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Although social networking websites continue to proliferate, turning them into sustainable, revenue-generating businesses remains a difficult prospect. This process of legitimacy — becoming an actual business rather than a challenge to be faced somewhere down the line — is doubly difficult for sites based on filesharing.

Building a network based on filesharing is a quick way to gain a large population of users. People like getting things for free. The legal issues surrounding the redistribution of copyrighted material are often ignored during the network building process — the focus is on providing functionality for the user. But when the network is ready to move up to the big leagues, to start partnering with and generating revenue from deep-pocketed companies and institutions, a lack of adherence to copyright law can be a major barrier to success.

Music sharing networks are the poster children for these sorts of difficulties. Way back in the stone age of 2000, media giant Bertelsmann invested in the granddaddy of all fileswapping networks, Napster. The plan was to turn it into a legitimate subscription service that would allow users to continue swapping files, but to ensure compensation to copyright holders. But this act of lying down with infringers led to an expensive case of fleas for Bertelsmann.  They ended up having to pay out massive settlements to copyright holders due to its financial support of an illegal network. Bertelsmann gave up on their plans for Napster at that point, and its assets were sold off at auction.  Napster became a wholly different beast that merely sold files without any sharing, lost the bulk of its users to newer filesharing networks, and subsequently changed hands several times without any significant impact on the market. Bertelsmann’s legal troubles point out the danger in partnering with companies that are violating copyright law.

Contrast that with recent developments at Scribd. With some 50 million users, Scribd was long seen as the scourge of the print content industry. Last year though, Scribd announced partnerships with a series of major publishing houses, including Random House, Simon & Schuster, Workman Publishing Co., Berrett-Koehler, Thomas Nelson, and Manning Publications. The goal was to use Scribd as part of viral marketing campaigns. Shortly thereafter, ScribD opened their “Scribd Store”, which sells view and download access to documents and books.

Why was Scribd successful in taking on corporate partners where Napster failed? Ars Technica explains:

The fact that Scribd is offering the publishers this level of control over their content is part of the appeal. . . . Another part of the appeal is undoubtedly the fact that Scribd takes its potential use for copyright infringement seriously. The company hosts a copy of a legally valid DMCA takedown notice in its support section, and it provides a mechanism for users to contest these claims. Any text that is removed as a response to the takedown notice gets processed into a digital fingerprint that is then used for comparison whenever any new content is uploaded. Clearly, publishers are more likely to look more favorably on Scribd than the music labels did on Napster.

Rather than waiting for a book to be pirated, Scribd has implemented a system where copyright holders can upload copies of their material into Scribd’s reference database, and illegal material is prevented from appearing on the site. The system is far from perfect (a search today turned up some 26 copyrighted documents from my employer, prompting another round of DMCA takedown notices). But Scribd responds rapidly and is eager to work with publishers on these issues. And that seems to go a long way in transforming their image from a den of piracy to a valuable partner.

Which brings us to Mendeley, the current market leader for potential filesharing of scholarly papers and materials. Mendeley offers an excellent system for reference management for researchers, with both local desktop and online components. In many ways, they’ve taken the best aspects of programs like Papers and websites like Connotea and combined them into a powerful whole. The problem is that they’ve built filesharing into their system with little to no oversight over copyright infringement. Since Mendeley claims it has 8 million research papers uploaded to its site, if you’re a scholarly publisher, it’s likely that your copyrighted material is already hosted on their servers.

I first met with representatives from Mendeley back in late 2008, and was fairly stunned at their apparent naïveté towards copyright law and the legal precedents that had been set in cases involving music sites (particularly since one of their major backers is the founder of Last.FM). Their FAQ and terms of service at the time were clearly offering the sorts of infringement inducements that got Grokster in so much legal trouble, and after some correspondence with Victor Henning, Mendeley changed the language on these pages to better reflect copyright law and leave the company some hope of a safe harbor defense. The big problem they still haven’t resolved is the fact that all uploading and downloading takes place through the company’s servers. In the Napster case, all infringing activities ran through the company’s servers and that was the smoking gun in the determination of contributory infringement. That’s why things like BitTorrent were created, to let users connect directly to one another, leaving no guilty middleman. Mendeley not only connects users through their servers but actually hosts and redistributes the potentially infringing files.

