their priorities no longer match those of the mainstream. I think it’s fair to criticize what’s out there and not working and to suggest new directions. I can point you to a much longer list of articles that give unrealistic, rosy pictures of what’s happening rather than helpful constructive criticism. It’s a tough nut to crack as there seem to be potential benefits to be gained for researchers, but so far the conflicts and time/energy commitments outweigh them.

You make an excellent point about the mainstream social networks–I’d add LinkedIn as an even more frequently used one than those you mention. There’s no point in duplicating the functionality of bigger, stronger, more functional networks for a smaller community–you lose the network effects and you don’t gain any new functionality. Scienceblogs (and the bloggers at the Nature Network) are both examples of communities that are small and don’t represent the mainstream scientist. There are 75 blogs at Scienceblogs, and at last check around 50 active at the Nature Network. That’s an absurdly small percentage of the science community as a whole, and blogging does not appear to be an activity that interests most scientists (as authors or readers). Bloggers are very vocal and enthusiastic about what they do, which gives the reader an unbalanced picture because it leaves out the silent majority. Scientists are no different than the rest of humanity in this regard. A very small percentage enjoys writing blogs, most don’t and would never consider starting their own blog.

I am still a big fan of Papers and the iPhone implementation is a nice addition. I have great reservations about Mendeley given the clear copyright infringement built into their system–if they do catch on with mainstream scientists, they’re going to be hammered with lawsuits, making their survival a question mark, so I can’t recommend people invest a lot of time and effort getting entrenched there.

So if I were to frame the discussion not as “are scientists using or not using social networks” but as “What can be learned from the experiments so far in different ways of collaborating?” I think we can draw some conclusions that might be of interest.

* Whatever value there is in social media for scientists is mostly being captured by existing networks, so there’s not much call for another network.

*The network itself isn’t the point – if the tool is valuable, a network may grow around it, as it has for most of the successful web20 properties: Flickr as a tool for sharing pictures, youtube for sharing/transcoding video, Mendeley for organizing PDFs, Linkedin for sharing contact information and hosting a profile, maybe even Twitter/Friendfeed for sharing conference notes and the like.

* Social networking is here to stay and will continue to grow, but it might be some time before the majority of scientists are using it as part of their daily workflow.

* We don’t yet have enough data to even guess at what the overall uptake of web20 tools will be among the scientific community, so if you’re interested in marketing a product which has to be used by the majority of scientists in order for it to be successful, it had better provide some value beyond online networking. On the other hand, if you’re a scientist concerned about losing your investment of time, there’s not much comfort to be had. Projects backed by large institutions can lose support (Connotea, 2collab) and small startups can go under (labspaces, other science networks).

A final note about Mendeley. The copyright infringement question has been asked and answered. Dozens of publishers and repositories support Mendeley, including ISI WOK, EBSCO, ScienceDirect, ACM, ArXiv, Wiley Interscience, etc. The top universities in the world are heavily on board with what Mendeley is doing, and they’ve got funding from seasoned veterans of established web20 companies such as Skype and They’re not going to disappear anytime soon. Even if they did, your PDFs would still be organized and you could still use the software to create and manage citations and bibliographies in documents.

Good points in general. I do think an emphasis on tools, particularly the mythical “killer app” is a better approach than creating yet another network. Social networking behaviors are more likely to creep into the things we’re already doing than serve as a wholesale replacement for those things.

As for Mendeley (and in the spirit of openness, you should probably note that you work for Mendeley), the question has been asked but definitely has not been conclusively answered. That’s one of the problems with fair use, each case is judged on an individual basis, and you can’t know if what you’re doing is indeed fair use until it is challenged and declared to be so by a court of law. Some publishers and institutions may be interacting with Mendeley, but I assume none have signed an agreement that bans any legal action on their part against Mendeley. Even if so, there are plenty of other publishers out there and all it really will take is one lawyer looking to get a fat payout.

I was surprised when we met with Mendeley, given the involvement of, how naive they seemed toward the legal history of filesharing and the precedents that had been set. They seem to have hit on all of the major no-no’s from the Napster and Grokster cases (storing files on the company’s own servers, openly encouraging infringement, although they’ve changed the text on the latter issue after it was brought to their attention). If you started a business where people put up lists of their music collections and allowed them to share mp3’s of songs to a limited group of strangers, I’m wiling to bet the music companies wouldn’t accept it, and the same is likely here.

The good news is that Mendeley’s product is completely viable without the infringing functionality, and in many ways, they’ve got the best platform on the market for reference management. I’m a little dubious of their business model, given the number of competitors in the market and how difficult it will be to charge for any of these services, but we’ll have to see.

I’m not sure one should apply the same curves universally. PIs were very very quick to adopt mobile phones and, as scientists, in at the beginning with email. It’s therefore important to consider why twitter, for example, is not something they adopted early.

Another example is informative here: despite the prevalence of PDAs among medics for about a decade, these were pretty much ignored by research scientists – primarily because PDAs didn’t provide anything the scientists actually needed.

