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Mendeley: An interview with Victor Henning

Picture 3Despite being extremely busy with final preparations for  Science Online London, Victor Henning, Founder & Director of the company behind the popular academic research management tool Mendeley was kind enough to take a little time over the weekend to address a few questions I’d posed to him.

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Your LinkedIn profile wouldn’t necessarily have suggested that the next step in your career would have been to front a research management tool. What were the circumstances that led up you to you being the face of Mendeley?

Looking back, I’m a little confused myself. When I was 16, I had an epiphany one night and decided that I’d be starting my own record label one day. I worked as a talent scout and product manager both for major labels (Sony Music) and independents (Revelation Records) before deciding to switch to another passion of mine – film. I worked in production and accounting, but also studied for an MBA at the same time. I dabbled in strategy consulting before deciding to write a Ph.D. thesis about motion picture economics and social psychology. I was actually set on an academic career, but my experiences as a Ph.D. student made me think that there was major room for improvement in the area of research management tools. Some friends of mine, Ph.D. students and researchers themselves, felt the same, so we started Mendeley back in 2007.

When we were getting more serious about it, we realized that Mendeley could have an impact beyond individual research/citation management – on research collaboration, impact metrics, and possibly also publishing distribution models.

So I guess there is some sort of continuity in my CV: I was working in the music industry when its business model was disrupted by Napster and other filesharing networks, I was working in the film industry when it had to reorder its distribution channels due to digitalization and the demand for VOD services, and now I’m working on Mendeley when many people feel that the publishing industry is shifting towards a software/service business and might have to adjust its distribution strategy.

In several senses, Mendeley is a tool ahead of its time, and the scholarly publishing world hasn’t caught up with its possibilities yet. Do you think it most likely that you will be working with primarily with traditional STM publishers, emerging publishing communities, or a whole new category of content providers in the future?

Well, at the moment, we are clearly positioned as an end-user tool. This is where we are coming from anyway: What can we do to make researchers’ lives easier? We are focusing on workflow tools first, and content second. Having said that, we are now reaching a phase where we are starting to talk to traditional STM publishers as well as Open Access publishers and repositories. They are the ones we’re most likely to work with first.

Do you think existing models of scholarly publishing are going to break before the emerging ones are fully formed?

No, I don’t think so. At the moment, existing publisher revenue streams are still looking healthy, and it seems that there is little interest on behalf of the people who wield the purchasing power – i.e., librarians – of breaking them. The Impact Factor system is another inhibitor of change. Unless there are alternative and well-respected metrics for scientific contribution, researchers will have little incentive for supporting alternative publishing models.

I also don’t believe that it would necessarily be beneficial if existing publishing models were broken. I’m a fan of OA, but I’m not dogmatic about whether publishing should be for-profit or non-profit. I also think that closed-access publishers (both for-profit and non-profit) are not doing a great job at maximizing individual article sales, because their mindset is essentially B2B. As a consequence, both their revenues and researcher productivity suffer. Instead of doing the fun things that Ph.D. students should be doing, I spent countless hours of my life hunting down articles that my library had not licensed, and that I would gladly have purchased for a reasonable amount out of my own pocket.

How receptive have traditional STM publishers been to the Mendeley concept? Have they been reaching out to you proactively? Are they viewing working with you as an opportunity or a threat?

Most of the people who felt we were a threat have come around to seeing us as an opportunity after meeting with us. We’re very open about our plans and about working with publishers.

Smaller publishers have approached us quite frequently about using Mendeley as a distribution platform. We’ve also had a fair share of interest from major STM publishers about investing in Mendeley ever since we got started, but have opted not to go down that route for the time being.

What will the topography of the STM publishing landscape look like in 2014, in your opinion? Who will be at the peaks? Who will be in the troughs?

My divination skills only extend to about early 2010, and after that it gets quite fuzzy. So I’ll abstain from speculating about the troughs lest I look like a fool. As for the peaks: Elsevier, Springer and especially Nature Publishing Group seem to have a lot of good ideas about the web and how to make use of it. PLoS is doing amazing work, too. But I’d be very surprised if Google, Amazon and perhaps also Apple wouldn’t figure prominently.

Who do you consider to be Mendeley’s direct competitors? What is Mendeley’s USP compared with them?

For the time being, established workflow tools like ThomsonReutersEndNote/RefMan and ProQuest‘s RefWorks. Our advantage, I believe, is that we’re able to develop faster and are more in tune with trends and possibilities of the web. We’re adding a social layer to the research management workflow, and in doing so we can build on the experience of our investors and board members, which include the co-founders of Last.fm and Skype.

A few years down the road, I think we might be competing more directly with… well, echoing what I said earlier: Google, Amazon and perhaps also Apple.

Mendeley seems to be very popular among the ‘bleeding edge’ STM community. Have you actively courted their support, or do you think the product ‘sells’ (if that’s the right word) itself?

No, we haven’t actively courted them. As I mentioned before, our experience, perspective and positioning is end-user focused – and I believe the “bleeding edge” of the STM community realizes that a better integration into the end-user workflow is where things are headed, hence their interest.

Do you see your business model changing over time?

Yes, certainly. We’ll start out with offering premium accounts to individual users later this fall, then we’ll probably move on to offering group/lab and institutional accounts as well. We might go for the enterprise software market, because we’ve had a number of requests from corporate R&D departments. The content and advertising business is interesting, too.

‘Mendeley is “iTunes for scholarly articles”‘ Fair comment, or missing the point?

Fair point in terms of the user experience we’re going after: We want to make the organization of your article library as pleasant and simple as possible. Another interesting parallel is that one of our investors and board members was involved in setting up the original iTunes music store.

In terms of selling content, we’re not there yet. We’ve always rather compared ourselves to a “Last.fm for research”, because Last.fm has made the music listening experience social and used this as a starting point for music recommendations and music popularity metrics. We’re trying to do the same for research papers.

Victor Henning, thank you very much!

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2 thoughts on “Mendeley: An interview with Victor Henning

  1. Pingback: links for 2009-08-18 | LIS :: Michael Habib

  2. Pingback: Science Spotlight – September 1st, 2009 | Next Generation Science

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