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Academics should ditch Elsevier and Mendeley — here’s how

Parody of the Elsevier logo (Source: Michael Eisen, CC BY 3.0)

This February the entire University of California (UC) system terminated its subscriptions with Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of scientific research. This was the result of failed negotiations to reduce costs and make UC research published in Elsevier journals open access by default, rather than keeping papers behind a paywall. In doing so, the UC joins hundreds of universities and research centres in Europe who broke with the publishing giant last year.

Canadian academic librarians have already voiced their support for these actions. University libraries are struggling to pay the skyrocketing costs of journal subscriptions (more than CAD $300 million last year), while many Canadian researchers pay publishers thousands of dollars in order to comply with Tri-Agency open-access mandates.

Moreover, researchers outside universities and colleges and in economically developing countries constantly run up against journal paywalls, which often means they can’t access key research. This model makes publishers like Elsevier vast sums of money while perpetuating a global academic and economic hierarchy. Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian and economics professor at UC Berkeley, summarized the situation:

“Make no mistake: The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the U.S. — not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution — can afford to subscribe to them all […]. Publishing our scholarship behind a paywall deprives people of the access to and benefits of publicly funded research. That is terrible for society.”

You might wonder: “Why the focus on Elsevier? Aren’t there plenty of other publishers that have similar business models?” This is a great question to which there are many possible responses, but two in particular stand out to me:

1) Elsevier is the world’s largest and most influential of the bunch, with a business model that produced a 37.1% operating margin in 2018 (that’s CAD $1.64 Billion of profit). This is just a slight increase from 2010, when the company’s profit margins were higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon.

2) Elsevier owns and develops Mendeley, a software program for researchers to manage academic publications, collaborate online, and store datasets. It also has a significant social networking component, with over 6.5 million users worldwide. Mendeley is free, but once you’ve used 2GB worth of storage (i.e. PDFs of articles), you’ll need to upgrade to premium subscription plans in order to backup additional files to the cloud. Plans range from CAD $73–221 per year.

The problems with the academic publishing system — particularly in the sciences — are well-known, and there are lots of smart people writing about it. However, in my experience, many researchers are less aware of the connection between Elsevier and Mendeley. Here’s a bit of history:

Mendeley was founded in 2007 by three German graduate students in London. By early 2009 it had become known as the darling of openness, and won awards for advancing research and benefiting society. In 2013 it was bought by Elsevier and has since become a key part of the company’s range of services and child companies, including Scopus, ScienceDirect, Science-Metrix, and 1science. This is because RELX (Elsevier’s parent company) is rapidly transforming itself from a print publisher into a data analytics company. In fact, tools and databases are now driving Elsevier’s growth and the company continues to heavily invest in Mendeley’s development.

Mendeley encrypts your annotations database

One such “development” was an update last year which encrypted everyone’s Mendeley data, making it extremely difficult to export PDF annotations to another program. Just like that, people with years’ worth of notes were effectively locked into Mendeley (and their payment plans), since starting from scratch is such a daunting option.

Mendeley claimed this was done to comply with European Union data protection laws and to keep data safe. When people asked for specifics and pointed out that encrypting people’s annotations actually seems to contradict the EU regulations’ right to data portability, Mendeley refused to provide further explanation or correction to their statements. Instead they blamed the confusion on fake news and conspiracy theorists.

With all this conflicting information, I decided to do a quick test myself and found that partial solutions do exist for exporting from Mendeley (refer to the end of this post). Moreover, the company has since apologized for unintentionally hindering interoperability, and claim to be working towards long-term integration with Zotero, a free and open-source competitor. However, at the time of writing, it appears the only way to fully transfer one’s data from Mendeley to Zotero is through a series of complicated procedures requiring coding and third party scripts. This is a significant struggle for those with limited technical backgrounds.

What can we do?

Maybe Mendeley will eventually unencrypt their users’ data and provide a tool that allows full export to other programs like Zotero. Regardless, at this point I think we should be asking ourselves: Is this the business practice of a company that we want to support? Are we comfortable entrusting our documents, notes, and datasets to yet another highly lucrative data analytics company? Do we really want to continue to drain our university libraries with subscription payments?

The answer is clearly ‘no’, and universities around the world should join the UC system in standing up to Elsevier. Here at UBC, however, only 82 people have signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier since January 2012. Our library subscriptions to Elsevier remain unchanged. The other day I helped a friend install Mendeley on their laptop because their professor asked them to. The UBC Library Research Commons regularly offers intermediate workshops for Mendeley and RefWorks, but nothing beyond the beginner’s class for Zotero.

UBC has an opportunity to lead Canada in breaking ties with Elsevier. This will require switching the tools we use, in addition to the journals we publish in and review for. Here are three tangible steps to get started:

1) Boycott Elsevier by signing the Cost of Knowledge.

2) Contact your library to voice your support for letting Elsevier subscriptions expire (UBC University Librarian: susan.parker@ubc.ca).

3) Stop using and teaching Mendeley and switch to a non-profit alternative like Zotero.

Convenience seems to dictate so much of who wins and who loses in the digital world. There’s no question that Elsevier publishes important journals across numerous disciplines and losing immediate access to these would be an inconvenience. Still, it’s unrealistic to think that Canadian institutions and researchers would be completely cut off from that information. The University of California has outlined a variety of alternative ways to access Elsevier articles, and a similar approach could be adapted in Canada.

Switching reference managers can be a time investment and learning curve, but there are many resources available for doing so (including this step-by-step tutorial I wrote for the ultimate Zotero setup, which gives you full control of your data and virtually unlimited cloud storage). As a former Mendeley user, I can honestly say I don’t miss it.

Still, I don’t think being a purist about this topic is necessary; some of us may have justifiable reasons for continuing to work with Elsevier journals or products that prevent a complete separation. However, if we all make some small changes, these can multiply into big changes to the practices of Elsevier and their competitors. In doing so, we can help to transform the academic publishing system into something that serves science and society more than corporations.

Mendeley export test

I installed the latest version of Mendeley Desktop (1.19.5), added a couple of PDFs, and made a few annotations (highlighted text and notes). I can confirm the following:

1. Exporting one’s library using the default approach strips PDFs of all annotations.

2. This can be overcome using “Export PDF(s) with Annotations” option, but the highlights in the exported PDFs are not editable outside of Mendeley.

3. Neither of these options preserve one’s organizational folder structure.

4. The comprehensive Mendeley importer tool within Zotero cannot access the Mendeley database, which we can assume is the result of the encryption.

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