This week, Springer Science+Business Media announced its acquisition of Papers, the desktop software program for managing research articles. The move into desktop software is an interesting approach for Springer and brings with it a much closer relationship with users, most of whom graze promiscuously across various publisher websites.

Researchers in the STM and scholarly space tend to rely on global search tools, such as PubMed, Scopus, Web of Knowlege, or Google Scholar to find articles, and then will dive into a given publisher’s website to retrieve the relevant articles before returning to the search appliance of choice. Obviously, there are exceptions, and there are users who read deeply from a few core journals with regularity, but this search and retrieval scenario is fairly common. The question is what users do with all the articles and e-books (of the PDF variety, as is common in STM and scholarly contexts) after they download them?

While some users simply dump them into folders on their computers, more and more users are increasingly turning to document management systems to maintain some semblance of order on their hard drives. There are a number of players in this space, including Mendeley, ReadCube, Colwiz, Papers and, to a lesser extent, Zotero (which is not focused on the STM and scholarly market in particular and is more of a general-purpose document management system). Of the four applications focused on the STM and scholarly market (excepting Zotero) Papers has been around the longest, but for most of its history was limited to the Mac OS (a Windows version was released only earlier this year).

By acquiring Papers, Springer gains a sustained interaction with users – a touchpoint that occurs regardless of whether the user downloads an article from SpringerLink, ScienceDirect, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, or Springer moves from sporadic interactions with users to the center of the user workflow.

The acquisition of Papers also opens the door to various bi-directional connetions between SpringerLink and Papers. A user reading an article via SpringerLink might find a one-click “Download to Papers” button among the article tools. Conversely, a user bringing up an article via Papers might find related content recommendations that source content from SpringerLink.

This acquisition brings not only a strategic relationship but also additional resources to Papers. It will be interesting to watch and see where they focus these resources. For example, Papers could follow Mendeley’s lead and pursue a cloud-based development strategy, tightly integrating the desktop application with a synchronized website, thereby bringing even more opportunities for interaction with SpringerLink. They might also leverage Springer’s institutional sales force to move from their current individual-centric sales model to a more institutional approach, in the mode of both Mendeley and Colwiz.

Springer is the not the first publisher to acquire a document management system. ReadCube (mentioned above) is an acquisition of Digital Science, a division of Macmillan. Springer’s move raises the stakes in competition for the attention of researchers and a prime position in their day-to-day workflows.

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Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services.


19 Thoughts on "Springer Establishes a Beachhead on the Desktop with Acquisition of Papers"

First let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: I am a copy-editor at Nature, published by NPG and owned by the Macmillan group.

Now as you can imagine I pick up on details, and there are omissions and errors in this post that bother me.

Firstly, to say that Zotero isn’t focussed on the scholarly market is completely false, it is a reference manager and is developed mainly by a university for goodness’ sake, how much more scholarly can you get? It also predates Papers by a few months. And no mention of the venerable EndNote or Reference Manager? I didn’t expect to see BibTex in your list but those are big omissions.

Also it would have been nice to make a distinction between purely collection managers like Papers, ReadCube and Colwiz, and reference management software that also include a paper collection, like Zotero, Mendeley and EndNote. Although both are very useful, only the second category allow automated insertion and formatting of citations in a manuscript. By the way, here is the link to Zotero:

Also here a disclaimer: I’m from Papers 😉

> Also it would have been nice to make a distinction between purely collection managers like Papers, ReadCube and Colwiz, and reference management software that also include a paper collection, like Zotero, Mendeley and EndNote. Although both are very useful, only the second category allow automated insertion and formatting of citations in a manuscript.

Unfortunately this also falls in the same category and is incorrect because since March 2011 Papers belongs to the second category, it does reference management for you as well.

Thanks for catching my mistake, I wasn’t aware of that update to Papers, which clearly makes it a very serious contender.

My characterization of Zotero could use a bit of editing (and a lot more nuance). Thanks for the catch. Yes, they are focused on the scholarly market, but the point I was trying to make is that the application is more general purpose. One can capture a screen shot/bookmark of pretty much any web page. Yes, they have features, like metadata collection and parsing, that are likely to appeal most to scholars. And one can manage a library of PDF versions of articles in Zotero but that is not really its main purpose. From the perspective of the toolset (as opposed to their marketing), I consider them closer to Evernote than to Papers. I do realize that Zotero predates Papers and was careful to say that Papers was the oldest of the set of four applications that also include Mendeley, Colwiz, and ReadCube.

I did not mention EndNote or Reference Manager (or BibTex) as the point of this post was not a comprehensive overview of the reference management ecosystem. EndNote et al. certainly could factor into such an analysis, but seemed more fish than fowl for the purpose of this post.

Seen like that fair enough.
It is actually this flexibility of Zotero that I like (and other features). PDFs are OK, but I still find them a pain to read on screen so saving HTML snapshots is very useful to me.

