Services such as Mendeley, Academia.edu and ResearchGate promise to transform research: they connect researchers in collaborative digital environments, provide venues for publication, and develop alternative metrics for measuring impact and reputation. Backed by venture capital, these services have seen considerable growth during the last years. But will they turn out to be financially sustainable?
We provide a quick glance at the prospective business models of three academic social networking services.
What is the business model of Mendeley?
Mendeley is both a desktop reference management app and an online community which offers its users one gigabyte free cloud storage for publications and added forums for sharing and discussing research. So far its 2 million members have shared over 336.000 documents, and are organised in over 203.000 more or less active research groups. The platform serves two interrelated customer segments with distinct offers. The individual researcher is served with a freemium model, users can upgrade their cloud space for a monthly fee starting at 4,99 USD. In addition, since May 2012 Mendeley partners with information management services provider SWETS for the Mendeley Institutional Edition which offers real-time analytics to libraries for a fee. So far Mendeley and SWETS have secured partnerships with a number of institutions, among them VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the University of Pittsburgh, the Forestry and Fisheries Research Council of Japan and the University of Western Ontario. While specific numbers are hard to come by, Mendeley’s CEO claimed in August 2012 that the business generates ‘tens of thousands of dollars per month in revenue.’ Notably, Mendeley has opened its API for programmers who build third-party apps on top of the data generated across the platform. One result of that open strategy is ImpactStory, an app that offers individual researchers the option to calculate their impact factor using alternative metrics which weigh citations with document views across repositories and mentions on social media.
Update: See Elsevier bought Mendeley
What is the business model of Academia.edu?
Academia.edu is a platform where academics can build a personal profile page, follow other researchers in their field, upload documents and discover recently published research. The platforms interface is deliberately designed for better self-promotion and building the personal brand of the individual academic. The profile page is highly customisable and prominently offers a dashboard with access statistics. The service is free of charge to its over 2 million users and does not offer any premium services or institutional memberships. However, CEO Richard Price expressed his belief that the business will generate revenue in the future by providing ‘trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.’ Price envisions developing an algorithm which “would tell an R&D company which are the most impactful papers in a given research area in the last 24 hours, 7 days, 30 days, or any time period’.
What is the business model of ResearchGate?
ResearchGate‘s marketing claim “For Scientists” makes unambigously clear which portion of academia the platform is hoping to serve. So far this aim is met with success, the overwhelming share of the platforms 2.4 million users works in medicine, biology, chemistry, engineering or computer science. Yet there is also a small number of social scientists and humanities scholars using the platform to network, collaborate, and publish. As a significant differentiating factor to the other networks, ResearchGate offers the option to publish raw data and media files in order to facilitate collaboration and stimulate discussion. ResearchGate also boasts its own proprietary reputation metric, the RG score. The score represents the user’s activites across the platform, taking into account material published, questions posed, answers provided, and followers attracted, but is also ‘based on how the rest of the community interacts with their content, how often, and who it is that’s interacting.’ However, the impact ResearchGate’s users might have outside the platform is not represented. How does ResearchGate hope to make money? The platform offers universities and corporations the option to post job listings for free, but generates revenue by charging between 100 and 300 USD for increased visibility. Current job offers range from NASA to Novartis, but future plans also include marketing products and services directly to ResearchGate users. As Bloomberg reports, ‘the company will introduce a service that lets conference marketers pay to promote events and another for companies that want to advertise products, devices, books and services to scientists’.
In summary, judging from its recent partnership with SWETS, Mendeley seems to want to move from a desktop app with added social network functions towards a multi-sided platform business. ResearchGate and Academia.edu seem to compete with different offers for the same limited audience in the ‘hard’ sciences, access to which they want to sell to third parties. Which of these models will turn out to generate enough revenue for investors to not pull the plug remains to be seen. However, all three business models ultimately rely on valorising the free user labour of academics – a model which, at least in the humanities and the social sciences, has lately generated considerable debate (pdf) over its potentially exploitative dimensions.