Interview | Exploring and Discovering with Mendeley

As Victor Henning was studying for his Ph.D, he and his friends Jan and Paul (Mendeleys’ other founders) were finding it hard to manage the hundreds of papers and articles they needed to read. Storing, indexing and referencing so many documents was a time-consuming and painful process for them. “Why isn’t there some software out there to help us do that,” they asked themselves. They needed and wanted something that could simply drag and drop PDFs, and then automatically extract the bibliographic data, keywords and references. “We created Mendeley to help researchers do this – to automate the tedious tasks of managing research,” says Victor. But they quickly realized that by building a system that connected academics and their research through the web, that much greater and more interesting networking and collaborative features would be possible, too. And thus they built Mendeley.

What does the name mean? 

Victor: Broadly, the name came from two famous scientists: Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev who created the periodic table, and Gregor Mendel, who is often referred to as “father of modern genetics”.

Just like Gregor Mendel explored how traits were inherited in plants, Mendeley helps explore how academic research evolves. Similarly, Dmitri Mendeleyev built the periodic table based on the properties of known elements, and using his data to extrapolate and predict about the properties of elements not yet discovered – Mendeley helps users discover new research and researchers based on what is in your library – your own personal list of ‘elements’ effectively.

There’s a whole story behind how we came up with the name, including some of our more left-field suggestions on our blog.

What is it? Who created it?

Victor: Mendeley is a global research collaboration platform, helping millions of researchers and scientists organize their research, collaborate with others online, and discover the latest papers in their subjects.

On a basic level, Mendeley is a research management tool that’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux. It extracts data from your PDFs, and creates a personal database that allows you to search, read, highlight and annotate via either the web, or desktop. In addition to that, you also create an online profile with Mendeley.com, which lets sync your library across multiple computers and devices (like iPhone/iPad and Android tablets) so you can manage your papers on the move.

But beyond that, Mendeley has become an online collaboration hub for researchers worldwide. Through the use of collaborative filtering technology seen on sites like Last.fm, Mendeley learns about users when they add documents to their personal libraries – so it can then recommend related articles that may have been missed, and also help connect them to people also on Mendeley who have with similar research interests.

So Mendeley has actually evolved as a product. It is now a combination of a software tool, a social network which helps manage and share papers, and also a recommendation engine built on a database of over 240 million user-uploaded documents. Moreover, third-party developers can build apps on top of this database – to date, more than 200 additional tools for research management, collaboration, analytics, visualization, and annotation have been built.

The first version of Mendeley was worked on by Jan, Paul and myself, but we soon recognized that we’d need more help in developing it further. Through angel and VC funding, we’ve been able to grow the business and now employ around 35 people at both our London HQ and our sister office in New York.

What are the benefits?

Victor: First and foremost, Mendeley saves researchers time. It helps them organize their papers and documents, and it lets them create bibliographies and citations, quickly and accurately.

Beyond this, Mendeley helps make research more open and more efficient generally. Through Mendeleys’ online community, researchers connect, share and collaborate. This ensures that they have visibility of the greatest volume of scholarly knowledge available and thus can see what others in their fields have been studying and concluding from their work or experiments. Not only does this help speed up the research process generally, but it helps researchers spot trends and connections.

Mendeley is now one of the largest crowdsourced databases in the world. Through this, we’re producing real-time data on content usage and providing never-before-seen insight into how academics collect, read, share, and annotate their research. This helps researchers understand the impact of their work, helps academic institutions measure the value of their output and also presents publishers with the ability to track and measure the influence of their journals and articles. All in real-time. I’m sure you can see that the benefits are wide-ranging!

How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?  

Victor: I see Mendeleys’ overall offering as unique. Whilst some companies are providing research management tools and some companies are building social networks for researchers, no one has so far combined both around a crowdsourced database and platform for third-party developers. That is what makes Mendeley such a powerful force for change in academic research – the combination of tools, collaboration and analysis within an online ecosystem creates something which is greater than its individual constituents – a connected hub for researchers around the world to manage, share and learn and then analyze their work.

When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Victor: Mendeley as an idea first came about in 2005 when Jan, Paul and I were finding that we were having similar problems with documents during our Ph.D’s. We made the decision to work on Mendeley fulltime in late 2007 and received our first round of investor funding in 2008.

Apart from some of our amusing early name choices, I guess another interesting fact is that we rented our first office from Monty Python’s Michael Palin. Paul had been working as a freelance developer on the website for Michael Palin’s travel series, “Palin’s Travels”. So when we decided to set up shop in London in 2008 and needed office space, Michael let us have the unused top floor of his production office in Covent Garden. He dropped by from time to time and was really nice. It was also quite funny to walk into the storage room to get some copier paper and stumble over a “Spanish Inquisition” wind-up puppet.

