Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How a "Facebook for researchers" platform will disrupt almost everything

I recently attended a talk about Mendeley institutional version (powered by Swets) , I am fairly familiar with Mendeley , Zotero and other reference managers (though my main usage is with EndNote) but have not looked at the institutional version yet.

You can read about the exact features of the service   and also here but more importantly, during the talk while looking at the features I finally grasped how powerful and disruptive a real and dominant "Facebook for researchers" is going to be.

Of course, the road to such a goal has being strewn with many failures, including Elsevier's 2collab , Labmeeting etc (check a report in 2008 of such tools and check how many still stands) and attempts have being or could be made from social bookmarking/reference management angle (e.g citeulike/Connotea/Mendeley),  Discovery/Search angle (potentially webscale discovery/next generation catalogues with social features) or  even more directly straight forward Identity management (e.g. ResearcherID).

But no matter who wins how would a dominant "Facebook for researchers" platform affect academic research and hence academic libraries? What areas would they disrupt?

Note: I am going to mostly use the Mendeley Institutional edition as a stand-in for this dominant hypothetical  "facebook for researcher" platform. I actually haven't use the institutional service beyond looking at brochures. I am not saying that Mendeley will eventually succeed either.

Disrupt search including webscale discovery tools

There is a reason why Google is so worried about Facebook coming after them in search and desperately trying to force people into their own version of Facebook. Simply put the more the system knows about you the better recommendations you can get and potentially much better search results.

In the academic/research world, the advantages are perhaps less but still considerable.

Mendeley , Citeulike etc are already starting to show hints of this, when you search you can see how many people put a certain article in their reference libraries, that itself could be a strong signal of quality. Think of it like having articles ranking by Times cited, except you don't have to wait for a year or so for the paper to be cited. You don't necessary cited everything that is in your reference library of course but studies are starting show there is strong correlation between these two measures.

And that's just the beginning, one could imagine Mendeley or similar tools, allowing you to restrict searches to take into account only people in your institution, your specific groups, your friends etc, do collaborative filtering techniques for recommendations based on researcher profile characteristics (see Mendeley's version) and more - ie "researchers like you have read this"

Currently Mendeley claims to have 150 million unique items (Jan 2012) when you search Mendeley , "This makes it, according to Victor Henning, the company’s CEO and co-founder, the world’s largest research database."

Depending on how one defines research database, this is probably false. Web Scale Discovery systems like Serial Solutions Summon, OCLC's Worldcat local etc have more items. Currently Summon for example has 249 million items , Worldcat local has 663 million articles , totaling 943 million items etc.

Still, it's clear Mendeley is catching up, and I could be wrong but they probably have partnerships pulling in metadata with publishers , as I doubt crowd sourcing alone is unlikely to get so much so quickly? In fact, crowd sourcing would be a distinct advantage since one could find items like data sets, reports inside that would not typically be found in a traditionally discovery product.

Currently Mendeley gets you to full-text using OpenURL, very similar to Summon and provides an option to upload your library holdings. While I am not sure what you uploading your library holdings does currently , I would guess it wouldn't be impossible to use that to eventually allow "search within your subscriptions" options or at least use it to show the openurl button only when an item exists like in Google scholar now.

I suppose though it will never completely replace your ILS, as I doubt such a platform will want to take that function (though who knows?) but perhaps discovery layers that sit atop ILS might be disrupted.

Disrupt unique author indentifer rivals

I don't know much about this area but I know there is probably no leading contender in this area yet.

I know of attempts like ResearcherID by Thompson-Reuters, Elesvier has a Scopus Author ID and there's an attempt at a standard with ORCID

But just as Facebook Connect is pretty much making OpenID irrelevant , could a Facebook for researchers platform make efforts like ORCID irrelevant?

Mendeley provides a researcher profile and if it becomes as dominant for researchers as Facebook is for common networking it would be the one ID to rule them all.

