Eucalyptus Editorial

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Did Mendeley and Goodreads Sell Out?

Internet controversy! It’s my favorite thing since LOLcats, so it’s only fitting that I should address April’s monster acquisitions, especially since they have to do with publishing. Amazon has purchased GoodReads, selling your precious reading habits to the monster, and Elsevier has bought Mendeley, meaning information about your research collaborations now goes toward making that very research more expensive for everyone. Hurrah?

The consensus of the internet matches my own gut reaction, which is: oh noes, the evil money-grubbing corporations are ruining our reading/research/news/lives! It’s an emotional reaction, but is it really accurate? Do the big corps really ruin everything by making money instead of content? I see the resistance to the acquisitions stemming from three main areas: reputation, participation, and access. Here’s my take on each element.

Reputation Problems

Both Amazon and Elsevier have reputation problems in the publishing industry, mostly based on price. Amazon is lambasted for charging too little for published works (undercutting its traditional bookselling competitors), Elsevier for charging too much (blocking researchers and the general public from access to information that could improve their work and/or lives). Amazon also faces accusations of monopoly from some fronts, and Elsevier has gone so far in pursuit of profit as to publish journals that were funded directly by pharmaceutical companies (without disclosure) and not peer reviewed.

As researcher danah boyd tweeted, “Mendeley cannot fix Elsevier’s reputation. Elsevier published fake journals, backed SOPA, uses bundles to screw scholars/libraries. Too evil[.]” Amazon’s sheer size, too, is making it border on evil. Both companies clearly have a reputation problem, which makes up a huge part of why people don’t like the deals.

Participation Problems

Cluetrain Manifesto co-creator David Weinberger blogged, “We could have a fun contest to come up with the company we would least trust with detailed data about what we’re reading and what we’re attending to in what we’re reading, and maybe Elsevier wouldn’t win. But Elsevier would be up there. The idea of my reading behaviors adding economic value to a company making huge profits by locking scholarship behind increasingly expensive paywalls is, in a word, repugnant [emphasis added].”

So not only does Elsevier has a shoddy history (fake journals! SOPA!) and charge way too much for content (that it pays nothing for!), people don’t want to participate in furthering those profits with their input. The company’s poor reputation (in some circles) and high prices–particularly for publicly funded research!–are undeniable. The last point, too, is fair–and similar to the problem many people (myself included) have with Facebook. We don’t want others to profit from our hard work–at least not unless we get a share, and despite the IPO I’ve yet to receive any checks for my participation in Facebook’s profits.

The participation problem relates to many people’s qualms about Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads as well. As long as Goodreads was primarily a reading community, even one supported (if poorly) by ads, everything was pretty cool. But as soon as a company tries to profit from that community in other ways (like, by actually selling books), everyone’s hackles go up. (People wouldn’t, of course, actually pay for any social reading service… would they?)

One commenter voiced a sage philosophy: “I never, ever, trust what any company says to me.” Companies exist to make money. Anything good they provide to you along the way–especially if it’s provided for free–is just a means to the end of making money. Facebook couldn’t make money if it didn’t have your information and participation. Amazon decided it couldn’t make as much money if it didn’t have your reading statistics–or, worse, if someone else had them.

A major objection, then, is not just to Amazon and Elsevier making money. It’s an objection to them making money without properly compensating the people whose participation provides the value. Amazon has evaded this criticism for the most part so far by paying authors competitive royalties in its own publishing program, or making royalties the problem of the other publishers it carries. Elsevier has an advantage in that it doesn’t pay its authors at all–in fact, in one of those crazy twists and turns of publishing, its authors sometimes end up paying to access their own work! These acquisitions, then, shift both Amazon and Elsevier into a new mode of profiting off the information provided for free by users. Both were already in this business–rest assured anything you’ve ever clicked on Amazon or related sites has been used to sell more things to you and people like you–but now their role in the “participation economy” (if you can call it that) is even more direct.

Access Problems

In addition to problems of reputation and participation, both sites have access problems. Amazon sells products: they’re supposed to have a “paywall” that requires you to pony up cash in order to get a product (digital or tangible). Elsevier sells information, none of which it created (or funded) itself. Granted, Amazon doesn’t create anything, either–just provides fast access to a huge number of items (a convenience for which many people are willing to pay). Amazon is seen more as a great facilitator: want something? Amazon will have it to you tomorrow, or in some cases even today. Amazon brings things to you. Elsevier stands between you and things you should already have, like publicly funded research results.

Elsevier’s access problem is clear: it’s a barrier, and wants to provide access only in the way that makes it the most money (such as high paywalls or bundling journals to raise charges). Amazon’s access problem is subtler, but it’s a reverse access problem: that is, it relates to accessing information about the user, not about Amazon products. This is the primary impetus behind most of Amazon’s many acquisitions. They’re all about accessing data about users to give you better access to buying the things you want, or that people like you want. If it costs $150 million (none of which would go to actual users, of course) to get that data, then so be it.

Although consensus is pretty staunchly against the Mendeley acquisition, even as Mendeley representative William Gunn promises to do his best to keep Elsevier from turning evil (or worse, disappearing), not everyone is sour on the Goodreads deal. Author Steve Almond writes,
“As I walked the rows [of the empty AWP festival halls], I couldn’t help but to think of the state of publishing in evolutionary terms: the lumbering dinosaurs were dying out, but in their wake all these industrious little mammals were thriving.”

The problem with Almond’s characterization, of course, is that these industrious little mammals are getting eaten up by lions. And the ones in power (the lions) have the greatest vested interest in stopping further evolution.

The publishing industry has always been about access. Who can provide it best, cheapest, and fastest? For a while, it was print behemoths. For now, it’s Amazon (certainly not Elsevier). Tomorrow, maybe it’ll be another innovator–until Amazon eats it up.