Where can you get it now?

Victor: You can sign up via www.mendeley.com. There you will make your account and profile and be able to download the desktop version of the software too. Likewise you can find the iOS versions of Mendeley via the iTunes store, and several third-party Android apps in the Android app store.

How much does it cost? What are the options?

Victor: Mendeley has and always will have a free option. This is our basic level of account. For those looking for greater number of collaborations with colleagues or increased cloud storage space we offer a variety of packages to suit everyone’s needs. From individual accounts with larger cloud storage through to commercial team packages which allow all the members of a research group to use Mendeley simultaneously. We also sell the Mendeley Institutional Edition to university libraries and departments, which includes a data dashboard that shows content usage and research output across the campus.

What are some examples of it in action?

Victor: The evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen has used Mendeley to help share his late fathers’ (Harold Eisen) research papers, ensuring that they’re visible and available for other researchers to learn from and still able to have a potential impact on society.

On a lighter note, here is a group where researchers are collecting a bunch of academic papers with hilarious titles.

Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for? 

Victor: Mendeley is built by researchers for researcher so it’s tailored for anyone who has to manage, read, and cite academic papers, or needs to collaborate with other students and academics. Our users come from all academic disciplines – life sciences, engineering, computer science, maths, physics, chemistry, social sciences, and humanities.

Interestingly, we also have a lot of users outside of academia – namely, government agencies, NGOs, think tanks, consulting firms, banks, even film production companies and artists. I guess people looking to simply use it as a general-purpose document management and sharing tool may find it less suitable to their needs, but they could still use it if they want!

What are your thoughts on education these days?

Victor: Wow, big topic! Well, famous technology investors like Peter Thiel have recently argued that we’re in an education bubble, and that education is overvalued. He even had a grant program designed to encourage people to drop out of college and start businesses instead. However, that didn’t stop him from lecturing at Stanford and preferring people with Ivy League university degrees when it came to recruiting people to work at his own hedge fund. So I fundamentally disagree that education is overvalued. The problem is rather than many people simply cannot afford access to a good education.

The Internet is changing that – on all levels. There are now resources like the Khan Academy for school children and high school students, and free lectures from the world’s best universities on iTunes U. Sebastian Thrun taught a Stanford class on artificial intelligence to hundreds of thousands of students over the internet, then resigned from Stanford to start his own online university, Udacity. Following suit, Harvard and MIT announced edX, their own distance-learning program. All of this is making education more accessible than ever before.

What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Mendeley?

Victor: The entrepreneurship classes at WHU Koblenz, the business school I attended, were a good start. Through guest lectures, they put us in touch with entrepreneurs like Stefan Glänzer, who had founded Ricardo.de and would later become the first investor and chairman of Last.fm. When were setting up Mendeley, we got back in touch with Stefan to pitch him our idea. We met in London, shook hands, and he became our first investor.

More generally, having a business school education provided me with some knowledge of how to think about strategy, operations, business planning, and also pitching investors – though nothing can really prepare you for the realities of building a startup.

Lastly, doing my Ph.D. taught me a lot about data analysis and the needs of researchers, which forms the basis of understanding which pain points we want to solve with our products.

How does Mendeley address some of your concerns about education?

Victor: Mendeley is making an incredible amount of research material available to those who could otherwise not afford access to it. It’s also bringing students and educators across the globe closer together. A kid in South Africa who is interested in neuroscience can now join discussion groups on brain imaging started by professors in the US. Anyone who can program can now build research applications for a global community of scientists by tapping into one of the largest academic databases ever assembled, free of charge.

What is your outlook on the future of education?

Victor: It’s going to be amazing. We haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible in education technology. There’s so many things that I still want to learn, and I’m looking forward to how this will be made easier by the coming online education revolution.

Could you share a quirky or funny anecdote (around the office, or dealing with customers, or at a tradeshow or in a school, or a book you read, or something you saw online, in a conversation, etc) that our readers would find interesting?

Victor: There is one that’s similar to the famous “there is a world market for maybe five computers” prediction, and that may be encouraging to other entrepreneurs who have a hard time getting support for their idea.

Before Jan and I started Mendeley, we were the discussing the idea with a friend of ours who worked for a strategy consulting firm. He said he had looked into our market and believed there was world market of maybe 20,000 people who would ever want to use a tool like ours. Now, we have 20,000 people signing up to our service every four days.

___

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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