Mendeley’s Open API Approach Is On Course To Disrupt Academic Publishing

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Science and academia have to date been a little slower to react to the vast changes going on in the business world as we move to the cloud, big data and third-party app ecosystems. Most academic online networks remain locked up by academic publishers with expensive licensing agreements for universities. But that’s starting to change. The science publishing division of corporate giant Elsevier has created its own (closed) platform for apps to be built upon looking at the meta data around scientific journals. That data can range from how many times an academic paper is read, who reads it, and even to how influential each paper is considered to be in scientific circles.

On the other side is the three-year old upstart Mendeley. And the difference between the way it and Elsevier approaches the academic world is thrown into sharp relief today with the news that Mendeley’s third-party app eco-system is fast approaching three times the size of Elseviers’. This amounts to the difference between an open and closed approach to apps.

Mendeley’s ecosystem has now produced over 240 research apps drawing on open data from its database under a Creative Commons license. Those generate more than 100 million API calls to Mendeley’s database per month. While Elsevier now has around 100 third-party apps using its platform, it’s clear Mendeley is winning in the apps stakes.

The information fueling this ecosystem is being produced by the scientific community itself, putting a social layer over each document and producing anonymised real-time information about the academic status, field of research, current interests, location of, and keywords generated by its readers. The applications can cover research collaboration, measurement, visualisation, semantic markup, and discovery.

Mendeley’s API also adds information about related research documents and public groups on Mendeley that the document is being discussed in.

Mendeley’s tools now touch about 1.9 million researchers, pooling 65 million documents and claims to cover 97.2% to 99.5% of all research articles published. By contrast commercial databases by Thomson Reuters and Elsevier contain 49 million and 47 million unique documents, respectively.

However, each year universities have to pay licenses running to tens of thousands of dollars to access those databases. Mendeley’s database is free under a Creative Commons license.

It’s also the only one that allows third-party developers to build their own tools with the research data.

The most popular apps built on Mendeley’s platform include ReaderMeter.org and Total-Impact.org. These display a researcher’s or a labs’ real-time impact on the academic community.

In theory you could even now produce a “Klout for academics” based on Mendeley’s data.

Another, Hojoki, pulls updates from Mendeley and other productivity tools like Evernote and Basecamp into a common newsfeed. Kleenk allows users to create free-form semantic links between documents in their Mendeley library and share them publicly. And OpenSNP makes the connection between raw genetic data and published research.

Meanwhile, Elsevier has been trying to build a similar thing to Mendeley but their philosophy is the exact opposite. The API is not an open access one, but paid-for and closed, open only to paying university customers. They have put a lot of marketing behind it, holding ‘hack days’ etc. Their third party apps have now reached around the 100 mark – although they do allow for easier monetisation while Mendeley’s are free.

But Mendeley’s focus on open apps has won plaudits from the likes of Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels (also a former research scientist) who calls the growth of Mendeley’s app ecosystem “stunning and transformational for science”. Perhaps it helps that it’s largely run on Amazon Web Services infrastructure.

Mendeley is also monetising while trying not to limit its growth. It does not get a cut of revenues from apps built on its platform as its model is on freemium use of its data dashboard. That said, Dr. Victor Henning, CEO & Co-Founder of Mendeley say’s it now pulling in “tens of thousands of dollars” per month in revenue and has “plenty of runway” for the next couple of years.

It’s thus done some initial sales of its real-time research impact dashboard to academic institutions. The first customers of Mendeley’s data dashboard include the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Nevada, Reno, the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Research Council Japan.

To date it’s raised over $2 million from Angels Stefan Glaenzer, Alex Zubillaga and Ambient Sound Investments, who have also invested in a follow on round.

Mendeley has also expanded by acquiring SciLife, a German social network for professionals in the scientific community, for an undisclosed amount.

That was an interesting move as it pits it against Academia, also a social network for scientists.

Perhaps it’s fair comment that Henning says Mendeley’s realtime API approach is better than the famous quote about science progressing “funeral by funeral”.