Representatives from Mendeley have also variously made the argument that because the sharing is limited to small groups (10 at a time, though each of those 10 can share with 10 more, etc.), it falls under the rubric of fair use. Then again, if I start a website that allows you to upload Beatles’ songs and then redistribute them to just 10 other people at a time, odds are Paul MacCartney’s lawyers would be calling soon. Remember that Jammie Thomas was found liable for $1.92 million for sharing a mere 24 files one time each.  Correspondence from one of Mendeley’s founders also suggests that “fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders, such as use for scholarship or review exemption”. This is undoubtedly true, but I’m not sure it covers a third-party facilitating the exchange, and more importantly, one of the main determinants of fair use is:

The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

This may hold for the user’s liability, but with Mendeley’s latest announcement, the nonprofit nature, along with any limits on sharing, are no longer part of the picture. They now plan to offer “premium packages”:

. . . shared collections – which are currently limited to ten people – we quickly found requests rolling in for collections of a much larger size, mainly for departments and labs. So, we will raise the number of people who can access a shared collection as part of a premium package and in turn make the limits flexible.

The announcement also notes a paid feature to increase the amount of storage space online for uploading material. You can see where Mendeley wants to go with this. Universities and other institutions are struggling with setting up and maintaining repositories for the distribution of publications from their faculty. That makes great sense, and Mendeley could be an ideal outsourcing partner for such services. But frankly, I can’t see any major institution taking the risk of being tied to a service that’s so ripe for a costly lawsuit. I’ve been surprised that no publisher has challenged the legality of what Mendeley has done in the past, particularly commercial houses that have products directly competing with Mendeley (MacMillan owns Connotea and Elsevier owns 2Collab). Perhaps the lawyers are just waiting for the involvement of someone with deeper pockets (like a university with a large endowment) to make the lawsuit more rewarding.

If University X signs up with Mendeley for their unlimited uploading and filesharing service, what’s to stop the students from using it as a new Napster? Clearly nothing — as a test, I set up two Mendeley accounts yesterday, uploaded an mp3 song file to one (I used a Creative Commons licensed file to avoid breaking the law myself) and then shared it with the other account. If you’re Harvard, given the size of your endowment, do you really want to set yourself up to be Jammie Thomas or Joel Tenenbaum on a massive scale?

The good news for Mendeley is that given the nature of their system, which is based on automated identification of uploaded files and compiling detailed statistical reports on user activity, it should be within their power to do a reasonably good job of screening out infringing material. As they grow from a revenue-less startup to a legitimate business, it will be interesting to see if their policies toward redistributing infringing materials change to fit their new role. The “information wants to be free” crowd has served them well for building a following and getting noticed, but it’s not a community well-known for generating revenue.

There’s huge potential here for partnerships with publishers (I have several projects I’d love to propose) and major research institutions, but these are going to require reasonable activities on Mendeley’s part to obey copyright laws and safeguard those partners from liability. It’s not as sexy a path as being a Jolly Roger-hoisting rebel, but no one ever said that growing up was easy.

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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45 Thoughts on "Going Legit: The Difficult Path from Piracy to Partnership"

“Why was Scribd successful in taking on corporate partners where Napster failed?”

Scribd wasn’t taking on iTunes, Limewire, and all the rest?
You’ve compared apples and oranges.

  • AJ Cann
  • Jan 13, 2010, 6:42 AM

I think David’s use of “taking on” meant “partnering with,” not “confronting.” If Napster had partnered with iTunes, Limewire, and all the rest (or had been able to), it might still be a major player.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Jan 13, 2010, 8:18 AM

Napster could not take on corporate partners because the corporate partners had already voted with their feet, going to iTunes and Amazon. With filesharing mopping up the rest of the market, what was the point of partnering with the failed Napster after it emerged from it’s US Court-imposed holiday? Napster was no longer a player, which was why it failed. The analogy of the music industry does not fit well with models of academic publishing.