Mendeley Institutional Version also claims to allow you to "track your members publications", "view the reach of your publications" etc

Provide better analytics

Imagine being able to see what papers , articles, or entries your researchers are downloading and putting in their libraries. You might think so what? We have usage stats downloads (Counter Stats or not) , so we already know what is used.

Not quite. What about items that are Open Access and researchers download directly say via Google scholar? What about items they find from searching Google etc that are not traditionally in databases you track? But perhaps you don't care about those. But what about items you don't own and they never get around to do document delivery because  they get it via other methods?

One can imagine the degree of tracking available with signed in users would be considerable and one could get in theory all sorts of user behavior during the research process.

One wonders with the collaboration with Swets whether this will eventually lead to linkage to backend systems but that's a long way off.

Replacing your library website

Everyone knows about the finding that practically zero percent of library users start from the library website and I have written wondering whether if this is the case how much effort we should spend on it, versus trying to reach users outside the portal , but assuming this "facebook for researchers" takesoff, it is likely going to be as sticky as the real facebook and the amount of time spent there while doing research is likely going to be very high.

Add the fact that it is like going to have a superior search experience (see above), it will become the first stop for research (perhaps even giving Google , Google Scholar a run for its money, the CEO already claims people are using Mendeley to search instead of Google Scholar), further displacing library portals.

No big deal right? Users weren't coming to us after all right? If given this is the case, should libraries try to put our offerings and services into this platform?

Mendeley Institutional version is starting towards that direction, with the ability to upload A-z list (to allow direct linking of eresources), "Have teachers set up course packs to direct students to important content" (presumably this is just a link to eresources the library subscribe to only not scanning of hardcopy material??) etc.

What else would a user really need from the library website if he can search for articles from the platform and get access to full text vis his library's subscription?

Not much really, perhaps he might want to find a way to contact librarians to ask questions on research or policy issues? Or perhaps the library would like to "push" important news and events to users? I suspect the latter is more of a want by the library than of researchers though :)

Targetted marketing 

So say you want to market something on this Facebook for researchers platform.

I suppose a liaison librarian could create research groups in mendeley and invite all researchers into the group to communicate with them (equalvant of Facebook pages/groups), or link up using the librarian's personal mendeley accounts (equalvant of friending people on facebook with your personal account), but are there other ways to reach them?

Well... if this was actually Facebook, you could buy an ad :)

In Why Google Is Terrified Of Facebook , there is a nice screenshot showing the amazing amounts of granular targetting one could do.

Check out the image here

Now imagine if libraries could do this. Target specific library news , events of interest to specific people in your university mostly likely to be interested instead of blindly mass emailing everyone in the university, or even in a department. Say you have a speaker on a exotic topic coming....and you could immediately target only researchers who might be interested based on their profiles or better yet based on papers they put in their library. So say it might notice you have plenty of papers by researcher X in your library....

Of course if one had really top notch liaisons who had their pulse on the research of every researcher, their interests one could sort of already do this, but realistically speaking for large universities that would be very hard. Imagine a system where you could automatically maximise the possibilities of reaching the ones most interested.

I envision a system where you would still push news on your normal broadcast channels like blogs , posting on your portal etc, but researchers specially targetted would see events streaming on their platform as they did their work.

Is this going too far I wonder? What about privacy? Are librarians too noble to use such marketing tactics? I don't know. I have heard of libraries experimenting with google adwords and facebook ads to target users, so this isn't quite unheard of...

Google adwords seem to work but facebook ads didn't "They found that Facebook advertising was not effective because that is not where students are spending their time when they’re in research mode" but you won't have that problem for this hypothetical "facebook for researchers" platform. 


Of course, I am just wildly speculating, there are many major differences between social networking/social media in general and using it for academic research and some of the network effects that work for Facebook will probably be a lot weaker in academic world.

For one thing, it's unclear if researchers want to share what is in their library either with each other or with the library. Aggregated stats is probably okay I suspect but that would reduce the effectiveness of some of the social signals.

It's still an open question if a network for researcher will work best by operating more like Twitter default open model with asymmetric links or like Facebook which is default closed with symmetric links or some combination.

