Interview with Dr Victor Henning, co-founder of Mendeley

Victor Henning is a pioneer in social networking in academia. A researcher specialising in consumer behaviour, he founded Mendeley, a reference manager and academic social network, in 2007. The company grew to become a prominent social platform for finding, managing and sharing academic content, and was sold to education publisher Elsevier in April 2013 for between $69m and $100m. We recently spoke with Dr Henning about the open-access revolution and its impact on academic research and peer review, the UK government's open-access policy, Mendeley's purchase by Elsevier, MOOCs and the future of libraries.


                                            Dr Victor Henning, Co-Founder, Mendeley and VP Strategy, Elsevier


Dr Henning, as you know there is a heated debate in academic circles about open-access academic publishing. Some universities claim that they cannot afford to pay subscriptions to academic journals anymore. Academic publishers say that quality research, particularly when peer-reviewed, costs money and someone has to pay for it. Where do you stand in this debate?

I think all of these observations are true. Open access makes it possible not only for academics but also for a wider audience, including companies and private individuals who are interested in research, to access content and use it for free. So open access has broader societal benefits.

But on the other hand if you are a researcher and you want to publish in a journal you need to find the funds to cover the article processing fee. Usually If you are affiliated with a large institution you will receive the money from your institution. But that is not always the case, and this is why you will hear some academics raising that issue.

From the perspective of Mendeley, if content is freely available, it makes our life easier because we can allow academics to access content without having to authenticate whether their universities have license to access a journal or not.

Your company is a pioneer in this emerging culture of sharing content online. But now it has become part of Elsevier, a big publishing company. Do you fear that there will be a backlash from your users?

As with any acquisition, users have questions about what is going to happen.  They have invested a lot of time in this tool by integrating it into their workflow and in many cases in their labs. So people are naturally concerned whether we will stay independent, whether we will start charging them at some point and so on. They also worry about our collaboration functionalities and our open API [application programming interface], which gives free access to our data to 3,000 developers. There is concern that with Elsevier there will be more pressure to monetise and shut down some of these functionalities.

In fact it is exactly the opposite. As a start-up you always have this conflict: on the one hand you want to give away value and features for free so that you can grow your user base, but on the other hand you need to make money and charge for new features in order to break even and become independent more quickly. In the past we had to charge for features which we would have liked to offer for free.

Now with Elsevier, we will have more resources, so we can take a long-term perspective and give away certain features that otherwise we would charge for. We are part of a bigger company, so it is not just about Mendeley breaking even anymore, but about what makes sense in the context of Elsevier and Mendeley users combined.

For example, we will immediately double the available storage base for free. We are currently reviewing the sharing and collaboration limits and we are most likely to increase them in the next few weeks. We are about to release new iPhone and iPad applications. We will also start developing an Android application, a top feature request by our users, but we never had the money to develop it.

In regard to open API, we remain committed to delivering data to the third-party developing ecosystem through Creative Commons license. In fact I think that third-party developers will get more value because we can now use Elsevier data to clean up the data that we have and make it more complete and rich for use in areas such as citation analysis and user-generation profile.

What do you think of the UK government's open-access policy? As you know the UK government wishes to make all publicly funded research open access by 2014. Some academics and associations have warned that such a policy might undermine the freedom of academics to publish research in whichever publication they prefer. One of their arguments is that university leaders and bureaucrats will be the ones to decide what will be published and what not.

I used to be a researcher myself, so coming from the perspective of the academic I think that it is important that researchers are able to choose where they publish their research. As a researcher you always have a narrow choice of which journals are suitable for your work. You, as an academic, are the best judge of where you want to publish your research for various reasons: which outlet is read by your peers, which is the best match for the type of your research, and which one you can afford if there is a processing fee. I think that the government should enable researchers to have that choice.

Well, exactly: some academics are complaining that researchers will not have that freedom of choice anymore if open access becomes the norm. It will be the universities that will have the final say on who publishes what and where.

I can see that being an issue, because there are two sides in the market. On one end you have academics and on the other you have publishers. If academics are forced to publish open access, the choice of where to publish is taken away from them. The only other option would be that the government forces publishers to go open access. As I said open access has societal benefits, but it is also important for companies to choose the best business model for them. Ultimately, freedom of choice is important, so academics should be able to choose, but companies should also be able to choose their business model.

What is your view of the impact of open-access publishing on the peer review model? Some academics and publishers have argued that open access will undermine peer review, for example by making it unaffordable for publishers or encouraging universities to cancel subscriptions to peer-reviewed journals.

I would disagree with these views. Whether a journal runs a good peer-review process is not tied to its business model, whether that is an open access or a subscription-based model. It is true that there are some 'predatory' open-access journals that pretend to do peer review and lure academics to submit their papers for a fee, but do not actually provide peer review. But that is a case of scamming rather than of being committed to open access.

