Victor Henning is the CEO and co-founder of Mendeley, a pdf organizer, reference manager and collaboration tool that is currently used by over 2 million science researchers around the world. This interview took place after a lecture and Q&A event at Edanz titled “Innovation and the future of scientific communication,” at which Victor Henning was a guest speaker.
By Ben Frenchman, Edanz Group
Edanz: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. First of all, what does the name Mendeley mean?
Victor: We were originally going to call it “Literacula” – a portmanteau of “Literature Dracula” - as we imagined the program would ‘sink its teeth’ into the literature and suck the metadata out of it. But few people knew how to pronounce the name and fewer still actually liked it! So we ended up naming it after two famous scientists: Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev, who created the periodic table, and Gregor Mendel, the “father of modern genetics"”.
Edanz: The network of institution-based “Mendeley Advisors” was something I found very impressive and interesting. How did that idea come about?
Victor: It really developed organically from our users themselves. We had always been quite vocal about our vision of making science more open and collaborative, and they kept sending us emails asking how they could help us turn that vision into reality. So we started sending them teaching materials, presentations, and posters – and it gradually grew from there. We now have a community team that coordinates and supports the activities of 1,500 Mendeley Advisors around the globe who are setting up local Mendeley communities on their campus.
Edanz: The Mendeley API (Application Programming Interface) provides some exciting new possibilities for the use of Mendeley data. What are some of the dangers/disadvantages of making such data freely available to anyone that wants to use it? Is it Mendeley’s responsibility to monitor the apps that are created?
Victor: The way we’re doing it, I don’t see many dangers. Only anonymized aggregate data is freely available; personal data, on the other hand, can only be accessed via OAuth authentication. This enables third-party developers to freely build apps that tap into our incredible collection of literature metadata and social context data—i.e., how many readers a document has, in which academic fields and geographic regions it’s popular, or which documents are related. These data are now being used in exciting new research apps for collaboration, real-time impact measurement, semantic annotation, visualization, or expert finder services. Via the OAuth authentication, users can safely access their personal data in third-party Mendeley apps on any platform, such as Android or Kindle. We don’t see it as our responsibility to monitor those third-party apps – users must choose which app to trust. In this way, we’re more like an open platform like Android, rather than a closed one like the Apple App Store.
Edanz: In your bio on the Mendeley website you describe peer review as being akin to being “clubbed like a baby seal”. Does that indicate an underlying dissatisfaction with the peer review process?
Victor: I do think that peer review is a good idea and necessary to ensure the integrity of published research. But the system has flaws – such as the focus on “impact” or “contribution” rather than whether it is methodologically and technically sound. The Open Access journal PLOS ONE only judges the latter, which I believe is the better solution. I remember one of my papers that got pummeled so much by the peer reviewers and had so many—in my view—unnecessary changes requested at each round that I felt that the essence of the paper was getting diluted by needless revisions.
Edanz: If someone downloads a PDF from an Open Access journal and adds it to Mendeley, other uses can freely read and share that article. I found this interesting because at this point the article ceases to be connected with the journal, and starts to exist independently on Mendeley. Do you see a future in which articles exist only on Mendeley, with Mendeley functioning as a kind of Open Access journal itself?
Victor: That’s a very interesting question. I wouldn’t agree that the article ceases to be connected with the journal—it still contains the journal name and DOI, which links to the journal’s website. But in fact, we have been approached by Open Access publications looking to use Mendeley as a publishing platform for their journal. So, yes, that is a very real possibility in the future.
Edanz: During the Q&A session we discussed a little about the accessibility of Mendeley to speakers of languages other than English. Does Mendeley currently support the addition of non-English papers to a user’s collection? Does Mendeley Suggest [a feature that recommends further reading based on the papers in a user’s collection] work with non-English languages?
Victor: Yes, even though the user interface is in English, Mendeley Desktop works well with any language. The algorithms used by Mendeley to extract metadata from a manuscript are not tied to the English language - they also take into account heuristics like text size, position on the page and so on. So Mendeley can recognize a title whatever language it’s in. The recommendation algorithm of Mendeley Suggest similarly looks at overlaps between our users’ document libraries, which is independent of the language they’re in.
Edanz: Finally, have you had a chance to use Edanz’s Journal Selector tool? What are your thoughts?
Victor: It’s been a long time since I wrote a paper of my own so I haven’t used the tool myself. But if I was still publishing then I would definitely use it. It seems very useful and really takes the hassle out of a difficult part of the submission process.