#cpd23 Thing 14: Mendeley & politics

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a long time. It should be a slam dunk for me, since I use all three citation resources in this Thing, but there’s more involved here than academics, and I have some instinctive horror of mixing academia and politics, so I kept worrying at this post. Best to just type it up, put it out there, get on with my life, and nip that incipient ulcer in the bud.

The site that’s keeping me from sleep is the citation resource site I would like to use most, Mendeley. And the reason is purely politics.

Let’s start at the beginning of my quest for citation management. At first I stored references in Diigo, but once I decided I wanted to see what other people were citing, I knew it wasn’t enough, so I moved over to CiteULike.  And that was fine for the social bookmarking aspects, but I had to add a heavy reliance on Dropbox and Son of Citation Machine to share articles and organize citations for papers.

Then I found Zotero, which at least solved the problem of organizing citations. I like their Word addon, didn’t like that it was browser dependent (which is less of an issue since they published their standalone application). At school we only have Internet Explorer, so I kept looking, and stumbled across Mendeley.

It wasn’t love at first sight, but I did find the site more useful than the alternatives, so I put the references for my end-of-term paper on literacy in a Mendeley library. Then I got an e-mail from Mendeley, inviting me to become a Mendeley Advisor — a sort of goodwill ambassador for the site. I’m not sure why they sent someone who’d just signed up such an invitation (because there are few Israelis who use it?), but I did like what I’d seen of it so far and they offered me a T-shirt (which I still haven’t received) so I joined the Advisor  group.

And that’s where the trouble started. I started to fill out my profile and was happy to see that books and articles I’d worked on over the past 20 years were all there. Then I went to put in the school were I study — no such city is listed in Israel. I shot off an email to Mendeley support and they quickly added the school’s city. Now what about the town where I live?

Ah, that’s more complicated, they said. You see, I live in a Jewish town on the West Bank, and adding any towns on the West Bank is politically sensitive. At first I was inclined to accept that, but then I did some digging, and found that there were several West Bank Arab towns listed — but no Jewish/Israeli towns. I wrote support again, pointing out that fair’s fair — if they’re worried about being politically sensitive, they should either list several Israeli West Bank towns as they do several Arab ones, or no Arab West Bank towns as they do no Israeli ones.

A nice tech support person named Charlotte, who’d been helping me all along, said she’d have to take it up with her manager. Two weeks later I reminded her I was waiting and she said the manager said it had to be kicked up to the board of directors. Two weeks later I sent another e-mail, asking what had happened, and two weeks after that another — neither of which was answered.

I’m inclined to write this off to the known British academic bias in favor of Arab claims to the area and against the Israeli, but they could have been honest enough to say so from the start. I’m in the process of writing a small blurb for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, in the hopes that some of their 40,000 members will also write Mendeley for explanations. They might ignore one user, but there’s power in numbers. I don’t want to change the site’s policy — I’d just like them to admit to it in writing.

In the meanwhile, I’ve cancelled the program I had scheduled at school to extoll the virtues of Mendeley; a silent bias does not strike me as a worthwhile academic stand to support.





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5 Responses to “#cpd23 Thing 14: Mendeley & politics”

  1. mrgunn (@mrgunn) Says:

    Ahava, I can promise you there’s no entrenched bias in Mendeley for or against Israel. We’re not all British either (many of us are American) and we’re academics – even speaking out against academic publishing policies is too political for some of us (not me, it should be said).

    Strictly speaking about changes to the product, we’re still a small startup. We are extremely resource-constrained. We have to work very hard to allocate our resources on building new features and fixing critical bugs. There are other fires we’re trying to put out, in other words, which keep us far to busy to engage in some sort of political bias here. Please, if you value what we’re trying to do for the world’s academics, don’t start another fire.

    Never before have academics had access to the kind of scholarly data we make available. The work we’re doing will benefit academics worldwide and free them from the oppression and siphoning off of resources that they currently face with the entrenched systems regulating and controlling access to scholarly content. The last thing we want to do is start a fight with someone over something like this, but if we don’t have the resources currently to make the changes you’d like to see, I have to ask for your forgiveness and your forbearance.

  2. Ahava Cohen Says:

    I appreciate your answer, but I do have to wonder why it took less than 24 hours to add in Kfar Sava and the situation with my home town has been dragging on since July 15, with the last reply to my e-mails being on July 22, despite my repeated emails since. It were simply a matter of time pressure, surely it takes no longer to add one city than to add another?

    Also, I was explicitly told on July 15
    “Due to the sensitivity around the West Bank, I haven’t added the Shomron for you at the current time, but I will check with my manager on our policy in this case.”
    and on July 22
    “I did talk to my manager, but apparently we do not have a policy in place for this situation, and he will discuss it with our directors.”

    I’m quite glad to hear it’s not a matter of bias, but I do have to wonder why it didn’t take a directorial decision to include “Nablus, Palestine,” “Jenin, Palestinian Territories,” “Ramallah, Palestinian Territory” and “Hebron, Palestine” in the database of cities, but it would take such a decision to include even one Israeli city in the same geographical area.

    I’m not trying to start a fire, but I do have to wonder at the lack of fairness here. I thought the lack of Israeli West Bank cities was on par with the general lack of West Bank cities — until Mendeley support e-mails set me straight.

  3. Steve Dennis (@subcide) Says:

    Hi Ahava, I’m on the user experience/web team at Mendeley. I just wanted to add to William’s comment above that the fact that the box doesn’t let you add free-text as your location is nothing more than a bug in the validation code that we’re using. I’ve filed a bug report, but as william says, we are a small team and have to focus on the areas that make the biggest impact to us as a business, so I can’t estimate when that might make it to a release unfortunately.

    Also Charlotte has the job of supporting our very large user base all by herself, so sometimes things slip through the cracks. Apologies for this, we’re trying our best. 🙂

  4. Ahava Cohen Says:

    Steve, I’d be thrilled to think it was a bug, but as I said, I’ve been explicitly told the issue is political. (I have kept all the emails back and forth. There were about 10 over the course of a single week and since then radio silence which I’d be very happy to find were just vacation or things falling through the cracks and not avoidance of unpleasantness.)

    What I will do is to hold off on the Scholars for Peace posting to allow the situation to be cleared up. I’d be very happy to get an official ruling on the situation, because I really do like and believe in Mendeley and would love to be able to talk it up at my university with a clear conscience.

  5. Steve Dennis (@subcide) Says:

    It’s possible that adding them to the auto-complete list has political implications as was mentioned in the email correspondence, but that is a separate issue from not allowing you personally to identify your location on your own profile however you choose, which is the bug I’m referring to.

    The dataset for the locations is at least 3 years old (and frankly quite a poor data-set, inherited from an old 3rd party system), and updating it manually every time something’s missing is not a scalable solution for us, I hope you understand.

    Let me know if resolving that bug would be an ok solution for you.

    Thanks 🙂

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