Journals are eating up PDF management companies

Academic journal companies are eating up PDF management software and the employees who make it. Should we be afraid?

I awoke this morning to an announcement that Mendeley, a PDF management tool I use regularly, has been bought out by Elsevier, an academic journal publisher. The e-mail was downright déjà vu as just months earlier I’d read a similar product, Papers (which I also use regularly), had been acquired by the journal company Springer.

The hallways of the local ivory tower have been quiet about this news, so what should we make of it? Are these talent and product acquisitions good or bad for science and the researchers who practice it? It’s unclear for now, but let’s consider two different scenarios, two possible worlds:

Will journals use PDF management companies to make science better?

The rosy outlook requires us to offer an optimistic “yes.” Science is already a challenging enterprise before the organization of hundreds to thousands of different academic articles comes into play. These different PDFs often contain incomplete metadata, may differ in version, and vary in quality. Literature is fragmented and interoperability is poor all around.

Fortunately, journal publishers are the font, so to speak, of scientific PDFs. They provide the ground truth for metadata and have access to original articles of the best quality possible. Connecting the source of scientific papers directly to tools which are designed to organize these papers seems like a no-brainer.

So if things go well, these changes will mean that researchers can spend less time organizing science and more time doing it.

Or will journals use PDF management companies to make science worse?

But as soon as you ask the question, “Why are academic PDFs so poorly organized, anyway?” you may hit upon the troubling answer — well, it’s partly because academic journal companies make it that way. The walled garden (i.e., non-open source) nature of many publishing companies (and individual papers) means that many of the copies that make it out to the internet are bootlegged, in a sense — author’s personal copies, scanned from original text, in weird formats, or several revisions behind. To academic journal companies, these bootlegged copies should not exist. Thus, it’s easy to imagine a PDF management tool 2.0 that is capable of deciding whether you have the rights to access a particular journal article. This tool could easily delete papers you were not authorized to view from your machine — after all, it may be illegal to own them.

Because these two programs have been purchased by competing companies, too, it’s easy to imagine that interoperability may remain poor (or worsen). Will individuals have to download and maintain two different PDF libraries, one for articles published by Springer and another for those published by Elsevier?

At any rate, this is a fascinating time for those who love science as well as those who are fascinated by the methods of it, like me. I have a feeling that in the next several years, one of these visions will come true. It will take more of a betting man than me, however, to guess which one.

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