Tools & Technology

What’s an API? 5 things you need to know to stay current

APIs are having a growing impact on our lives and work – even if you’re not a techie

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So you're interviewing for your dream job when the manager asks you about the API your university uses for its top research project.

You stammer while trying to remember what API stands for before the interviewer mercifully changes the subject. If you relate to this scenario, you're not alone.

But even if your job – or PhD or tenure – doesn't depend on understanding the ins and outs of APIs, those three letters are having a large and growing impact on our lives and work. So if you have no clue what they stand for or what APIs can do, read on.

1. What is an API?

First the basics. The letters stand for Application Programming Interface. As the name suggests, it's a language that lets one product or service (say, Google Maps) talk to another (e.g., AccuWeather). Think of it as a sort of Esperanto for computers. Because these different platforms can exchange data effectively, working together through this common language, you can combine their different capabilities, customising products to suit your needs or creating entirely new ones. In the case of AccuWeather, the API enables weather trends to be displayed on Google's interactive maps.

2. Who uses APIs?

Everybody. And if they're not using it, they probably should be. In the same way it's not acceptable for a company not to have a website these days, it will soon become equally essential to offer an API.

Learn more

To learn more about APIs, read Alice Bonasio's new Huffington Post article.

Tell us your API stories

We'd also like to hear your own API stories. Does your company use one, or is thinking of implementing one? Let us know your experience and thoughts in the comments below.

Fueled by the explosive growth of mobile phones and tablets, users are demanding increasingly personalized products and offerings to suit their individual needs, and the researcher community is no different, says Joyce Stack, Developer Outreach for Mendeley's API team:

You need to make sure that all the products that your user needs are talking to each other, letting people bridge any gaps and integrating with other tools so that your product works for them, saving time and hassle at every opportunity. With an API we can do this and innovate much faster, including around things like social features, interactive collaboration and recommendation tools, so that you're offering users much more than a 'static paper.'

But APIs are not just useful for allowing your data and products to communicate with external developers; they work just as well for integrating products within your own company. When Elsevier acquired Mendeley, for example, the fact that Scopus and ScienceDirect had APIs that worked with Mendeley made it possible to quickly build features that allowed users to seamlessly import documents directly to their Mendeley Library and improve the research workflow. As Stack explains:

Our users are researchers, and generally they spend a lot of time finding the right content, and then organising and formatting their data. We want to support our dev community so they use the Mendeley API to integrate our product not only with Elsevier's data and offerings, but those of other publishers – and any product out there that suits their needs and makes their lives easier.

The Readership Locations sample application is used to illustrate common tasks when manipulating resources through the Mendeley API.

3. Why do APIs matter to me?

Just last week, I went along with several of my Mendeley colleagues to an evening crash course in APIs at the General Assembly. We were led there by Stack, who was keen for us to grasp just how important they were. Our tutor, Liad Bokovsky, did a fantastic job of driving that home, eliciting gasps from the room when he demonstrated – through a quick delve into the Foursquare API – just how much data is available out there, and how it can be easily manipulated in a variety of ways. We all share our data to various degrees every time we use any sort of online technology, and if we're all a bit more educated about how this data is stored, and how it can be put to use – both good and bad – the better we will be able to protect our privacy.

From a company perspective, APIs allow you to innovate by allowing others to change things that aren't working and create new functionalities that complement your own. Bokovsky, a Cloud Solutions Architect for Mashery, used the example of the 19th-century ice trade, which boomed before being completely destroyed by innovations such as the invention of refrigerators and freezers. Closed systems are the equivalent of such industries, always vulnerable to innovation rather than embracing and driving it. In a world dominated by technology, isolation is no longer an option.

4. Where can I find APIs?

A simple search for an online product plus the word "API" or "dev" usually does the trick. Many companies have a dedicated developer portal that hosts the API, plus any tools and resources people using it might need. The Mendeley Dev Portal, for example, is home to a newly improved version of the API, plus SDKs (Software Development Kits) for Android and Python.

The hope is that by engaging and supporting the people who want to use the API, the Mendeley Developer community will continue to grow and create applications for the platform, such as Altmetric, Labfolder and KinSync to name but a few of the most popular ones.

5. How can I use an API?

It might come as a surprise that non-developers can also make use of APIs. Increasingly, we're seeing a drive towards making them simpler and more user-friendly. I'm not a coder by any stretch of the imagination, yet I recently managed to use the Twitter API to create a Google Spreadsheet that automatically displayed up-to-date information about my followers, including how many followers they had, which is quite useful in social media outreach.

The Mendeley Dev Portal


Watch a short interview with Joyce Stack


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Alice Atkinson-BonasioAlice Atkinson-Bonasio (@alicebonasio) is PR and Communications Manager for Mendeley, the name of the company and its research collaboration platform and workflow tool that was acquired by Elsevier in April 2013. She holds an MA in creative and media enterprises from the University of Warwick and is completing a PhD in online marketing at Bournemouth University. She is based in Mendeley's London office.

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