I also think that open-access journals like PLOS ONE have made a tremendous contribution to the way peer review is done. Their approach relies on judging only the technical merits of a paper, rather than its so-called contribution or impact. Personally I think that this is a good move. Of course people might have various goals when they publish research. If they want to submit to the most exclusive journals then they will not submit to PLOS but to magazines such as Nature or Science. But on the other hand PLOS's approach does have an advantage, that it lets the community judge whether a paper truly has an impact or not. So I would disagree with those saying that open access harms peer review.

Do you think that open access will also affect content? For example, it has been argued that open access will incentivise researchers to make their work simpler and perhaps more attractive to a wider audience. Do you expect that to happen?

I do, but not necessarily because of the way the peer review model works. It is generally becoming more important for academics to convey the outcomes of their research, what they want to achieve with their research and why they are doing it in the first place. I think that this is a good thing: that researchers should want to share knowledge and ideally avoid using language accessible only to experts. Sometimes it is inevitable that language is used that outsiders cannot understand, but it should not be deliberate. To digress a bit to the philosophy of science, it was Karl Popper who reminded academics that they should try to be as easily understandable as possible.

Coming back to your question about peer review, I think that the potential benefits of changing peer review, particularly in the way PLOS is doing it by focusing on the technical merits of a paper rather than its impact, might mean a speedier publication process; instead of having to go through three or four round reviews, and then wait for a few months to go to print, you can have a very short period of time between discovery and dissemination of research.

Open access also removes another bottleneck. There is a quote by Paul Lauterbur, a Nobel laureate in medicine, that I am fond of: 'you could write the entire history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature'. So even the highest-quality work often gets rejected because it is too radical, novel or outrageous to contemplate. With the new model of peer review, where you are only judging technical merits, I think that we would see more of this radical research getting disseminated faster, and to my mind that is a good thing.

I can imagine philosophers such as Hegel and Habermas submitting work for peer review and having it rejected for being too radical or complicated... But what do you think about that other item that has been making headlines lately: MOOCs?

The thing that has struck me about MOOCs is that most access to scientific literature is determined by affiliation with an academic institution. Most people outside universities still have a hard time accessing academic content. That might change in ten or twenty years, when open access will possibly be a standard way of publishing. But until then there is an issue. For example, if you are taking a Stanford course and you are not a Stanford student how will you access the research you need to have a first-class education? That question has not been answered yet.

Do you see a business opportunity there for Mendeley or other companies?

Absolutely. I have met many people outside academia who are interested in having access to academic content. So far the model is tied to institutional sales, selling to libraries and then giving access by affiliation. I believe that there is potential for delivering academic content to a wider audience, whether that is through open access or through a new subscription model. Maybe something like an iTunes for research. So, yes, I think that there are a numbers of opportunities out there.

MOOCs are so far focused on teaching.  Do you think that they could also serve as platforms for research in the future?

I would say that Mendeley is the MOOC of research. This is our actual goal: to bring together academics from all over the world, match them based on their interests and help them collaborate.  Looking for the MOOC equivalent of research, I would say that this is exactly what we are trying to build.

In the technology sector, data are valuable. Are data a potential source of revenue for MOOCs and social networks in a higher education? If so, are there privacy and security issues?

Data in research and higher education have the same value as in other industries. Companies can tailor their offering, improve the product and user experience they offer, and generate recommendations for personalised learning or research. So data have an intrinsic value that makes your product better.

Data also have a direct commercial value. Mendeley has a data product, Mendeley Institutional Edition, licensed by major academic institutions around the world. This data product tells librarians what journals are most popular with their institution's faculty and students, so that they can optimise institutional subscriptions.

Regarding privacy, we do not release personal information, only aggregate, so that you cannot infer what an individual academic is doing. So this is an example of a product that directly commercialises data, but in a way that protects privacy and enables libraries to  deliver a better service to their faculty and researchers by optimising their subscriptions.

How will open access affect the role of academic libraries? More broadly, do you think that we need libraries now that all content is digital?

Libraries serve several purposes. They provide access to information  by being the central point of purchase of content for publishers and then passing on that information to faculty and students. If open access became the standard mode of accessing content, libraries would not need to fulfill that task anymore. We would rather rely on centralised databases and search engines, like Mendeley, Scopus, Google Scholar and others.

But libraries also serve another purpose, which is preserving and archiving information. Particularly at research institutions that produce their own output, libraries will be needed to preserve and disseminate that information. So libraries should not be insular but partner with platforms like Mendeley and others. I do think that libraries have a role that goes beyond providing access to content. 

Alex Katsomitros