But despite having no friends there, not being a customer, or having any financial link to them, I was thrilled when Elsevier bought them. Why? Elsevier, like any large corporation, does not 'take a flyer' and hope for the best. They want something that works and just needs resources to be better and they don't want to reinvent the wheel. They want something good enough to really grow a lot if it is not starving as a start-up. And their success shows some parts of independent science can still be a business.
Though lab equipment and other companies have resisted, other parts of science and science media bought into the 'free' digital myth quite nicely, and have now discovered it is hard to pay people with 'free'. Mendeley, not the government, created a popular tool that works and they did it by being mostly free. I'd be a fan of Mendeley for that reason alone, just like I am a fan of most start-ups that succeed. The cost for the government to do what they did would be virtually unlimited. They are too inefficient.
An example: In 2010 I got a press release from West Virginia University, asking me to cover the fact that the National Science Foundation gave one of their researchers $500,000 to create a "Science 2.0" tool. The NSF is a large, wasteful, bureaucratic maze and while I applaud researchers who can wend their way through it, the fact that they squandered $500,000 on 'Science 2.0' without ever bothering to see if they can even call it Science 2.0 tells you all you need to know about how inefficient government funding is. I wrote the two beneficiaries to ask what they were working on - one wrote back and deferred to the other (really, his quote was "Your discourse on Science 2.0 is better", an odd thing for a guy who is responsible for half of $500K of taxpayer money to build a Science 2.0 tool to write), who never responded. I hope some day they build it and Microsoft buys it for a billion dollars, I'll retire happy after the settlement, which will happen about 10 minutes after the lawsuit is filed.
But Microsoft is not buying anything on spec from academics. Like Elsevier, if they can't do it in-house, they want some evidence it works first. Like Mendeley did.
So I was happy, and you can bet CEO and co-founder Dr. Victor Henning and their shareholders and employees were over the moon, but some out there were unhappy. Most of the unhappy people were a whole bunch of cranky types filled with self-entitlement and therefore were not paying to use Mendeley anyway, just like the people who signed a petition to boycott Elsevier were never going to get published in Cell anyway. Yet also unhappy were people who are seemingly clueless about the real world, or hypocrites. It's hard to figure out which. One of them, Danah Boyd, works for Microsoft but wrote on her site that she doesn't like that Mendeley is part of Elsevier because Elsevier is unethical. Her objection is as a 'scholar', the fact that she works for a multi-billion company famous for being unethical is irrelevant, she says. Well, of course she has to say that, when it is clearly the giant elephant in the room. She rationalizes that Microsoft grew up - she discovered that, magically, right at the time they decided to pay her.
Why isn't Elsevier given credit for having been able to 'grow up'? They just wrote a big check because they want to help scientists collaborate and share so why do we have to read warmed-over nonsense like that the new parent company of Mendeley 'funded the arms trade' because it sponsored defense exhibitions? You know who 'funds the arms trade' more than everyone in the world, if that is the definition? The US government. Let's see how many government-funded scientists start returning those grant checks in protest.
And the Elsevier publishing group had nothing to do with that, its own media people were criticizing the parent company over it. Few companies in America have the 'dirty tricks' reputation of Microsoft, why would someone penalize brand new component Mendeley for the problems of Reed-Elsevier's past and quit using Mendeley yet stay at Microsoft? Writing 'my employer has nothing to do with it' is fine, it's always nice if you are able to intellectually create a closed logical system and then introduce any inconsistency you want, and she can huff and puff about an 'implicit attack' on her character by anyone noting she works at Microsoft - the very company Google's "do no harm" mission statement was designed to distinguish them from - but overt attacks on character are what she just did to thousands of employees at Elsevier, and a few dozen new ones they got via Mendeley.
Then she asks for someone to write her a script to take all her stuff from Mendeley to another product. For free. The sense of entitlement irony just keeps on coming.
Why isn't wholesome Microsoft Research doing that for free? Because if they do things for free, they can't pay academics who lovingly coo that they are "in awe of some of the thoughtful and innovative approaches taken by the folks at Bing". Oh, brother.
But you know what? I do think Boyd is in awe of those thoughtful innovative people. She stopped stereotyping and got inside Microsoft and found that, opposed to what she believed before they signed her checks, the company was not actually composed of cardboard cutouts of Evil Bill Gates, it had lots of concerned, passionate people who care about what they do. She now overlooks the (many) ethical flaws of Microsoft because she also sees the good and there is a lot more good. Yet when it comes to Elsevier, she can't do that...as an outsider, even though one of her titles is Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, so you'd think she would have the ability to be a little more nuanced. That's an example of an insular ivory tower mentality right there, folks.
So while some are not pleased Mendeley is part of Elsevier, I am in the happy camp - because I like to see good companies win but also because I like to see independent companies win. And there is a real lack of independence in science (and especially science media) these days. Government has increasingly taken over more control of what gets researched in a direct way, by funding what they want funded, and in an indirect way, by making it more difficult for the private sector. We have a looming drug discovery problem about to happen because small companies are mired in government red tape and worries about ever making it to clinical trials due to that scare off investors. Academia can never fill that gap. On the tools side, the fix is also in. I can't get a $500,000 grant to create a Science 2.0 tool from the government, despite two decades of successful software company creation and management, including being an early insider at one that eventually sold for $800 million, but two guys who know nothing at all about Science 2.0 can, because they work at a university.
Mendeley came in from outside government and the big company world, they filled a need, carved out a market and appealed to people. Why disparage them now just because they have a chance to do all that good stuff even better?
When I started Science 2.0, it worked because a whole lot of academic researchers got what I was trying to do, they embraced it and graciously wanted to help - even though I was (and am) an outsider. In its early days, I turned down a really big buyout offer from a large media company because it seemed vaguely unethical to have spent 2 years telling scientists we were going to reshape the culture of science and then bail out because I got a check. But this is a game of giants, I am competing with business development people and desperate sales forces at billion-dollar companies and that is just in the media part - a true collaboration tool is another $5 million proposition. So if I finally decide I want Science 2.0 to be truly world class in all ways and sell to Nature or AAAS or Elsevier, would it be fair to claim I am suddenly unethical because the company that bought Science 2.0 hates open access or charges too much or has journals where even they are not sure what is in them? Of course not. Yet someone would claim just that.
In actuality, Mendeley getting bought means they were too big to ignore and too successful to duplicate - they didn't buy market share, they earned it - and that means you can still be independent in science and still eventually get paid just as well as if you work at Microsoft or a university. A good exit for shareholders means angel investors and venture capitalists are now likely to fund the next generation of science tool start-ups - the government is not going to do it for us, it's time to accept that. More profitable exits mean more companies and that means more innovation and broader involvement, just like we all say we want.
That's good for everyone - if we want the culture of science, and the tools of science, to continue to be innovative, creative and the right kind of radical endeavor.