Buying the future of research …

There’s been quite a to-do on librarian sites recently about the acquisition of RefMe, an academic citation tool by Chegg, a purveyor of online textbooks and tutors (and more). Before you click past this, let’s have a little look and think about this business model…

The citation engine issue

In the opinion of my peers – CiteThisForMe is an inferior product to its precursor RefMe. To be technical about this –
  • it doesn’t allow for importing .ris files from databases (a common standard)
  • you can’t create folders for citations
  • user interface is poor
  • numerous popup boxes for editing
  • no google SSO
  • no easy import function from existing products
  • it’s not terribly good or accurate
  • etc.

So far it seems one librarian wrote about the take-over with foreboding  but again, more from a technical point of view. It’s just not a very good product. As he pointed out – none of the “quick and dirty” products are very good. For non pure-academic sites (i.e. paid databases) It boils down to whether some back-end programmer has bothered to capture much (if any) meta-data on author, date, title etc. And I’m afraid to say that’s exactly the type of site most of our students cut their researching teeth on. Think of it as the crack-cocaine of citation. You add a chrome extension, you go to a website / youtube video / online newspaper and click the extension and like magic your citation is generated. But not quite. At worst it’ll just pick up the URL, at best perhaps a title and author. And I’m afraid to say most teachers grading “research” are long happy that even that’s been included in a bibliography or works cited or reference list.

From boring citation to sexy ‘critical moments’

But actually none of that really matters. Well it does, sort of, eventually to the people who matter who care. What is somewhat more concerning is this.
The first time RefMe came into the (financial) news in a serious way was in 2015 when GEMs Education threw some money at it. Educational companies don’t throw money at citation tools unless there’s something in it for them:

But it isn’t just students who are showing an interest in the platform, RefME has received £2.7 million backing from GEMs Education, the largest private education company in the world. They want to encourage more schoolchildren to use the app, as pupils are now increasingly having to reference too.

‘We’ve identified 150-200 million kids around the world who cite,’ said Hatton.
The platform also does more than create references – RefME collects information about what people cite, making a map of the data. This means it can give you recommendations based on what other people who used that same citation went on to find, something Hatton calls ‘removing the search from research’.

Then the Chegg acquisition 2 years later, and one of the first things you see when you open their site is side by side in the news is the financial results and the tie in between this “academic” provider and a “global media agency”
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Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 8.11.25 PM
Bait and switch tactics …
and when you read the terms and conditions you find out:
The Services may collect “Personal Information” (which is information that can be used to identify or contact a specific individual, such as your name and email address), account information (such as a password or other information that helps us confirm that it is you accessing your account) and demographic or other information (such as your school, gender, age or birthdate and zip code and information about your interests and preferences).

