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On Elsevier buying Mendeley

[Update: Steve Dennis, a developer for Mendeley, posted a comment explaining a bit more about the data collection and privacy concerns some users have with Mendeley Desktop. It adds some pros and cons about the process outlined here.]

Two days ago (2013-04-08) Elsevier (the academic publishing company that is the subject of some controversy) bought Mendeley (the reference manager and a tool often mentioned when discussing 'open' research). The Mendeley Blog does a quick Q&A covering what changes will take place (they take the position that this will be better for everyone), while the folks over at The Chronicle examine the sale with a slightly more critical lens. Some accounts I follow on Twitter began using the hashtag #mendelete, taking an even more critical stance on the sale. (Someone has even made a guide to exporting data from and then deleting one's Mendeley account - useful, even if just for the exporting data portion.)

While it remains to be seen what changes will, in fact, take place, the simple fact remains that Mendeley is not open source and remains controlled by a company that does not have my (and your) best interests in mind. The most important thing for Elsevier is making money, and, for now, keeping Mendeley operating serves this goal. However, my work is too important to rely on a tool that somebody else controls. (I did a pretty thorough post on my views about this after the discontinuation of Google Reader.)

Now, Mendeley advertises itself as both a reference manager (think iTunes for PDFs) and a social network. This social network aspect has generated a lot of data, and many researchers seem to find it useful. Consequently, Mendeley has integrated their web services and their desktop client so that a single account is required to use both. Yes, an account is required to use the desktop software that would work perfectly well without an online account. Sure, it is enhanced by internet connectivity, but an internet connection is not required to organize my documents.

The login window that appears when Mendeley first launches.
When Mendeley first launches, there is no option to skip logging in.

But, an account is not really required. With a teeny bit of work, the Mendeley desktop software can be configured to work without a Mendeley account. This solution comes from the Mendeley support website, and is used to help people launch Mendeley when there are issues with the software and/or accounts. It is a 'feature' for support, but is certainly not something they advertise. The trick is to add --setting General_FirstRun:false (with two dashes, an underscore, and a colon) as an argument to the program when it launches. I'm doing this on Windows, but as Mendeley is cross-platform, it should ostensibly work on OS X and Linux, too. (Let me know in the comments if it does or doesn't work.)

To add this argument, right click the shortcut for Mendeley (e.g. the one on your desktop) and select properties. Then, add it to the box labeled "Target" outside of the quotation marks. Check out the image below.

Mendeley Desktop Properties window with the Target field circled
Notice the argument is outside the quotation mark and uses two dashes (-- not -).

After clicking Apply, you may need to grant Administrator approval for the changes to be saved, depending on your UAC settings. Adding this to the launcher skips the initial window that asks for your account information allowing you to use the offline features of Mendeley in peace. (You can add an account later by choosing "Tools" followed by "Options".)

Now, this option works with at least Mendeley Desktop 1.8.4, but there are no guarantees about 1.8.5 retaining this same feature. (Though there are many uses for this ability in a support context and removing it would be silly.) I feel somewhat assuaged knowing that I can use Mendeley on my computer whenever, wherever. Moreover, if I ever need to install Mendeley and their servers are unavailable, I can still use it.

I'm not Men-deleting my account. Not yet, at least. I'm still holding out hope that the program will be made open-source, assuaging even more of my concerns. There may still yet be hope according to something I saw from William Gunn, Mendeley's Head of Academic Outreach:

A conversation on Twitter between @TheDougW, @mrgunn, and @MendeleySupport.
Apparently open sourcing Mendeley is still being talked about.

So, open source is still being talked about, and the API is remaining open. These are promising signs. For the meantime, at least, I'm going to check out using Zotero in addition to Mendeley. I've been hearing some good things about Zotero, and it never hurts to have options. As the saying goes, "Two is one, one is none."


  1. Steve Dennis
    Steve Dennis April 10, 2013

    Good post Doug, thanks for spreading the word about Mendeley 🙂 I thought I'd just add a bit more information so that people can make a properly informed decision about whether or not to use the software after reading this guide.

    Firstly, if you're concerned about Elsevier's use of data, you should know that if you are connected to the internet, Mendeley Desktop will still report usage logs, regardless of whether you've logged in or not. All it does is associate that activity to an anonymous account. We only ever use data anonymously in an aggregated way anyway, so from a data perspective, this method makes no difference to us.

    Your user experience will be slightly worse however, as no cloud sync functionality will take place, and whenever you perform core actions which utilise sync, you'll probably be presented with connection errors and the like. You'll also not be able to use or support any of the really interesting, and useful apps (many open source) built by our well-intentioned community on top of our API.

    Lastly, once a user logs in the first time, they are able to use the app offline in exactly the same fashion as this method allows. The login box only shows once unless you force it via the command line.

    While we can't recommend the methods in this article, because of the detriment to most user's experience of the product, we have no definite plans to remove offline functionality at this stage. 🙂

    • Doug
      Doug April 10, 2013

      I fully agree that the experience with Mendeley would be lessened. I'm not (currently) planning on deleting my account - I don't really feel much animosity over the sale or anything. I still use my account logged in, and, while I haven't needed Cloud Sync yet, it seems like it is a good feature. For free, Mendeley Desktop is great.

      My concern is about the future: I know that right now Mendeley and Elsevier are both doing well, but that isn't the future. If the Mendeley servers would ever be shut down for some reason, I like that I can still install and use the offline features. This fixation with the ability to use things offline is why I resist, for example, DRM schemes that require internet connections to play offline games. It is nice to know that fifty years from now, if my computer can still run the program that it will run and not be waiting forever to talk to a non-existent server.

      The data collection doesn't really concern me: it is the price I pay for the program being provided for free. Right now, this data collection in Mendeley is absolutely worth it to me because the software is excellent as a reference manager. (I deleted my Facebook account over privacy concerns, but still maintain Google accounts - it is all about the context of data collection and the value the service/software provides me.)

      I really do appreciate your clarification about the data collection and internet with regard to being logged in. It seems that the Mendeley staff have been very proactive in addressing users' concerns after the sale, and this certainly engenders a positive relationship between the company and I.

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