How to organise 250 million research papers

As a scientist, I have often dreamed of cataloguing my research library in the same way as I organise music in iTunes. A key aspect of scholarship is to amass hundreds of papers, citing them in your own work to show how your studies are grounded in existing literature.

London-based start-up Mendeley has provided two million researchers around the world with productivity software similar to iTunes, to manage and annotate research documents and compile bibliographies for publication. It extracts data from individuals about the papers they are reading and aggregates this information for sale to institutions. Subscribers can learn who is reading what, when and why – far more quickly than through conventional citation analysis.

“We asked ourselves why are there all these cool, fun and helpful applications in the fields like music, photo sharing and social networking, but nothing for our domain, the area of science? So we started Mendeley,” says president Jan Reichelt, who founded the company in 2008 with fellow Germans Victor Henning and Paul Föckler. The then PhD students noted the gap in the market while struggling to organise hundreds of research papers. They named their start-up after two 19th-century scientists: Mendeleev and Mendel.

Mendeley is a huge time-saver – the bibliography compilation of hundreds of articles can be achieved within minutes. Although it occasionally failed to extract information from the 1,000 papers that I imported, it was largely successful. You simply drop a PDF document into its library; it does the hard work of gathering information about the contents, and flagging key attributes such as who wrote it, what it is about and so on.

Like Amazon recommendations, Mendeley has a “suggest” feature. “It can be unnervingly good at finding such articles, often ones I have missed by the rather more random procedures humans tend to use for this purpose”, says Henry Rzepa, professor of chemistry at Imperial College London.

“While humans ‘network’ with other scientists by attending meetings, or joining email discussion groups, Mendeley achieves a social network based instead on the research papers one is interested in,” he adds. “It is an ability simply not previously available to us scientists.”

Mendeley has seen tremendous growth since its launch in 2008. Today its libraries contain more than 250 million documents, making it one of the world’s largest research-collaboration platforms and academic databases.

It does not directly promote the “open access” model of scientific publishing, in which the authors or their research funders pay the costs and anyone can read research papers for free. Instead, when users find a paper in the Mendeley database and want to download it, they are directed to the publisher’s website, and still need to pay for it.

The business model of Mendeley is “freemium”. Although the basic service is free, revenue comes from individual premium accounts (similar to the way companies such as Dropbox or Evernote charge for extra storage space), team packages (researchers who wish to keep their work secret while sharing within the group) and the new data dashboard product for institutions. The institutional edition provides insight into a university’s impact on the wider research community. For example, it can help spot rising stars and trends in scientific research.

The three co-founders started the company in London for several reasons: English is the common language in academia; London has top universities with Oxford and Cambridge nearby and attracts a deep pool of global talent; and the business start-up network is well established. Mendeley currently has 40 staff in London and New York.

The potential market is huge, Reichelt says. There are 150 million prospective users worldwide, including undergraduates, graduate students and scientists.

Ling Ge is a nanotechnology researcher at Imperial College London and a British Science Association Media Fellow at the FT

The Clair Ridge field is due to come onstream in 2016

New technology helps BP roll out the barrels

New technology to enhance offshore oil recovery by flushing desalinated water through the oilfield is to have its first commercial application in the £4.5bn Clair Ridge development 75km west of Shetland, writes Clive Cookson.

The so-called LoSal technology, developed by BP at its Sunbury research centre outside London, increases the efficiency of the conventional “waterflooding” widely used in offshore fields. That pumps seawater into oil-bearing rocks to extract more oil as the natural pressure falls.

People often think of an oilfield as an underground reservoir or cavern full of liquid hydrocarbon but that is a misleading view. In fact the oil is normally held in the spaces between the tiny grains that make up sandstone or carbonate rocks – and efficient recovery involves loosening the chemical and physical bonds between oil and rock.

The extraction problem is made worse in sandstone reservoirs, which hold about 40 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, by sticky particles of clay in the rock. There is strong chemical adhesion between oil and clay.

Traditional lore in the oil industry holds that it is risky to inject freshwater into oil-bearing sandstone because this can lead the clay particles to swell up, further reducing the ability of the oil to flow. But BP scientists found that this physical effect was more than counteracted by a chemical effect in the opposite direction.

In salty conditions, electrical forces bind oil molecules to clay particles through “ionic bridges” between them. When salinity is reduced, the ionic bridges are broken and the oil can more easily be flushed out of the rock.

After a decade of lab tests, BP carried out a successful field trial of LoSal at its Endicott field in Alaska in 2008/09. Its full-scale deployment at Clair Ridge was announced at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen last week.

Clair Ridge, due to come onstream in 2016, will be the second development phase of the huge Clair field, which was discovered in 1977 and has been producing oil since 2005.

A $120m desalination plant will provide water for the LoSal system at Clair Ridge. It uses the same “reverse osmosis” membrane technology as desalination facilities built on dry coasts around the world to produce drinking water from the sea. But LoSal does not require such complete removal of salt. The process works well if the salt content is reduced from 35,000 parts per million in seawater to around 1,500ppm, while palatable drinking water requires fewer than 600ppm.

BP estimates that LoSal will contribute 42 million barrels to the estimated 640 million barrels of recoverable oil from Clair Ridge. The second offshore project to benefit from the technology will be Mad Dog Phase 2 in the Gulf of Mexico, and the company will use LoSal in all appropriate projects from now on, with five others under active evaluation.

“LoSal has immense potential for increasing the amount of oil recovered from the ground,” says Bob Fryar, BP’s executive vice-president for production. “If it can be successfully applied to similar fields around the world, it would increase the world’s recoverable oil by billions of barrels.”

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