Mendeley Debates At Cambridge : Do We Need A ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ ?

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By: Gabriel Hughes, VP Web Analytics at Elsevier

Images © Chris Williamson, courtesy of the Cambridge Union Society 

Should we have the right to require websites to ‘forget’ or ‘delete’ stories and posts about us which we find embarrassing or just don’t want other people to see? Should people be able to force search engines to remove links to information like that? Do individuals need more legal powers to control their personal data online?

As a growing technology company based in London, Mendeley finds itself drawn into many of the great debates facing the technology sector in Europe today, and we take this responsibility very seriously.


This October, we were proud to sponsor the prestigious Cambridge Union Society as it debated the ‘The Right To Be Forgotten’, a contentious issue following recent legal developments in Europe.

Under a ruling made in May, in a case brought against Google, European citizens may now demand that search engines remove links to online public information about them. This is the current legal interpretation of the ‘right to be forgotten’, a concept which has been debated for some years and is outlined in the EU’s Data Protection Directive drafted back in the 1990s. This ethical and legal issue is still evolving and whatever finally emerges is likely to have far reaching implications for the internet for many decades to come.

I entered the debate from my personal position, one that is also informed by my experience working at Google, which is of course the company most significantly affected by this new ruling. My fellow teammates in opposition were the MP for Cambridge Julian Huppert,  Mariam Cook, CEO of Position Dial, and Alistair McCapra, CEO of Chartered Institute of Public Relations. The side in proposition of the motion was led by David Smith, Deputy Commissioner at the Information Commissioner’s Office, and also included Jon Crowcroft,  Professor of Communications Systems at Cambridge, Gavin Phillipson, Chair of Law at Durham University and also Emma Carr, Director of Big Brother Watch. Each of these expert speakers brought considerable depth of knowledge and unique perspectives to this complex issue.


My argument in opposition was based not on a disagreement with the right to privacy or control over one’s personal information, quite the contrary. It focused on the deep flaws in the recent European court ruling, which targeted search engines and technology companies, who are not responsible for what publishers and individuals post online. A perverse outcome of the ruling is that in asking Google to delete a link to something you do not like, they are put in a position where they alone have to judge whether it is in fact right for them to do so, leaving the publisher under no obligation to delete the offending post itself. The information remains online, and search engines are forced into a censorship role which few can defend.

In my opinion, search engines are just a part of the navigational infrastructure that enables the internet to function, together with social networks, wiki pages, feeds and the hypertext link itself, and this ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling confuses navigational linking technology with the content that it points to. Nobody seems to think it is a good idea to force Google into this new Big Brother role where it now tries to arbitrate what websites can share online, and this new right turns the neutral and automated role of a search engine on its head.

The opposing team also pointed out that many of the worst cases where private or embarrassing information has been posted online are already covered under data protection, harassment and privacy laws. New laws have a habit of creating unintended consequences that could lead us down a dark path of censorship and excessive regulation, they warned.

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In the end, this team opposing the right to be forgotten won the debate. Before entering the debate chamber 40 per cent of the audience indicated they supported the motion ‘this house supports the right to be forgotten’, but after hearing the debate, the balance of the vote had shifted against, with the ‘nay’ side winning by 35 per cent to 30.

Yet the debate highlighted the complexity of the issue and this was reflected in how close the vote ended and in how many felt compelled to abstain. Indeed, one audience member spoke up ask whether the debate was about the principle of the Right To Be Forgotten, or the actual right in law now defined by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Some of those arguing in support of the proposition did not seem to think search engines should be targeted and distanced their arguments from the court ruling. Likewise, those speaking against the motion acknowledged the real concerns of many people about how their data is used online.

It seems a balance has to be struck between opposing demands. An absolute right to be forgotten, allowing everyone complete control over what information about them should be published online, makes no sense. There are too many politicians who have over-claimed expenses, doctors who have been sued for malpractice, and bankers who have been convicted of fraud. If there are to be more legal powers to control what information about you is out there, then everyone accepts there have to be counter-balancing limitations in defence of freedom of speech and freedom to know.