  • AJ Cann
  • Jan 13, 2010, 10:02 AM

AJ, I think you’re mixing up the original Napster with its later existence in name only after it was purchased by Roxio in 2002. The original Napster (1999-2001) predated the iTunes music store which was not launched until 2003 (Amazon didn’t launch their mp3 store until 2007). The original Napster did attempt to go legit as noted in the article.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 13, 2010, 10:43 AM

Exactly. The original Napster wasn’t interested in being “legit” and the second Napster couldn’t because iTunes was in the way.

  • AJ Cann
  • Jan 13, 2010, 11:22 AM

Yes, as Kent notes, “taking on” as in “adding” corporate partners successfully.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 13, 2010, 8:50 AM

I saw a tweet today that Zotero was offering paid storage:

“RT @bengoldacre: Zotero file storage has suddenly secretly appeared, $20 for 1gb, all my PDFs synced across any computer i use, with my refmanager, w00h00”

which sounds like more of the same issue…!

  • Chris Rusbridge
  • Jan 26, 2010, 7:33 AM

Online storage is a different issue from online sharing. Many think that uploading legally purchased files to an online storage locker for personal use falls under fair use. There is a lawsuit pending on this matter, EMI is suing mp3tunes.com for copyright infringement for creating just such an online storage locker. Stay tuned.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 26, 2010, 11:28 AM

Zotero is also not a for-profit operation, which may cast a different light on its activities. As far as I know, it also freely offers API access to all of its user data, so it’s clearly not seeking to monopolize or monetize that data’s dissemination.

Contrast that approach with Mandelay’s roach motel attitude to user data (one-way import of CiteULike and now 2collab). Coupled with their TOS’s express prohibition of tinkering around, I see a troubling lack of concern about future access to their users’ data.

  • BWG
  • Jan 26, 2010, 7:12 PM

Response to AJ’s comment above got squeezed into an almost unreadable form, so re-posting it here:

Actually, the original Napster tried to go legit long before iTunes existed. Quoting the linked article from above dated October 2000:

Under the deal, Bertelsmann and Napster will offer a paid membership service that will let fans trade tunes using Napster’s architecture. The strategic alliance will compensate recording artists, songwriters, recording companies and music publishers for any music that changes hands. Bertelsmann’s new electronic commerce group, BeCG, will loan Napster the money to develop the new service and will obtain a warrant to acquire a minority stake in San Mateo, Calif.-based Napster. The company will drop its copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster once the service is up and running, as long as the company pulls the plug on Napster.com as it now exists.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 13, 2010, 11:54 AM

David, do you remember back in, oh, 2007, when we used to talk about the use of social sharing tools by scientists? Mendeley wasn’t around then, so we talked about Connotea and the like. I said I thought they could really transform science by enabling researchers to make more sense of the literature and to collaborate more easily, and you said they were too much work and would never catch on?

Seems like you’re now saying that they’ve caught on to such a degree that they present a threat to the existing publisher business model. I have to say, I agree with you this time! Holding Mendeley up as the poster child for this threat isn’t really accurate, though, because Mendeley isn’t the driving force behind the open access mandate.

I understand the need to put an an easily recognizable if mischaracterized face on the problems facing academic publishing, but I think you’ll run into problems pretty quick going this way. For example – a kid in his mom’s basement sharing mp3s with his friends is way easier to demonize than an academic researcher studying childhood leukemia and sharing PDFs with his colleagues. The mp3s weren’t produced via federal grant aka taxpayer money.

I do think there are some instructive parallels that can be drawn. I think everyone can now see that there’s value that can be created on top of open access collections. Publishers are perfectly positioned to take advantage of this via slick analytical tools and the broad understanding of their editors. Perhaps the real
“difficult path” is going from providing content to context?

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 13, 2010, 3:30 PM

I think you’re making a few assumptions here, and confusing a few tangentially related but not identical issues.

Is there potential value in social tools for science researchers? Yes, obviously so, but as we’ve discussed elsewhere (and reached a mutually agreeable conclusion), the “killer app” has not yet been discovered. So far, I wouldn’t say that these online reference managers have caught on for the mainstream scientist. They can be useful tools, but they’re not there yet.