And you thought FaceBook was bad …


“When you submit, post, upload, embed, display, communicate, link to, email or otherwise distribute or publish any review, problem, suggestion, idea, solution, question, answer, class notes, course outline bibliographic and citation information comment, testimonial, feedback, message, image, video, text, profile data or other material (“User Content”) to Chegg, any Chegg employee or contractor, or a Chegg Website, you grant Chegg and our affiliates, licensees, distributors, agents, representatives and other entities or individuals authorized by Chegg, a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, irrevocable, royalty-free, fully sublicensable (through multiple tiers) and fully transferable right to exercise any and all copyright, trademark, publicity, and database rights you have in the content, in any media known now or in the future, and to make, use, reproduce, copy, display, publish, exhibit, distribute, modify, sell, offer for sale, create derivative works based upon and otherwise use the User Content.
Note that we may create, facilitate or display social advertisements, whereby your name, profile and photo may be used to advertise products and services to your network based on your use of the Services and your interactions with Chegg. You agree that Chegg may use your name and profile picture in connection with social ads to advertise products and services to your network based on your use of the Services and your interactions with Chegg and third parties through the Services.
You further agree that Chegg is free to use any ideas or concepts contained in any User Content for any purposes whatsoever, including, without limitation, developing, manufacturing and marketing products and services; and creating informational articles, without any payment of any kind to you. You authorize Chegg to publish your User Content in a searchable format that may be accessed by users of the Services and the Internet. To the fullest extent permitted by law, you waive any moral rights you may have in any User Content you submit, even if such User Content is altered or changed in a manner not agreeable to you.” (Privacy Policy)
Well actually FaceBook is bad – the worst possible place to put all that information exchange and community knowledge and knowhow, (I’m looking at you my lovely library networks on Facebook), but we kind of know it’s bad and we live with it for all kinds of reasons, and most of us (I hope) extract the useful stuff and put it elsewhere like Evernote or GoogleDrive or … (oops who owns it then!?).
When Chegg bought Easybib, this is what the press release had to say:
“In the last 12 months, Imagine Easy’s bibliography and research tools powered about 240 million sessions and EasyBib alone saw more than 7 million unique users in March 2016, Chegg tells me. In total, all of these services together have helped students from mangling more than 1.4 billion bibliography entries.”
Bear in mind, nothing you do in their services is actually yours, not even the services you may have paid for:
Service Modifications
Chegg reserves the right, in our sole discretion, to make changes to or discontinue any of the Services at any time. Any description of the Services provided by Chegg is not a representation that the Services are working or will always work in that manner, as Chegg is continuously updating the Services, and these updates may not always be reflected in the Terms of Use.
Now this is one thing if you’re a Grade 5 student and with much blood sweat, tears and encouragement from your teachers, librarian and parents you’ve managed to come up with a bibliography of 3-5 items that say more that “wikipedia” or It’s quite another if you’re a serious researcher at say doctorate or post-doctorate level and have a few thousand articles referenced, with abstracts and perhaps attached documents or pdfs. Or if your 4,000 word extended essay is due in a few weeks time to finish off your IB, and the RefMe plug is pulled with practically no sensible communication from the company from the announcement at the end of January to about a week before the pulling of the plug on the 28th February (the Facebook trail of increasing panic and despair is awful – and that was just the librarians) – twitter showed some upset students but not as many as one would expect – perhaps the RefMe user base wasn’t that big or serious about social media – or they were too busy scrambling to migrate their data to an alternative platform.
So what is Chegg buying (by the way, the numbers are still relatively small potatoes in investment speak, but they’ve got ambition!)
If you have a look at last year’s financial report, this bit, where they refer to the acquisition of EasyBib is relevant:
With education representing a trillion-dollar opportunity in the U.S. alone, we believe that the number of students who will leverage online tools, use the services we have, and then benefit from new services that we plan to offer will increase dramatically over the next decade. That is why we continue to make strategic investments to take advantage of this growing opportunity. At the core of our success is reaching more students than anyone else, knowing more about them than anyone else, and leveraging that data to improve our products and services, acquire customers for less, and increase their customer satisfaction. That is the essence of what the Student Graph does, and we have been consistent in our product and business development strategies by investing in services that can both leverage and contribute to the Student Graph which accelerates our growth. That was the driving force behind our acquisition of Imagine Easy which has been one of the quickest and most successful integrations into the company. With 30 million annual unique visitors according to comScore, we continue to be confident that this acquisition is an enormous opportunity for students, for Chegg, and for our shareholders. There have been over 1.5 billion citations created to date with more than 400 million new ones added in 2016 alone. Already we are exceeding the expectations we have for the business and it is quickly becoming a core part of the Chegg Services platform.
The financial results are quite phenomenal actually – they’re making money, real money off a digital platform. They’ve got current students by the short and curlies and a pipeline of 200 million school kids to add to their existing user-base in the coming years. Lure them in with solving the citation hassle and then move them up the feeding chain to online textbook hire and tutors and test prep. As a former finance person I must say this is smart. I’m also wondering how much of their revenue is from selling their customer data on to media companies and all the social media / off-line entertainment type tie-ins?
So, that’s that for what’s going on in the otherwise boring old citation world… and now the next thing – online paraphrasing anyone?  Soon all you’ll have to do is get into a university (another service offered by Chegg) and the just physically sit out (or party through) your 3 or 4 years while the digital tools take care of all the messy bits of assignments and hand ins.
(ps. if you want to know what I recommend for what it’s worth? NoodleTools for K-12 students, and Zotero thereafter. And no, I don’t get a commission from either of them, and yes I pay for both for the premium service).

3 thoughts on “Buying the future of research …

  1. The teachers at my HS are using Cite This For Me even though I’ve thoroughy explained that it’s not accurate, and by using it, students are missing the learning associated with analyzing sources. I’d love to share your post, but I’m afraid they just won’t care. Personally, I’m not particular about the details of citation; in all honestly, I’d rather have students cite the author, title, platform and date, without care to punctuation, capitalization and so forth, than use this one click no need to think solution.


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