Unlike facebook it is also unclear if there will be one dominant winner.  In social networking sites the network effect would lead to one solution winning out as you want to be on the same network where your friends are.

In the academic world, if most of your "friends" are in the same institution you would by definition be on the same supported platform. Or would the desire to collaborate across institutions online push towards one dominant solution?

Still even without one dominant platform used by all researchers, that platform would still have a lot of power over your institution users as all the eyeballs would be there.....

Libraries positioning

Let's say I am even half right and eventually such a platform will come to dominate the research world (or perhaps just locally on institutional level). What should libraries do?

Firstly one has to recognise that Mendeley and its cousins should not be treated just as another reference manager like Refworks or Endnote, they have far bigger ambitions. To just focus on how it performs as one versus your existing solution while important is not the only or even major point.

In fact their whitepaper makes it very clear of their ambitions , there is ample references to discovery, facebook likes and Twitter trending and pretty much makes similar arguments to this blog post then there is this passage...

"Many researchers have welcomed social media into their workflow, using Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to organise groups and share information. However these all-purpose platforms do not always have the unique functionality that researchers need, and involve them stepping out of their workflow to login, post a link or make a contribution"

followed by their determination to be in the digital workflow of all stages of research, pretty clear isn't it that Mendeley wants to be that platform....

Indeed Reference Managers are a very good base to build a crowd sourcing/social platform around because 1) there is value in using them even when used alone so early adopters still benefit 2) It does not require the researcher to do anything extra on top of what they do normally.

Mendeley's strategy seems to be to give away free to personal users to build enough brand awareness and now that there is a sufficient user base so Mendeley isn't a complete stranger to most librarians, they are going after libraries by institutions. This phase seem to have being announced by partnering Swets 

I was a bit puzzled at first by the tag line "Institutional edition powered by Swets", in what sense is it powered by Swets? Particularly when all? of the technology is Mendeley's?

But then i realized Swets was partnered more for the marketing and sales arms which has relationships with libraries that Mendeley lacks.

The fact that Mendeley made this move , is a compliment to the power and influence academic libraries have on users choice of reference managers. While many researchers will end up trying and learning on their own, sizable numbers will be taught by librarians in their honours year or post grad year and might end up using that tool for life , so it makes sense for Mendeley and swets to court libraries.

But I guess from the libraries point of view is, what is in it for us? Cynical as it seems, frankly speaking my opinion currently is that while some reference managers are better than others, the differences isn't really that great to be worth the switching costs.

*paranoid mode on*

If libraries start supporting one platform together we could potentially end up creating a powerful entity that would make the library even more invisible in the research workflow and would tip the balance of power away from us. Once they are dominant will they use their power against us?

* paranoid mode off*

I guess that's the same argument, some librarians make against being on facebook, the fear of giving them even more information and power, but to be fair librarians were hardly the ones who gave Facebook their power...

This is not so for citation managers. Hate to sound cynical but at this stage such services still need us more than we need them I think, so while our bargaining position is strong we should make a stand and not give the store away at least not without quid pro quo.

At the very least, switching will mean, in the end the librarians are the one who will bear the cost of training, handling difficult troubleshooting queries on cite while you write etc, so it's not a small thing.

But what we should ask for in exchange for support, I leave it as an exercise to the reader.

Looks like the parody below about Pubmed to the tune of the movie trailer for "The Social Network" could be redone for Mendeley :)


1. I am not the first to see how disruptive Mendeley can be disruptive

"Mendeley has often been mentioned as a potential industry disruptor. With its presence as a resource manager, database, search tool, social network and now, thanks to the partnership with Swets, its integration with library holdings and provision of usage analysis to libraries, it’s not hard to see why."

2. Again I reiterate while I use Mendeley as an example here, it could be a stand-in for any service that has similar ambitions to be a Facebook for researchers platform.  So Mendeley supporters please don't take it that I am targetting Mendeley.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Share this!

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...