Debate 3

At the same time, we all have to recognise that our society is going through a period of enormous change, whereby more data than ever is collected about our day-to-day life. We are moving too close to the point where almost every waking moment of our lives is recorded online, and can potentially be shared or made public. The volumes of data about us that are being collected and stored are truly immense and unprecedented in our history.

Given this, the truth is that our society does need to evolve new mechanisms, both technical and maybe even legal, to ensure that individuals are empowered to better manage their privacy and identity online. The challenge will be doing this in such a way that we do not introduce censorship, and an Internet plagued by legal disputes over what should or should not be online. Reflecting on the debate, it looks very much like we do need new solutions, but perhaps just not this one.

Jan Reichelt

As Jan Reichelt, President and Co-founder of Mendeley, made clear in his introduction, we have a firm ethical policy to preserve data protection and privacy for our users. We also believe in the power of technology innovation to solve the very toughest problems, often powered by data that our researchers and the scientific community creates. We will continue to support the great debate about to balance these interests, so we can support both freedom of speech and the right to privacy.

Interested to contribute to the debate ? Tweet us at @Mendeley_com or @gabehughes #RTBF

Don’t Miss the Technology and Research Mendeley Masterclass at Social Media Week!

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This Thursday the 26th September, Mendeley’s Co-founder Jan Reichelt will get together with 8 other innovators from the Open Knowledge Foundation, Zooniverse, Elsevier, Indiegogo, Team Cooper, The Lancet, JoVE and the Mobile Collective to discuss the many ways that technology can change, facilitate and improve things for researchers everywhere.

From “The Article of the Future” and the power of crowdfunding to enable research, to videos that enhance reproducibility and games that harness the power of crowds to solve some of the world’s most difficult scientific challenges, there’s certainly going to be a lot of food for thought…

We’re going to be right at the heart of all the activity in Social Media HQ which will also host events by the likes of Facebook, Nokia, Pinterest, Twitter and Google to name but a few. Spaces at the venue are extremely limited and you have to hold a VIP Pass to attend, but you can watch the event for free and live from wherever you are by following the live streaming link.

If you have any questions, comments or thoughts you’d like to put to the panel, do get in touch! You can leave a comment here, email me on  or Tweet using the hashtag #smwSciTech

Do you know an example of open access research helping the public good? Nominate the team for a $30k ASAP award!

The Public Library of Science, the Wellcome Trust, and Google recently announced the Accelerating Science Award Program. If you know someone who has applied or reused scientific research in an innovative way to advance science, medicine, or technology, you can nominate them for an ASAP award. The goal of ASAP is to reward people for publishing and re-using open access research and also to gather compelling use cases for open access.

This program has major support from publishers, funders, and the tech community and they have put up some serious prize money – $30,000 for each of three winners. The nomination period opened May 1 and runs through June 15. Potential nominees may include individuals or teams of scientists, researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, policy makers, patient advocates, public health workers, students, or anyone else, as long as they have reused open access research in a innovative way. The winners will be announced during Open Access Week in October 2013 in Washington, DC at an event hosted by SPARC and the World Bank. Mendeley is assisting by publicizing the event and gathering nominations, and Creative Commons, along with several other library organizations, publishers, and research organizations are also sponsoring the event.

More information is available at

Science Citizens Unite!

Citizen Science


There’s been a lot of buzz around “Citizen Science” lately, so it’s only fair to ask whether the hype is really justified or if it’s more of a gimmick or passing fad. Taking some time to look at the projects that have already harnessed the power of the masses to advance scientific research, however, it’s difficult not to get excited.

Citizen Science, as the name suggests, is where ordinary citizens volunteer their brainpower, time, and other resources such as spare computer power, to help with research projects. From asking people to count squirrels in their backyard to encouraging you to build your own laser harp, there literally is something out there to suit everyone’s abilities, resources, and disposition. Getting involved can mean something as simple as donating some spare computer time;, for example, aims to produce predictions of the Earth’s climate up to 2300 by asking users to download and run a model program when their computers are on but not being used to full capacity.

