When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

Have you heard that Elsevier is buying Mendeley? No? Well, that’s probably because you don’t care.

In the hustle of daily start-up takeover news that has been the staple of TechCrunch and Mashable for the last few years, this one is small bikkies. But TechCrunch did report on it, which spurred others to re-report. Then someone started a feedback query in Mendeley protesting the rumour. It has 72 votes so far. Against the supposed $100million payoff, I doubt Mendeley has taken much notice of the protests. Blinded by green, you might call it.

I’m a user of Mendeley, but I’m not overly attached to it. It certainly is the best reference manager I’ve come across, but there are other tools out there, and really, what does it matter what I care about the deal anyway. The whole episode raises some interesting questions about the nature of academic publishing, and the players in that space. Not because Mendeley is “disrupting” academic publishing (according to TechCrunch’s source) but precisely because it isn’t as disruptive as it might be, as some have identified.

Despite my best instincts, I’m about to wade into an ongoing debate I have little expertise in, hopefully wearing all the appropriate personal protective equipment, especially troll-retardant. There is one very disruptive company operating in the publishing and information-sharing and gathering space that could do a very good job at spoiling the party for academic publishers wanting to own their own reference managing company – Google.

Google’s issues with privacy are well-known. Their mantra ‘Do No Evil’ has often been called into question. And, well, they’re a corporate blood-monster desperate to suck up all your spare cash and data and sell it to advertisers. But wait, there’s more: they are also very good at building truly disruptive products in markets they have little business being in. If Tom Tom or Garmin had seen Google Maps coming, investors would have sold out a decade ago. Microsoft’s Hotmail was equally as unprepared for Gmail and Google Apps. And their self-driving car technology has left the established auto-makers at the starting blocks. They haven’t quite cracked the social networking market, but they’ve largely infiltrated it by default anyway. Google Drive, Gmail, Google Plus, YouTube.

Then, there’s Google Scholar. It isn’t linked to from the Google.com homepage anymore, so you might think its on the way out, but Scholar has some very nifty features that could form the basis of a handy reference manager, with the added bonus of native connections to Google Drive. Researchers can already create professional profiles in Google Scholar, download citations to articles in a number of formats, and track the number of citations of particular authors and articles. Add to that the fact that Google is a publisher of new academic research.

Google Plus is already a niche network. It would be pretty simple for Googlers to link Scholar profiles to Plus and organise those connections around disciplines to build out an instant academic social network ready to become a reference manager as well.

Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Aside from their core search engine, what better fits that mission than user-generated citation lists written by experts?