Are they a threat to the publishing business model? No, except potentially for sites that allow illegal activities. It’s unclear even if copyright infringement were to catch on if it would threaten the publishing business model. There are far too many differences between the business model here and those of music/movie companies to draw perfectly parallel pathways. Music consumers directly purchase the items themselves, scientists generally rely on institutional subscriptions. There’s a level of removal between the user and the actual purchase. If you’re a grad student in a lab, Nature is apparently free to you because the university subscribes. The ready access that most researchers already have sets up a different dynamic than a world in which each researcher individually purchases each article (as was the case for music). I do argue that it’s important to 1) obey the law, and 2) to not ignore developments like this. While things like Mendeley haven’t caught on hugely yet, they do help build a culture of copyright infringement, a devaluing of the IP that publishers use to feed their families. We can all agree that if the music companies had addressed Napster immediately, found some way to bring filesharing into the fold or offer legal alternatives, the world would be a different place.

Here, if you re-read my article, the threat is less to the publishing industry than to potential customers of a company whose services may make them liable for large copyright infringement settlements. Part of being a member of the business community (and Mendeley, presumably as a for-profit company hopes to join that community) means obeying the law and shielding your customers from harm. If you wish to profit from exploiting the IP owned by others, it might be wise to work with those others to avoid legal problems. That says nothing about any threat to any particular business model.

The open access mandate is, as you note, an almost completely unrelated matter here. Mendeley is not the face of such a movement, and aside from the filesharing aspect of their business, very little of what they do depends on the access status of the articles in question. It should also be noted that “open access” does not mean “not subject to copyright law”. Many journals publish open access articles that are highly restricted in their re-use, they’re just freely accessible. Many other journals publish open access articles under Creative Commons licenses that forbid commercial exploitation of the material, which would essentially forbid Mendeley from redistributing them for profit, as they seem to be planning to do. They could just as easily be sued by CC license holders as they could by commercial publishers with standard copyright agreements.

Arguments about taxpayer funding (not all research is paid for by the US government, and not all research is done in the US) and wonderful goals of researchers are irrelevant here. The argument is not against a researcher sending another a pdf, it’s against a private company profiting from that interaction.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 13, 2010, 4:24 PM

David, I’m not quite sure where your confusion about Mendeley’s commercial aims has come from. Flickr, for example, has a premium service, despite users uploading and sharing CC-licensed pictures and videos. Is Flickr guilty of commercial exploitation of content as well?

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 13, 2010, 5:32 PM

William, sorry for the delay, your comment was stuck in our spam filter. Interesting that you bring up Flickr, which is a major, major hotbed of copyright controversy and a site much vilified in professional photography circles.

Yes, I do firmly believe that Flickr is guilty of commercial exploitation of CC licensed material. This seems to be a regular issue for them, examples here, here, and here. If I was suing them for redress for license violation, I’d certainly include claims against Yahoo for profiting if they were being paid to host and redistribute the images in question. These types of cases are decided on an individual basis by a judge, so why not include every potential violation?

Flickr also has major issues with illegal uses of copyrighted material. Examples here, here, here, and here. They’ve run into issues with inaccurately listing the licensing rights on White House photos.

To Flickr’s credit, they are responsive to copyright claims, some would argue far too responsive. They have set up a rapid mechanism for the removal of infringing material, details listed here. Flickr is deliberately set up so the system remains ignorant of the content uploaded, which will allow them to attempt a “safe harbor” defense. Mendeley may have a rougher go of it, since their system is set up to automatically identify content, and part of their business appears to be detailed tracking of article usage by their users. This makes it hard to claim ignorance. It should also be noted that since Mendeley is based in London, cases may fall under English law rather than US law, which means there are no allowances for “fair use”, only the doctrine of “fair dealing” which is much more restricted and less flexible than the laws of the US.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 14, 2010, 11:14 AM

No worries, David. I mentioned Flickr as an example of how a web property can be successful despite dealing with the problems you correctly outline. The problems you mention are solveable, and the Mendeley team does have related expertise on their side, so I think we’ll find a solution that works for everyone, don’t you?

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 14, 2010, 12:10 PM

It’s a success in some ways, but it remains a likely target for legal action, and a less-than-beloved member of the photography business community. Professional photographers are probably not as well organized or deep-pocketed as larger corporations like some publishing houses, or the RIAA for that matter, nor do they have lawyers on staff, so in their case, perhaps the risks of lawsuits are fewer.

