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Ten years of Mendeley – and what’s next

The revolutionary reference management platform continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of researchers

Mendeley colleagues at work in 2017. (Photo by Annelies van Dam)
Mendeley colleagues at work in 2017. (Photo by Annelies van Dam)

What started out as a disruptive and ambitious tech start-up idea back in 2008 is now a core part of the workflow management for millions of researchers worldwide.

Gaby Appleton, Managing Director of Mendeley, explains why the platform has been so successful:

Mendeley Reference Manager has grown to serve over 8 million users from a standing start. The platform has really solved the problem of helping researchers organize their knowledge and making citations painless. The incredible growth of Mendeley is a result of this focus on meeting the needs of researchers.

In addition, the scale of investment since its acquisition by Elsevier in 2013 has helped accelerate the platform’s development. Mendeley has also expanded to incorporate a broad range of tools and functionalities to help researchers in other areas, such as staying up to date with the latest research in their field or finding the best career opportunities:

One of the most surprising things we’ve learned over the past couple of years is how hard researchers find job hunting. They struggle to know where to look for jobs, and in particular, they don’t know how to find roles with companies that might put their skills to use and enable them to pursue their research passion at the same time. So we built Mendeley Careers, which is by far the largest site dedicated to STEM jobs in the industry, with around 150,000 English-language academic roles and companies listed.

Managing Director Gaby Appleton in Mendeley’s office in London’s Alphabeta building. (Photo by Todd Fredericks)

Another emerging trend is the increased focus on the need to manage and share data, which is what prompted the recent launch of Mendeley Data, where researchers can search over 8 million datasets from domain-specific and cross-domain repositories and make their own datasets citable, enhancing the scope for reproducibility.

True to its original promise, the standard Mendeley Reference Manager has remained free for researchers, so they can be confident that when they move from institution to institution, their account and data will remain accessible.

Olivier Dumon, now Chief Product Officer at Elsevier (holding sign), with Mendeley founders (left to right) Paul Foeckler, Dr. Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt in 2013.

The idea for Mendeley, like so many successful technology platforms, was born from the need to solve a shared problem. When Paul Foeckler met Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt while studying at BUW Bauhaus University Weimar in Germany, they discovered that they shared a common frustration with the research tools they were using. Their challenges led them to create a platform that would become Mendeley.

“There weren’t any good solutions out there to manage your references, cite articles, organize PDFs, etc,” Paul recalled. “All three of us were exposed to various pain points of academic publishing workflows while we were studying. There simply were no decent tools available for managing your references or PDFs – it felt like they were all stuck in the 90s. We thought we could do it better.”

The first problem they had to solve, however, was what to name this new solution.

Paul said they spent months thinking about the name. Every Sunday, 11pm was their two-hour name brainstorming call he said.

We wanted to have something generic because we didn’t know if we would end up doing what we were planning to do or just pivot off the idea. Jan always joked that we would end up selling fish and the name should also work for that. Then we had the idea of basing the name on famous researchers’ names: we liked Dmitri Mendeleev and Gregor Mendel and that’s how we came up with “Mendeley.” All the .com and other domains were free which supported our decision.

They self-financed a basic “alpha stage” prototype for about £20,000, outsourcing it to a team in Belarus. This, alongside a business plan, convinced successful angel investor Stefan Glänzer to come on board as founding investor, and the platform gathered momentum from there. “It felt like magic when I saw for the first time how the software automatically extracted metadata from the articles,” Paul recalled.

William Gunn, PhDDr. William Gunn, Director of Scholarly Communications at Elsevier, was one of the very first hires the founders made in those early days:

I came to Mendeley in probably one of the most appropriate ways for someone who is involved in online user engagement. Victor found me online! I was a member of an online community of scientists and had written about some of the tools.

William recalled that when he started work with Mendeley, what stood out to him the most was how short their development cycle and feedback loop was: “They would release something, post it to the community, and then next week they would already have incorporated the feedback.”

This community-led design has very much remained a part of Mendeley’s DNA, Gaby said:

I love the team’s passion for understanding researcher needs and solving problems for them. Each week, we have five to 10 researchers come to our office and help us test the product and tell our product designers what problems they have in managing information as part of their job. The product managers find these sessions invaluable to help them know what to focus on. Our tech teams then love to spend time thinking about the best way to solve those problems using latest technologies. So it’s a real collaborative effort, which makes the office a fun place to be.

Paul said he had a good feeling about partnering with Elsevier from the start, and he has remained with the company as Director Product Management, overseeing product integration initiatives, publisher relationships from a Mendeley perspective as well as various strategic projects for the past five years:

We secured the long-term future of Mendeley, and not only improved but also extended the Mendeley product offering with Elsevier quite drastically. We are actually just at the beginning of a big transformation of the whole industry, and Elsevier together with Mendeley is in an amazing position to play a leading role in this transformation. Yes, I would do everything again.

Despite reservations from some in the research community about the acquisition, William was also won over by the vision of building Mendeley as a central platform for Elsevier technology, which made him feel that they shared the same goals.

“I'm glad I did stay because I have been able to work with some great people and be very involved in some of the biggest changes in the research landscape over the past few years –open access, the development of altmetrics, the reproducibility initiatives, pre-print servers. Since then, Mendeley has become more solid as an application and we’ve solved a bunch of long-standing technical issues we never had the resources to tackle before. With Elsevier's investment, we were able to hire more developers and finally solve many of these problems.”

Paul said there are many examples of where this investment and support has translated in additional features and benefits for Mendeley users, such as database scalability, the social aspects, research data features, funding features, integration with other products like ScienceDirect and Scopus, and knowledge sharing among wider teams.

Gaby agrees that being part of Elsevier has allowed Mendeley to scale in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for a smaller company – from practical issues, such as the ability to access key talent, take advantage of lower data-hosting costs, and move to larger offices to accommodate an ever-expanding team, to the acquisition of complementary products such as Newsflo and Hivebench, which quickly added new features to the platform without having to build them in-house from the ground up.

“We are so closely integrated with Elsevier– we are working towards the same goals which is how can we help support researchers to manage information better, and be more successful as a result,” she said. “Mendeley also managed to keep a lot of what made it cool – its focus on users, agile ways of working, and sharing our data with the community via open APIs.”

What’s next for Mendeley?

There are, of course, many challenges ahead for the next decade, such as working with other publishers and the entire STM industry to enable researchers to get convenient access to full-text articles, while supporting publisher business models rather than undermining them.

“We’re signatories to the STM Association principles on scholarly sharing,” Gaby said. “There is significant reading and private sharing of articles that researchers publish happening on Mendeley, and by following the STM principles, we’re now able to provide enhanced and standardized usage data to individual publishers to help them get more insights into how published articles are being read and downloaded. More generally, as researchers look to access articles from a variety of different platforms in their workflow, we want to use technology to solve this in a way that works for both researchers and publishers.”

For Paul, the next 10 years are looking bright for Mendeley, as long as they keep focusing on constantly improving the product and listening to what researchers want.

I just met a Mendeley user while on holiday over Easter. He was very excited to speak to a Mendeley founder – the software is his ‘bread and butter’ he said. This is amazing to hear! There are tons of opportunities in the next 10 years. It’s a super exciting time for the domain, and I still very much enjoy being part of and helping to shape the change which we are going through.

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