Victor Henning is the co-founder of Mendeley, a pioneering reference manager and academic social network that was recently acquired by Elsevier. Now Elsevier's VP of Strategy, Victor is widely recognised as being one of the academic publishing's leading thinkers, with a clear vision of how the industry should be operating in the post-digital world.
On 12 September Victor will be joining Ingenta for our What is a Publisher Now? panel at the ALPSP Conference in Birmingham, UK, where he'll be debating the future of academic publishing with SAGE's Ziyad Marar, Digital Science's Timo Hannay and the publishing consultant Louise Russell. Ahead of this, I caught up with Victor to ask him about what he learned from starting Mendeley and his views on the past present and future of scholarly and academic publishing.
JT - Did the original idea for Mendeley come from your experience as an academic researcher? If so, what frustrations in a researcher’s life did you set out to solve with its products and services?
VH - Absolutely. Both my co-founder Jan Reichelt and myself were doing our PhDs and had to deal with a huge amount of documents. Keeping these hundreds of PDFs organised was a nightmare, and we thought there had to be a better way of managing this. That was the spark for the Mendeley idea.
JT - How did your own specific area of research (consumer behaviour) inform the way you initially developed the product?
VH - My PhD research was on the role that emotion plays in decision-making, and with Mendeley, we tried to engage our users emotionally from the start. We did this by telling anyone who would listen about our long-term vision – making research more collaborative and open – and how we would try to do it, rather than trying to be in “stealth mode” like many other start-ups. This led to a huge community of inspired users all over the world who believed in our vision and have tried to help us achieve it. We also focused on delivering excellent customer service and listening closely to our users needs – until today, I am running the Mendeley Twitter account, so I see every single tweet about and to Mendeley, and respond whenever I can.
JT - What role has the development of User Experience played in Mendeley’s success to date? It’s not an area in which academic publishers have been known to excel, so were you consciously trying to do something new or better?
VH - Yes, we were – after all, the inspiration for Mendeley came from the frustrating user experience with existing tools. We also believed that good user experiences have reinvented entire industries: Google wasn’t the first search engine, Skype wasn’t the first internet telephony client, and the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, but they made the user experience stunningly simple and pleasant, and as a result, redefined their respective categories.
I think publishers have gotten a lot better at building great user experiences – for example, I saw an amazing demo for a new Elsevier neuroscience research tool recently, and Digital Science’s products are also very slick and polished.
In any case, the only way to achieve a great user experience is to listen to your community all the time, to the harsh criticism as well as the praise. On top of having dedicated support and community teams, we engage our users constantly via feedback forums, Twitter and Facebook, email support, Mendeley Advisor talks, and events that like our Open Day. We also have our Mendeley Research Hub where researchers can book a desk/workspace in our London office to do their own work and interact directly with the team.
JT - Mendeley originally pitched itself as a provider of technology services to academic researchers, and you were recently acquired by Elsevier. Do you think this is a signal that these services (eg cloud storage, annotations, reference management) will increasingly be provided by academic publishers, or will it stay in the province of technology companies?
VH - I think the boundaries between publishers, educational institutions and technology companies will continue to blur, as we’re all part of the same workflow. We’re excited about the possibilities of integrating Mendeley and Elsevier services, and Elsevier itself has made significant moves with resources like Scopus and ScienceDirect to evolve from the traditional publishing model of content consumption to value-added services and workflow tools that make researchers’ lives easier.
JT - By building a social layer on top of the act of storing, sharing and creating academic content, you could say Mendeley has created a technology framework for academic life. Does this mean that the future of academic publishing is as much about the process of being an academic researcher as publishing research itself?
VH - Yes, I think so. By integrating the publishing process with the rest of the workflow, publishers will become partners for researchers through the entire process of knowledge discovery, management, collaboration, creation, and ultimately publishing. And if publishers are generating value for researchers in this way, then the business models will adapt as well.
JT - Another one of Mendeley’s key differentiators is the way it enables users to share and recommend content with their social graphs and assess the impact of their own work. Do you see this is a way that academic publishers can solve the problem of assessing research impact in the future?
VH - I believe that the definition of impact will change. We will want to know not only whether a research paper has been cited, but also whether how often it was read or shared, whether it influenced public policy, or whether it generated interest in the media. “Impact” will be a multi-faceted construct which will go beyond the binary “cited: yes/no”. Also, the scope of what is generating impact will change: We won’t just look at research papers, but also at raw data sets, code, experimental designs and methods, or presentations. These so-called “altmetrics” will be available largely in real-time, thus pre-dating and possibly predicting the occurrence of citation counts that take months or years to accumulate.
JT - Speaking as a researcher, a technologist and an entrepreneur, is the journal article and/or research paper’s position as the base unit of academic research secure, or will we soon see the rise of new forms of presenting research?
VH - While journal articles will probably remain the base unit, I think there will be other, more granular forms of presenting research. Data sets themselves are already being published as smaller “data articles”, graphs and charts are being shared on FigShare, experimental procedures are published on sites like MyExperiment and JoVE have pioneered the video journal, and Elsevier has recently introduced AudioSlides, which are five-minute slide presentations with narration alongside ScienceDirect articles.
JT - When Elsevier acquired Mendeley you became VP of Strategy for Elsevier. Do you think academic publishers need more input from technologists to get their digital strategies right?
VH - As workflows are increasingly digital and moving into the cloud, it certainly can’t hurt! In my opinion, the most successful publishers will become technology companies, too. For me personally, it’s an exciting opportunity to bring what I learned at Mendeley, as well as our vision of research in the cloud, to the wider organisation at Elsevier. I think a publisher with over 150 years of history and a start-up that’s just over 5 years old will inevitably have very different ways of working, so throwing the two together will be a challenge - but because our expertise is so complementary, the results will be positive for Elsevier, Mendeley, and our users.
JT - What are you looking forward to discussing most at ALPSP?
VH - The issues around how publishers can leverage technology, engage users, and benefit from crowdsourcing is close to my heart. I can see many exciting possibilities for extending the Mendeley platform to address researchers’ workflow, content discovery, and publishing needs - I think we’ll have a lively discussion on this topic in my panel “Who is the Publisher”.
VH - In fifteen words are fewer, 'What is a publisher'?
Ideally: A researchers’ trusted assistant for knowledge discovery, creation, authoring, and dissemination.