I do agree that the issues I mention are solveable, and I do hope Mendeley makes some moves in that direction. I think they’ve got great software, and if not for the copyright infringement portion of their offerings, I’d be their biggest fan and promoter. They are actively seeking partnerships with publishers and I know the group I worked with soundly rejected any chance of this unless things change, so hopefully more responses like this will put pressure on them.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 14, 2010, 12:56 PM

I really like Mendeley for its desktop and have not found the web/social stuff to be much use. In fact, it’s much inferior even to Connotea and certainly inferior to Delicious. However, I seems to be about sharing references, not really about sharing documents. AFAIK the documents I load are not shared. Maybe they are, but it’s not what I’m looking for. So Mendeley could turn document sharing off tomorrow without dropping an ounce of value for me, and could gain value if they found better, more social ways of sharing the references.

  • Chris Rusbridge
  • Jan 16, 2010, 4:42 PM

That’s an important point, and one I find puzzling as well. The infringement part of Mendeley is such a minor part of their functionality, and it’s unclear why it needs to be in there. Some of their funding comes from sites that are related to sharing music, so it may be that their backers are looking to garner legal precedents in a field that’s more likely to be seen as sympathetic to a judge than that of music sharing, with the hope they could then be applied to their own business. But that’s pure speculation. As you note, they could drop that part of Mendeley without a hiccup from the majority of their users and open up all sorts of cooperation and collaboration with publishers.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 16, 2010, 5:57 PM

Chris, you’re right. The social features are not what they could be. Better, more social, ways of sharing are being worked on, but the focus so far has been on getting the Desktop functionality right. Instead of dropping the social features, though, I think you’ll see them work on getting them right so that they really are a major source of added value.

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 17, 2010, 2:20 AM

Actually I can’t find out where any of my PDFs are shared. Certainly when I look at my contacts, there are no PDFs visible, only references.

Later… I discovered that in order to upload my PDFs, I have to check a box in the settings, either for my publications or the shared collection. This appears to be un-checked by default. So it looks like it permits file sharing, but doesn’t either force or encourage it. Still a possible infringement case, but less strong, I think, than was the original expectation.

I suspect that when Mendeley publicity talks about documents here they really mean references, and that the number of actual uploaded documents would be MUCH smaller…

  • Chris Rusbridge
  • Jan 18, 2010, 11:10 AM

The “sharing” is an optional feature, you set up shared folders and make them available to others. Not sure how this would affect any case, if a file is redistributed, it’s redistributed. Grokster, Napster and all the others make you jump through a few hoops as well.

According to this comment from Victor Henning, the numbers they’re putting out are PDF’s uploaded:

It is indeed 8 million unique papers. Many more have been uploaded if you count duplicates.
On top of that, since Mendeley Desktop also extracts cited references from PDFs, we have a further 140 million citations in our database.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 18, 2010, 12:00 PM

For most of my collection, many of the references are complete rubbish, and I have not bothered to try to fix them up. Rubbish as in “Http, T. D., & //. (2003). Retrieved on 9. Jan 06/02/dces”. Mendeley doesn’t yet offer me any benefits re these references, not even making a connection with referenced documents in my own collections.

But I have to say I’m completely staggered that they can claim to have 8 million unique uploaded PDFs… staggered, and much more worried than I was!

  • Chris Rusbridge
  • Jan 18, 2010, 2:18 PM

Chris, the extraction should really work much better than that. Would you mind dropping me an email so I can get someone in support who can look at your files?

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 18, 2010, 3:07 PM

I’m wondering whether Mendeley’s purported numbers don’t indicate that the potential infringement isn’t actually that serious. They currently claim 100,000 users and 10 million *unique* articles. That of course works out to 100 unique articles per user, which seems, frankly, completely implausible, if not laughable. How large is the average Mendeley library? How likely is it that the average user has 100 articles that no other Mendeley user has? Something doesn’t smell right.

