In our ongoing quest to learn more about open access publishing, this week we’ve been chatting to Mark Patterson, Executive Director of open access journal eLife, about the challenges and opportunities in launching a completely new journal.
eLife is a collaborative partnership between funding bodies and researchers aimed at finding the most effective way to communicate influential discoveries in the life and biomedical sciences. Out of this the eLife journal was born in 2012, and we set out to ensure it became known for extremely high quality research as well as for being open access.
What were the drivers behind creating the eLife journal?
The motivations behind eLife are threefold. The first was around open access, where we’ve seen a lot of progress over the last ten years or so, but there is clearly a lot still to be done. We’re talking open access where all access and reuse restrictions are removed – currently we’re 15 per cent there and, particularly for the most influential research, open access publishing options are limited.
The second motivation is around timescales, and the large amounts of time it can take to get research published through traditional journals. The knock-on impact of this is deceleration of the overall rate of scientific progress, so we set out to make the publication of research more efficient and rapid.
Finally the eLife partnership recognised that the online sites of traditional journals are too dictated by the way they operate in print. Frequently journals are constrained by the number of articles they can print, and competition for space has become too intense. We felt that publication of high-quality research shouldn’t be constrained by space limitations, so we set out to build a journal that could grow with the science, so the only factor in deciding what would get published was quality. This is also relevant to the size of each article – restricting size can lead to restriction of the information included, which compromises the reusability of research.
How does the publication timescale at eLife differ from traditional journals?
The way we assess submissions at eLife allows us to speed up the process, and hopefully make it a more constructive experience especially for early career researchers. We start with a rapid triage by senior editors, which takes about three days, and selects papers that might be suitable. These are then assigned to a reviewing editor who will usually recruit two others to review the work. Once the reports are submitted, the editor and reviewer discuss their opinions through an online consultation process, the aim being to identify any essential revisions (assuming that the consensus is that the work is publishable in eLife). The reviewing editor then compiles a single set of revision instructions for the author . This means the author only has one concise report and doesn’t lose time reconciling different reviews. Revisions are expected back within two or three months and as the initial review reached consensus the second review can normally be carried out by the reviewing editor alone. By limiting the rounds of reviews and revision we can eliminate unnecessary layers of work and we’re currently seeing timelines of around 77 days from submission to acceptance.
You mention early career researchers, how does eLife work with these authors?
Well the traditional publication route is often negative and can be demoralising. We’re trying to make the process as constructive as possible. For early-career scientists who might be in the job market, it’s especially important that time isn’t wasted grappling with an inefficient or indecisive publication process – so the eLife process can really help these authors. The senior editors at eLife also offer to write letters for early-career authors, explaining the significance of the work published in eLife, to support applications for jobs, funding and so on.
There must have been challenges in setting up a completely new journal?
The key is always in getting the content right – that is what you’ll be judged on. It was our number one priority and challenge. We needed to attract the highest calibre work in a world where, for researchers, what you publish can be less important than where you publish it.
Having three of the most prestigious funding bodies involved in the eLife collaboration, associated with the best science in the world, is hugely beneficial in positioning the eLife journal as a reputable title. The collaboration also involves a community of 200 internationally renowned scientists who are leading by example by submitting outstanding work of their own, and are working hard to encourage their colleagues to do the same. Now that we’ve published a reasonable amount of research, the broader community can judge the quality of research in eLife for themselves.
As well as publishing great research and making it fully open access, another measure of our success will be the extent to which we can help to drive the development of a system for research communication that is optimally adapted to the challenges and opportunities of a digital world.
What would you say to someone thinking about a career in research publishing?
One thing is currently clear in publishing – the industry is in a state of transition. Compared to other sectors, publishing hasn’t progressed far in adapting to the digital age. There is an awful lot more to change and it’s an exciting time to be involved. There is a lot of scope for smart people to make a real difference.
My message to anyone setting out on this career path is to judge whether the organisation you’re planning to work with is willing to think creatively to adapt to this new medium.
Open access publishing is fast growing but there is still a long way to go. Only this month the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, referred to as DORA (http://am.ascb.org/dora/), was announced and is fast gathering signatories among those who recognise the need to improve the ways in which the outputs of scientific research are evaluated.
What do you think of Mark’s objectives for eLife, do you feel they’ll improve science communication? Are you an early career researcher – and if so what is your experience of the review process? Have you considered a career in publishing? Have you submitted your research to eLife? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you’d like to join in with the conversation either post a response here or send us a tweet to @CiteAb. Thanks!
-The CiteAb team