Starting a separate thread to discuss the CSHL incident. The problem for meeting organizers is that they want speakers to talk about up-to-the-minute, unpublished data. That makes for a much more interesting talk than a rehashing of things that are already published, that the audience has already read. But most scientists are hesitant to publicly let out unpublished results for fear of spurring their competition to scoop them. In order to help scientists feel more confident about speaking about new data (thus to improve the quality of the meeting), many meetings have strict confidentiality policies. Anything presented at the meeting is treated as a direct “personal communication” from that scientist, and you’re asked not to publicly report or publish that information without the speaker’s permission. At CSHL, this is presented as a very clear statement at the beginning of the abstract book, and it was ignored by the bloggers/tweeters in question, which upset the traditional journalists who were honoring the request of their host. If we’re to think of bloggers and such as “citizen journalists”, then shouldn’t they be held to similar community standards and practices? Since then, CSHL has tried to make their policy more clear and asks bloggers and their like to get permission before publicly posting speaker content.

It’s something of a dilemma. Getting publicity around a meeting is something the organizers want to encourage, but at the same time, there’s fear that it will inhibit speakers and the quality of the meeting will diminish. I think we’ll see more and more openness at meetings, more bloggers and tweeters, and at the same time, we’ll see less and less unpublished data. More reporting, less interesting material to report.

CSHL meeting organizers established this policy for one reason: when surveyed, speakers said they would alter their presentations if they knew in advance these would be available to individuals outside the (closed) meeting.

One can argue whether this is really true given that their closest competitors are probably also at the meeting – plus anyone can email/phone someone not at the meeting and tell them what was said. Nevertheless, it gives significant insight into the (anti)social mindset of the speakers.

Also, it seems naive. There is nothing in Genomeweb’s infrastructure (or most news providers’) to prevent their coverage from being nearly real-time.

That’s a good point Richard. Much of the coverage of this has pointed at CSHL and other meeting organizers as the bad guys here, looking to limit bloggers and such from covering the proceedings. This is far from the truth–meeting organizers would love to have widespread coverage, to have people who can’t attend understand how important and informative their meetings are. The issue lies with the speakers, and the general attitudes of the participating scientists, not with some hidden plot to thwart bloggers.

The full text of David Bradley’s interview with the Cell reporter (which was excerpted for the linked article) can be read here.

Exactly, my second point above was getting at that – the network is essentially and emergent phenomenon, not the end in itself.

The comparison to mp3 sharing is an easy one to make, but I do think it breaks down in a couple important ways. First, the whole economics of the situation are different. You don’t have publishing companies picking a picking a small fraction of authors and giving them millions of dollars to write material which is then consumed by a mostly non-author audience. Academic journals need their audience because they’re both the producers and consumers, and they can’t afford to piss them off. Second, there’s not really an equivalent of a journal club among mp3 listeners. Yes, people do get together and listen to music, but journal clubs are where the majority of article discussion goes on so it’s much more of an institution. The case for fair use is even stronger here because of the explicitly educational/academic purpose of this application. Finally, we’ve been through this already. I don’t blame recording companies for freaking out and trying to maintain their privileged middleman status they way they did. However, we now know that doesn’t work. Journal publishers want to work with Mendeley because they (most of them, anyways) are looking ahead to the future. Sure, one company could sue, but not only would they almost certainly lose, the potential winnings aren’t that great even if they win, and the risk that they’d lose contributors and readers is very real and significant. On the bright side, the possibility they might stay relevant well into the next decade looks pretty good as they adapt to the new ways academics are beginning to work.

It’s great to hear you say you think Mendeley has one of the best platforms out there. They’ve worked very hard at it and continue to listen closely to what people want. I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about Mendeley, but so I’ll just end saying that there are opportunities Mendeley has discussed internally which are pretty cool and very much represent a win-win for all parties involved.

It’s another tangent, but the disclosure thing has generally worked like this: I generally sign comments with my Mendeley email address and a link to my profile, which indicates that I have a special relationship with them and when I’m speaking on Mendeley’s behalf, I so indicate.

How could I make it more clear? Because you can’t include a disclaimer in the message on twitter, I’ve gotten used to just having that information available via a link. There’s also the issue that although I do work with Mendeley, it’s in a consulting sort of role, not an employee-employer relationship. As you know from earlier exchanges on my blog and yours, my views here have remained the same since before I entered into an arrangement with Mendeley, so they are my own and I’m speaking on my own behalf.

Wow, WordPress’ commenting system leaves a lot to be desired. Why this later comment turns up higher in the list than the comment it responds to is hard to figure out.

There are economic and other differences with mp3’s. But I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes from a legal point of view. A piece of copyrighted material is a piece of copyrighted material, and if you redistribute it without permission, you may be breaking the law. I’m really surprised Mendeley didn’t go for a P2P solution but instead decided to act as the redistributor themselves, which opens up all kinds of legal cans of worms. It’s almost like the company has been set up to provoke a lawsuit to try to set legal precedents in as favorable a light as possible.

Where is the line drawn? If you can infringe copyright on a scientific paper, can you also do so on a textbook if you’re using it for discussion as well? Can I upload a Discovery Channel tv show and give it away if I use it in the same way? Why is it okay to share among 10 people, but not 11? Isn’t Mendeley’s sharing viral, so I can share with 10 people, they each can share with 10 and so on? Fair Use does take into account the nature of the use of the infringement, but it’s unclear how much that would weigh in any decision. Again, we’ll never know until a judge makes a ruling.