  • BWG
  • Jan 17, 2010, 12:16 PM

Well I may be unusual, but I have around 400 references in Mendeley. That’s nearly twice what I used to have in EndNote. My workflow has changed; if I see an interesting article or report I download and drop into a watched folder, every couple of days I fix up the metadata that hasn’t been captured properly. There used to be random reports all over my hard disk, no idea what was there or what was where; now I do know. And I quite often read (or at least scan) reports and articles from within Mendeley.

  • Chris Rusbridge
  • Jan 17, 2010, 4:28 PM

I would take more issue with the number of unique users than with the size of libraries. For example, I have two separate Mendeley accounts, and I’m sure that like any other online service, there are a vast number of accounts that were started then quickly abandoned.

But speaking from the point of view of a biologist, one’s reference list is usually a very long thing which just continues to grow the longer you’re a scientist. It’s not unusual for a veteran researcher to have a list of thousands, if not tens of thousands of papers that they’ve come across over the decades. The problem with many of these reference managers is, of course, accurately importing all of those references, and so far I’ve been less than impressed across the board at the performance of the various offerings.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 17, 2010, 11:12 PM

Fair enough, but if you were an average user — and with new software, there must be a huge percentage of users testing the waters with very small libraries — then 25% of your library would have to be unique to you and you alone.

Whether or not the figures Mendeley cites is accurate — and I remain very skeptical — or not is kind of irrelevant. My point is that Mendeley has tossed around a lot of large numbers, presumably as part of a marketing strategy to demonstrate that they are cultivating a large user base and an important data set. In a similar vein, they claim dozens of institutional “endorsements” which are often only neutral blog posts coming from within an institution’s domain (http://www.mendeley.com/awards-endorsements/).

These figures should, like all such numbers, arouse more than a bit of healthy skepticism, but in this particular case I think they may also have the unintended consequence of attracting unwanted attention from content vendors, which is precisely the concern that spurred David’s original post.

  • BWG
  • Jan 17, 2010, 7:20 PM

But the idea with these services is that if you already have your references in EndNote or something similar, you can automatically dump them into the new service. There’s no need to test the waters with a small percentage since it’s all automated (at least in theory, in practice it doesn’t work all that well).

I do agree that nearly every online business’ usage numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. There’s no standardized set of numbers for comparison, no way to know if they’re filtering out search engine spiders, or what sort of cherry-picking is going on. This is certainly not unique to Mendeley.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 17, 2010, 11:15 PM

I can add here that Mendeley is indeed counting signups (not website traffic), and not counting accounts that have had nothing uploaded and no activity. There may be some cases, as with David here, where individuals have signed up for more than one account and had activity on both accounts. AFAIK, those would still be counted in the numbers. They may also be counting people who used Mendeley at some point in the past but aren’t using it currently, but honestly, after all the negative press Researchgate got for their inflated numbers, I’ve pressed them for more accurate numbers, and they say this number does account for the obvious things like unused accounts. For example, they hunt out and kill the spam profiles, which would otherwise contribute to a significant skewing of the numbers.

In addition, for every person who’s signed up for Mendeley Web, there are more (and based on downloads vs. signups you could figure between 2-5x more) who are just using Mendeley Desktop, without the web.

A final word about sharing: Presuming that people are going engage in the level of filesharing with PDFs that they did with MP3s, the bulk of the traffic is going to take the path of least resistance, which is bittorrent or giving out direct download links on your blog. It’s not going to go via sites which don’t give you publicly accessible URLs to the files.

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 18, 2010, 2:59 PM

Thanks for the further information William. As noted above, I don’t really trust the usage numbers put out by any website, it’s not just something unique to Mendeley. One thought I’d like to see for social media sites like this though is a metric of accounts active in the last month (or 6 months or whatever figure of time). That at least gives you an idea of how much people are using the services.

I’m not sure that people are ever going to end up sharing pdf’s of papers the way they share music mp3’s. I mentioned elsewhere in the comments that the cultures are very different, and that the reader is rarely the person buying access to the journal, it’s mostly done through institutional subscriptions these days, so there’s at least one level of remove there. For a graduate student in a lab in a major university, papers are already free, as they are usually able to download them from the journal’s site. Factor in how many journals are making material freely available after an embargo period and the need for storage space and time/bandwidth spent uploading/downloading don’t seem as attractive as just sharing a link. Even if sharing catches on and it moves to blogs or BitTorrent, I still think you’ll see much greater retaliation happen to places that are trying to profit from copyright infringement than the sorts of open-sourced decentralized systems where there’s no money changing hands. Kind of the idea of copying a cd for your Mom versus making 100 copies and selling them on the street.