For those looking to get more involved, however, there is the opportunity to hunt for stellar clusters in the Andromeda Galaxy, identify and measure the orbits of Near Earth Objects , or help researchers at Berkeley in their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence through the SETI@home project.

Closer to home you can view and classify pictures from the hundreds of camera traps set throughout the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, monitor the status of bat populations, measure the evolution of tropical storms, or help survey scallop numbers in the New York Bight by analysing undersea images captured by a robot submarine named Dora. Even the humanities need not feel neglected, as nearly 800,000 people signed up so far to help the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford increase access to their music collections by transcribing information from digitized sheet music. Sites like Zooniverse aggregate the largest and most popular projects, and you only need to register once to participate in as many as you like.

But while a lot of these projects only require people to view, interpret and process images, some actually ask you to actively solve puzzles, effectively turning scientific questions into games.

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a substance used by our cells to translate genetic information from our DNA. Folding and shape-shifting allows RNA to control cells in a predictable way, and this has huge medical and biological implications that are still to be discovered. This is where EteRNA come in: It’s a game where you design RNAs, which are then scored according to how well they fold. The best examples are added to the first large-scale library of synthetic RNA designs in the world. Similarly, Phylo is a game where participants align DNA sequences by shifting puzzle pieces as a way of achieving Multiple Sequence Alignments. A sequence alignment is a way of arranging the sequences of DNA to identify regions of similarity. From such an alignment, biologists can trace the source of certain genetic diseases. Traditionally, alignment algorithms use computationally complex heuristics to align the sequences but this is prohibitively expensive; by taking data pre-aligned by a heuristic algorithm and abstracting it into manipulating patterns consisting of coloured shapes, the game harnesses the natural human ability to recognize patterns and solve visual problems efficiently.

This is something that research institutions and charities such as Cancer Research UK are keen to capitalize upon. They are teaming up with games designers and computer programmers from tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook and Google to find a way to gamify the search for DNA mutations which lead to cancer. The data needs to be analysed by eye, as computers cannot identify the subtle differences which give the clue as to what the genetic causes of cancers might be. They are aiming to have the project up and running this summer

So it might be that this democratization of science, opening it up to ordinary citizen participation from all over the world, could aid the discovery of a cure for cancer, uncover the secrets of the universe, and help us advance knowledge in all areas of human knowledge. What do you think about it? Have you been involved in such a project or considered crowdsourcing as a way to advance your research? Or have you participated in these or any other projects as a citizen scientist? We’d love to hear your experiences, so do leave a comment or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

Think beyond the consumer internet: Hack for Knowledge!

Knowledge keeper by RuiPereira, on Flickr

Photo by Rui Pereira

Do you dream of creating the Blippy for BriteKite, or the Gowalla for GetGlue? No? Well, maybe you’re thinking beyond better ways to sell stuff to people and wanting to try something a little bigger. You wouldn’t be alone. Universities, governmental bodies, and companies have increasingly begun to make their data available to the public and they want it to be used! All we need now is for smart developers to realize there’s as much money and considerably more fame to be had in helping people find the next cure for cancer or spotting public health issues than in spotting buy-one-get-one deals at the local store. Please join us on June 11th and 12th for Hack4Knowledge.Read More »

The Top 10 research papers in computer science by Mendeley readership.

Since we recently announced our $10001 Binary Battle to promote applications built on the Mendeley API (now including PLoS as well), I decided to take a look at the data to see what people have to work with. My analysis focused on our second largest discipline, Computer Science. Biological Sciences (my discipline) is the largest, but I started with this one so that I could look at the data with fresh eyes, and also because it’s got some really cool papers to talk about. Here’s what I found:Read More »

Improved Google Scholar lookup

Just a quick update: the Google Scholar lookup in Mendeley Desktop will now return improved document details. We’ll continue to work on improving this but if you have got any suggestions let us know and we’ll look into it.

As for other updates we are currently testing a portable Windows version of Mendeley Desktop which we’re hoping to release this week. We are also planning to finish all “behind the scenes” work for the next major release this week as well. More bug-fixing is needed though so the next version will probably be out around mid September.