Selling Research Papers

On several occasions, he designed software features that increased the flow of information and papers within Mendeley, only to be forced to pull them back when publishers, including Elsevier, made scary lawyerly noises loud enough to give Mendeley pause.

One day in August, 2011, his bosses asked him to kill previews of all papers published by Elsevier.

Removing Elsevier’s papers destroyed “a huge percentage of what we had,” Hoyt said.

For Hoyt, this rollback clarified that “things were closing off.”Regardless, by the end of that summer, Mendeley had over a million users who had uploaded over sixty million papers—the world’s single biggest repository of academic papers—and were sharing many of them.

Over the next eighteen months, he saw that the company might not prove as disruptive as he had hoped.

Mendeley’s main product, which Hoyt helped refine, was a reference manager app, the sort of desktop software that academics use to organize research papers. The company argued that such in-group sharing amounted to fair use among colleagues.

The preview feature allowed users to see the first few paragraphs of any paper listed by Mendeley’s members so they could decide if a paper looked useful before tracking it down in a user group or, if that failed, buying it for fifteen to fifty dollars.

Users loved the feature, but Elsevier hated it and pressured Mendeley to remove it.

And by unbundling the paper from the journal, as had let music fans unbundle songs from albums, they felt like they were kicking a brick out of the outmoded publishing infrastructure.

Hoyt, however, found that his efforts to strengthen this tool increasingly revealed its limits.

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