Interesting to hear that the numbers of desktop users are so much higher than those online. Perhaps not surprising given the popularity of Papers, which has no online version (though it does have an iPhone app). For most, the real strength of reference managers is how much they’re helping individuals get and keep organized, rather than any benefits from the social functionality. It’s unclear if that will change over time, or if this is just yet another area where “social” isn’t all that interesting or helpful to the users.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 18, 2010, 4:05 PM

There have been a number of requests recently for more social features on Mendeley Web, so let me assure you that those features are coming and that they expect to see a high percentage of users making use of them.

A good metric would be % active accounts, though like I said, the numbers above have already been filtered to some degree for activity.

While I strongly disagree that most graduate students have all the access they need, chances are that they know someone who does, so that’ll work at least until we get past this awkward transitional time in publishing.

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 18, 2010, 5:09 PM

William–starting a new thread to avoid things getting annoyingly laid out.

I’m not surprised that the small percentage of users active in the social aspects want more. What’s telling is that you apparently have a population of users 5X that size or more who aren’t involved in the social tools at all. That should be pretty informative about Mendeley’s current strengths.

And the argument that students have “all the access they need” is not one I was making at all, and is a much more complicated question. All I was saying is that most researchers aren’t purchasing access to articles directly themselves, it’s at several layers of remove, with overhead coming out of grants and going to librarians who buy the subscriptions.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 18, 2010, 7:13 PM

It’s interesting that most of this discussion has been talking about the copyright aspects of file-sharing. For journal articles originating from library online subscriptions, copyright is just the half of it. Libraries do not generally BUY e-journals outright, we license them. Users are thus bound by the terms our lawyers have agreed to on behalf of the entire institution. When a breach of those terms is detected, the consequences can include turning off of that entire publisher’s content for the entire institution until the publisher is satisfied that the issue is addressed. William is right that open access would mitigate this, but today most of the content that I envision Mendeley users wanting to share is not open. It’s only going to take one Harvard Business Review article…

  • Jenny Reiswig
  • Jan 20, 2010, 4:26 AM

David’s point about Mandelay monetizing this activity is also important. Currently Mendeley limits sharing to 10 members, but they’ve made noises that they’ll lift this limit to paying customers. Thus widespread sharing is tied explicitly to Mandelay’s revenue stream.

The “free” components of Mendeley are available elsewhere, e.g. Zotero, so Mendeley is clearly not basing a business model on those features. As far as I can tell, what they’re proposing to sell is the file-sharing and some statistics based on that sharing. Whether or not that’s a sound business model is another story, but it certainly does seem ripe for litigation.

  • BWG
  • Jan 20, 2010, 9:00 AM

Thanks for your comments, BWG. Are you familiar with last.fm? With last.fm, a little add-on watches the songs you listen to and reports the statistics about what you’ve listened to to your account, where it’s compared to others with similar listening patterns, and recommendations are made for other users with similar musical interests and other songs or artists you might like. None of this has anything to do with filesharing, yet they’ve found this to be a successful model.

Think of Mendeley as the last.fm principle applied to PDFs, instead of mp3s. The business model doesn’t depend at all on filesharing. Sharing features are present because there are legitimate non-infringing uses of such a feature, and, really, if one wanted to engage in infringing uses of filesharing, there are other clients which are purpose built for this which one would use. The limited shared collections feature is entirely tangent to the revenue model, and is provided as a convenience for users who’d like to make legitimate non-infringing use of it. Just to make sure we’re clear on this, when they say they’ll lift the limit, they’re talking about increasing the limit from 10 to something like 12 or 15, not removing it entirely.

The business model, then, is statistics about what academics are reading, not what they’re sharing. If anyone should feel threatened, it should be Thompson Reuters and their JCR business, not scholarly societies. In fact, I rather think publishers would like better statistics about what people are reading.

