To date, much of the discussion surrounding the future of academic publishing has focused on how publishers can repackage the idea of the journal for the post-digital world. But what if instead of paying for a subscription to a journal or journals, researchers paid for the software and services that would allow them to build and annotate a personal library of research information?
This is the premise behind Mendeley, a London-based start-up which is turning academic publishing convention on its head with a database of 65 million articles which users access on a 'freemium' basis. The access model will be familiar to anyone who uses the popular online note-making service Evernote, where users get 1GB of cloud storage for articles free, and then pay for additional space as they need it. What is most innovative about Mendeley, however, is the API that it has successfully built that has now been used by third-party developers to create more than 240 apps querying this database.
In August Mendeley reported that these apps were generating more than 100 million database queries per month, and that a sophisticated ecosystem of apps was taking shape. These range from apps designed to add a social layer to academic research which could even be used to assess the impact factor of research teams, to apps that make it easier to view individual articles on a Kindle or smartphone.
The rate at which calls on Mendeley's API are growing suggests there is a great deal of pent-up demand for new ways of accessing and assessing academic research that would be better served by thinking like an app developer rather than a publisher. Nor is it an approach that is restricted to Mendeley, as Elsevier is also experimenting with an API for its research database that has resulted in the creation of more than 100 apps.
Both companies differ in their approach to building a research platform. Mendeley is an open platform, which makes it easier to access and more difficult for developers to monetise, whereas Elsevier's is closed and thus presents a simpler revenue generating opportunity for app creators. The guiding principle, however, is the same. Both Elsevier and Mendeley are acknowledging through these initiatives that a platform is a better incubator than a publisher because it spreads the challenge of conceiving and delivering innovative products between many people rather than just a few.
Further reading: If you're interested in knowing more about Mendeley, we'd recommend reading the following articles, which cover the success of Mendeley's API in greater depth.
The Guardian -Mendeley generating 100m API calls from apps every month
TechCrunch - Mendeley’s Open API Approach Is On Course To Disrupt Academic Publishing