For publishers, it’s unclear if what Mendeley is offering is of interest to a majority of customers. And there’s also a balance involved–there’s no point in angering your customers if you don’t have to, but there’s no point in keeping them happy by putting yourself out of business. If Mendeley were to catch on, and a Napsterization occurred, and subscriptions started being canceled en masse, you can bet all those publishing partners would turn pretty quickly. Just because people want stuff for free doesn’t mean that’s the only acceptable path to the future. I want a pony, but so far I’ve been unable to convince any stable to give me one based on a threat they’ll lose me as a customer if they don’t.

As far as disclosure, I tend to think like an editor, and I want to know when there’s a potential conflict of interest, even if the author is being completely honest and unbiased (and I do think you’re doing that here). Not sure the best way to do that, but in a forum like this where there’s space, it’s good to add an aside for something like that.

Just two quick things here:

The position of Mendeley, after seeking legal counsel, is that their use is fair use. Since they’ve got advice from people who really do know the ins and outs of that area of the law, I tend to believe them when they say that they’ve thoroughly thought this through and had enough discussions with stakeholders that all sides are pretty much on board at this point. Worries about whether or not someone might object can be solved simply by looking at what the stakeholders are doing.

Like I said above (or below or wherever this comment ends up 😉 ), it wasn’t my intention to turn this into a discussion all about Mendeley, but what, in your expert opinion, can Mendeley do to make it more obvious to publishers that this is in fact what their customers want?

Academics want an easy and open (no proprietary data formats) way to manage their papers and to manage citations of those papers within their manuscripts. They want to be better able to keep up with the relevant literature now that there’s far too much to keep up with via keyword searches or TOC alerts. They also want to know how much interest their publications are getting.

The impact factor of the journal it’s published in has been proven to be a really crappy way of measuring research impact, so institutions want a better way to know how how much influence and impact their research groups have. They understand that research monies could be spent far more effectively if they had better stats about what and who is really making a difference and who’s just getting published because his PhD advisor has a plum study section/advisory board seat.

Libraries are struggling on one side with the mandate to set up institutional repositories and have researchers contribute materials to it and on the other side with poor compliance from their researchers in depositing the material. This is another place where Mendeley fits in perfectly.

I hope this helps illustrate that the value of Mendeley doesn’t actually depend on or require Napster-like file sharing. The “shared collections” feature is just one little feature, designed to save someone a little time at the copy machine. The value of the service, and the vision of the company, is much broader than that.

I’m sure Mendeley has good legal advice. Then again, so did Napster, Grokster, The Pirate Bay, Jammie Thomas and Joel Tenenbaum.

I do agree that there’s great potential in what Mendeley is doing, and that the Napster functionality is just a small part of the picture, one that could easily be disposed of. But for most publishers, it’s a dealbreaker. Get rid of that, and you’d see a flood of partners come on board, as there are all kinds of ways we could work together to make both of our products better.

The impact factor is an argument for another day. I think it’s a good concept, but poorly implemented (any rating system that’s not transparent and replicable is fatally flawed). There are major issues with most of the other proposed measurements as well, so probably some combination of things would work best.

I hear what you’re saying about the sharing feature. There are legitimate non-infringing uses for it, though, so I wouldn’t expect it to go away anytime soon, but I also don’t expect Mendeley to hoist the Jolly Roger any time soon, either, and there are several reason for that. In the first place, we’re talking about academics here, most of whom have institutional subscriptions and who do recognize the value added by the editorial process. The still see academic publishing as a valuable thing.
Also, cancellations en masse aren’t going to happen if scientist A at institution X, which has a site license to the journal, shares a PDF with scientist B at institution Y, which also has a site license. So it really is just saving the scientists a step. They’re already emailing them, so I just don’t think that’s a danger. We’re really talking about legitimate, small scale, academic use of materials where the only difference from how things have been going is the channel through which it’s happening.

If publishers think they can protect a revenue stream by fighting distribution of PDFs, history suggests they’re going to be in for an expensive and ultimately counterproductive game of whack-a-mole.

I agree that there’s a lot that the publishing industry needs to be concerned about, and I would like to continue to discuss that, but I’d like to start at some point beyond “home taping is killing music”.

I’m sure at some point you could have told the music industry that it was okay to ignore Napster–it’s just a bunch of college students trading music with each other as files instead of passing around mixed cd’s. The idea is to learn from the mistakes of the music industry, and to be proactive before you’ve established a culture where this is the norm. The music industry now has a generation that has never (and may never) pay for music, because infringing downloading is all they know. It strikes me that the scholarly publishing industry would be wise to try to avert this from happening to them.

At the very least, you can’t expect the industry to show widespread support for a venture that directly threatens their business model. Given that the market for reference managers is so crowded, there’s no reason for a publisher to support and legitimize Mendeley over any of the other companies/sites that do the same thing but don’t offer copyright infringement as one of their features.

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