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 20, 2010, 1:52 PM

Of course I’m familiar with last.fm, but I think the analogy between research papers and music is flawed for the reasons others have already noted in these comments. Individuals buy music and sellers want to learn how to target those buyers.

Individuals don’t buy articles, just like they don’t buy reference management software. The bulk of these markets is institutional subscriptions (often together).

Finally, it’s difficult to believe that raising the group cap from 10 to 12 is going to justify paying. Maybe you’ve been misled or you’re leaving something out?

  • BWG
  • Jan 21, 2010, 10:21 AM

Jenny, your comments about licensing really do get to the heart of the issue. David Crotty is trying to make a point here, by picking up on one minor convenience feature of Mendeley and suggesting that it’s really where the whole business model is going, but that’s simply not the case. Mendeley isn’t in the business of filesharing, rather the collection of use statistics, which present a great opportunity for libraries and publishers alike to get detailed information about the use of their content. In addition, Mendeley is working with institutional repositories to make it easier to deposit material as well as discover existing content. The sharing features are simply a convenience – if someone wanted to engage in widespread filesharing, they’d use bittorrent or public folders in Dropbox or Scribd or any of the other easier routes to that goal.

Incidentally, what most people use the sharing features for is journal club. It’s easier to manage than emailing PDFs around to people.

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 20, 2010, 2:18 PM

As I’ve said, I don’t really see this as core to Mendeley’s functionality and strength as a product. Which is why I question why it needs to be in there at all, considering the liabilities issues it raises and the potential for abuse. If Mendeley’s business model is indeed planned to be the selling of statistics to libraries and publishers, dropping this minor bit of functionality might go a long way toward winning their business (as noted in the article how Scribd’s efforts have been important).

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 20, 2010, 2:40 PM

While it is a minor part of the functionality, it doesn’t appear to present any threat of abuse because of the limits placed on accounts.

Perhaps we could table this discussion until there’s some credible evidence that it can and will be used in an infringing manner by a non-insignificant number of people? Removing a feature because of some future possibility that might not occur seems a little extreme.

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 20, 2010, 3:38 PM

One could argue that’s exactly the attitude taken by the music industry when Napster hit the scene. Well, it’s just some college kids sitting around their dorm rooms, really it’s no threat to our business. Let’s not do anything about it until it’s too late.

Also, since Mendeley is actively trying to partner with publishers, and as you note above, wants them as customers for its statistical reporting, it would seem to me that the onus is on them as far as proving they’re a reliable group to work with. There are lots and lots of reference managers out on the market, so why encourage one that has such potential to do damage?

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 20, 2010, 10:43 PM

David – I thought we both agreed that the comparison to mp3 filesharing doesn’t work for the reasons you outlined above?

I honestly think you’re making a much bigger deal out of this than it is, but since you don’t appear inclined to agree that Mendeley would be a really poor vector for widespread filesharing (by design), I’ll just have to step back and let time make the argument for me.

I wish I knew a way to ease your mind about this, but I think you’ll gradually realize over time Mendeley is doing no harm.

  • Mr. Gunn
  • Jan 21, 2010, 3:30 AM

While the situations aren’t the same, supporting or condoning Mendeley does create a culture where such actions are acceptable, which is likely to lead to further abuses.

So far, publishers have indeed taken a wait and see attitude, given the lack of lawsuits. But time is not on Mendeley’s side. They’re the ones looking for traction and successful business models in a very crowded market. They’re the ones looking to partner with, and sell to publishers. They’re unlikely to see much success at either as long as they insist on including what you note is not an important part of their functionality. The journals my company runs have direct links to upload paper information to Connotea. Mendeley will never get such placement or links as long as they enable copyright infringement, no matter how limited. Nor are we likely to purchase tracking statistics from them when many analytics packages are readily available from companies that pose no such threat.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 21, 2010, 8:50 AM

Mendeley presents the stolen text of each PDF in the source code of their websites. This text is NOT visible to visitors, but is searchable in google. For example, you can check the source code of the following page:

This means, that the stolen information allows Mendeley to get more visitors through google and in a 2nd step – for example by using contextual advertisement – to generate more income.

The current intention is for sure to generate more traffic through google.

  • Peter Schneider
  • Mar 5, 2012, 8:45 AM

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