Even with the crossed out phrases it is misleading. To agree with the criticisms, just delete the third paragraph or completely rewrite it. I work at an academic library and use Mendeley and Zotero on a weekly basis and teach both on a monthly basis. Your comments are more correct and insightful than the article’s edited paragraph. Like you commented, Zotero excels at managing citations of scholarly resources: period. It actually does this better than Mendeley, as Mendeley can muddle metadata from a small percentage of imported imported PDFs. Mendeley’s Web Importer is also inferior to Zotero’s translators. Yet, Mendeley has a polished interface that excels at document management with an integrated PDF reader. Mendeley also has the advantage of a crowd-sourced database that provide scholarly analytics.

Zotero can perform document management, but this is a tertiary feature that is ultimately restricted to the 100MB syncing limitations on free accounts. Zotero and Mendeley have slightly different workflows. Both tools can be used for citation management *and* document management, however each has a primary strength. I agree that the future is in handling files *and* references, which is the ultimate point of Paper’s acquisition.

Additionally I would not recommend using Zotero as a general tool for saving web content. Evernote, Pocket, etc. excel at that. Zotero has deprecated its webpage annotation feature, making web snapshots less useful.

I’d like to echo Nicholas.

First, no link to Zotero, really?

Second, while Zotero has a broader scholarly appeal than Mendeley (Zotero’s open source nature also invites more diversity in its use), it clearly has a significant following in the STM, as many citation styles contributed by Zotero users are in the field of STM. And even if only part of Zotero users are active in STM, this subcommunity is still likely to be quite a bit bigger than that of ColWiz and ReadCube: see e.g. the relatively popularity of “mendeley”, “zotero”, “colwiz” and “readcube” in Google Trends: (I omitted “papers” and “endnote” since they’re generic words; e.g. “endnote” is about as popular as “footnote”).

If the purchase of Papers by Springer is intended to give Springer journals an advantage in the marketplace–by giving preferential downloading and citation treatment to Springer articles–one would imagine that the purchase of another paper-citation-manager by Elsevier may not be out of the question. If Elsevier acquires Mendeley–a purely hypothetical conjecture–the open paper sharing function of Mendeley would need to be fundamentally curtailed.

Do you think that the Springer acquisition of Papers will send ripples through through the publishing world, and if so, what would you expect to happen next?

The utility and value of applications like Papers is that they are universal and manage content from all publishers. I can’t imagine that anyone would want to mess with that. I would not expect Papers (or ReadCube, to take another example) to curtail functionality related to content published by other organizations. Erecting silos would destroy the utility for researchers. The strategic value here is, I would suspect, more subtle. Adding links to make import/export seamless (including metadata) and instant, leveraging existing sales channels, using author networks to seed sharing communities, and so forth.

This may, over the long term, prove to be the most lucrative business model for Reference Managers, being offered for free, developing a following, then being sold off to a larger company/publishing house. The Reference Manager then becomes part of the suite of tools offered by the publisher, in some ways more of a marketing effort to bring in readers and authors than anything else. You are right that publisher agnostic functionality is absolutely key to the functionality of any such product. No one wants to organize and track publications from just one source, the tool must be open to everything.

But I think Phil’s question gets more to the use of Mendeley for the distribution of copyrighted material. One can post and share published papers and other copyrighted material with other users there, and that’s a behavior that seems contrary to the copyright policies of a large commercial publishing house.

I hope I wasn’t hinting that Springer would limit the functionality of Papers so that it only worked with Springer articles; however, it could make things work very smoothly for Springer articles, giving them a relative advantage. Why else would they purchase the company?

Second, the acquisition of a software-service company by a content company can have major implications on how that software can be used. Obviously, Springer would not permit the wide sharing of its content via Papers although it may permit some open sharing for the OA papers it publishes. Coupling a content company with a software company could insure that its licenses are being followed to the letter. Think the iTunes Store and iTunes or Amazon and the Kindle or Barnes and Noble and the Nook…

There are many reasons to acquire a company beyond knitting it into your current lines of business. It might be a hedge. It might be something they think they can improve and flip. It might fit with another potential acquisition we know nothing about but would forge a stronger strategic position together. It might just give them a little cashflow in the short-term without much expense.

A quick addendum: Papers currently costs $79. Does Springer plan to continue to sell this as a separate product? Can products like this (and EndNote) continue to thrive in a world where there are many free (and sometimes superior) competitors?

From the Papers FAQ page ( “We have no intentions to change the price of Papers, nor to change to a subscription-based license. Having said that, we could offer institutions a subscription model if they prefer this over a classic one-off license fee.”

Though I take it your question was largely rhetorical.

The second question was, but the first wasn’t. One could easily see a publisher acquiring a product like this, building it into their publishing platform and making it freely available as a way to cement reader and author loyalty, as an added service, rather than continuing to sell it as a separate product. I suppose it depends on the product and the revenue it generates. EndNote seems a pretty substantial product on its own, as it has close to a 100% penetration in the market. Not so sure for a smaller fish like Papers though.

Springer already owns/runs/offers CiteUlike, which also gives them access to (I assume anonymous) article reports – i.e. what people are tagging, saving, reading – which potentially provides good information about trends in research, usage, etc., etc. CiteUlike is a good system, but not overly clever, so perhaps acquiring Papers gives them the opportunity to build on what they have learnt/benefitted from with CiteUlike – ?

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