Interview with eLife, a new tech-forward #openaccess journal

I recently caught up with the very busy eLife team to ask them a few questions, along the same lines as the PeerJ interview I did earlier this year. While there are many new open access journals launching every year, we think this one is special because they’re breaking the traditional mold in some significant ways: bringing transparency to reviews, implementing full open access as opposed to just free-to-read access, and redesigning the publication processes to implement modern technology. They’re also intending to be highly selective, somewhat breaking the newly popular megajournal mold from which PLOS ONE was cast and which most major traditional publishers have hastened to copy.

Q: How did the idea for eLife ( come about originally? Who was involved and what events were on those people’s minds when they decided to start this? Specifically, what is the problem being addressed by creating another journal?

A: The notion of a new open-access publishing initiative backed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust was being discussed as least as far back as early 2010. The idea was really crystallized in December of that year, when the funders hosted a group of leading scientists and publishers at HHMI’s Janelia Farm campus to present a model for innovation in scientific publishing. Central topics included the need for an open-access option for the most significant research, bringing more speed and transparency to peer review, how web technology might be employed to improve communication, and the likely influence of any action taken by the funders of research. One delegate summed up the meeting as following: We came with a sense there was an opportunity to introduce innovation in scientific publishing. We leave with a sense that we have an obligation to bring about change in scientific publishing. The opportunity to take action was clear.

The specific issues our initiative is designed to tackle were discussed at this meeting and then refined through a survey of about 1,200 investigators associated with the three organizations. They’re all to do with reshaping science communication to really serve science and catalyze change:

To devise an editorial process that would be constructive, efficient and rapid, in which active scientists play a central role, so that any requests for revision can be carefully vetted and crafted before they are sent to the author;
To use digital media to the fullest extent to present new research, so that all interested readers can explore the complete story — incorporating rich media and avoiding the aggregation of supplementary information in formats that are difficult to find and use; To attract the most influential science and publish it under an open-access license.

Q: How does eLife position itself relative to the new publishing startups such as PeerJ and F1000 Reports? What about relative to PLoS ONE?

A: The emergence of these and other promising new open-access projects onto the scholarly communication scene clearly reflects the opportunities for innovation offered by digital media.  The emphasis in all cases is on the rapid communication of new findings and the publication of large volumes of rigorous peer-reviewed science regardless of considerations about potential impact and audience.  PLOS ONE in particular has been a powerful success story.  eLife complements these open-access projects by going after the most influential science, for example, and exploring new approaches to presenting research findings in a digital environment.  From a technology point of view, all of these new projects are very interested in using the web to help build a better scientific communication system.  We hope to be able to work together with other organizations in helping that happen.

Q: It’s been suggested that funders getting into publishing is a sort of “vertical integration” of research. Do the organizations behind eLife see it this way? What is the value or cost-savings in this approach?

A: One of the great strengths of the eLife project is that we are associated with the three founding funders who have initiated the project. We don’t speak for these organizations, but the key motivations described above make clear that the funders view research communication as an integral part of the research process.  Efficient communication of new findings helps to maximize the return on research investment.  

That said, it is very important that the editors who run eLife operate entirely independently from the funders.  Sources of funding have no bearing on the editorial decisions at eLife, and we welcome great research in biomedical and life science, whatever the funding source.

Q: How will peer review work at eLife?

A: Our review process is designed to be as efficient, fair and constructive as possible. Here’s how it goes:

1. For initial submission, the author submits a PDF of the article and a cover letter. That’s it.
2. One of our senior editors ( decides in a few days whether or not a paper should be sent for full peer review. This might involve consultation with other editors.
3. If the article is selected for review, a handling editor (usually from the Board of Reviewing Editors) is assigned and brings in additional reviewers as needed.
4. Reviewers contribute their views online and then a consultation session is initiated to discuss differences of opinion and key suggestions for revision (or reasons for rejection).
5. If a revision is invited, the reviewing editor consolidates the essential revision suggestions into a clear set of instructions to the author. Unnecessary revision requests are not transmitted to the author.
6. If the paper is rejected at this point, reviewers have the option to allow their report and name to be passed (by eLife) at the request of the author to another journal.
7. If revisions are invited, the handling editor is usually able to make a final decision without further consultation with the reviewers.
8. Subject to the author’s permission, the decision letter (along with any of the reviewers who wish to be named) is published alongside the paper – as is the author’s response.  

Q: Will there be any form of post-publication peer review, such as article comments?

A: Comments on the article or the decision letter/response will be welcomed, but the eLife model is for a rigorous review process to be realized before the article is published.  An important form of post-publication assessment we will support are dynamic measures of article impact and use (article-level metrics), such as download data on the journal site and at PubMed Central, citation data, and social web metrics.

Q: What will the instructions to reviewers look like? Will they be expected to sign their reviews?

A: We ask for a general assessment and a summary of any substantive concerns (in fewer than 500 words), and a list of minor comments.  As described above, the reviewers are also invited to consult with one another after they have submitted their comments and have the opportunity to comment on the decision letter before it is sent. Our reviewer guide is here.

The answer to the second part of the question is at the URL: “We do not release the identities of the reviewers to the authors (unless requested by the reviewers themselves) but in the course of the discussion that forms part of the review process, each reviewer will know the identity of the other reviewer(s). We also request each reviewer’s permission to reveal his or her identity and report to another journal, if the work is rejected and the author requests the reports for the purposes of submission to another open-access journal.” – WG

Q: Will they be given any specific instructions related to supplementary data or code?

A: At eLife we encourage authors to include all of the key experiments in the body of the article.  Supplements to the main figures are permitted and we also encourage the provision of the source or underlying data.  Reviewers are expected to assess all aspects of the manuscript, and to identify any parts of the work that they have not been able to assess. eLife staff and editors also review the way in which an author has deployed supplementary/additional files to ensure that they have presented the work as optimally as possible.  

Q: Will eLife store and provide access to data and code on the behalf of authors?

A: Partially. We want data to go to an appropriate location. If authors have protein data, it should go into a database such as Protein Data Bank (PDB), similarly with data that is appropriate for Genbank. If authors have more ‘generic’ data, which has no obvious corresponding database, we encourage authors to deposit in Dryad, or a similar repository. If the data is fragmentary or if it makes most sense for that data to live with the paper then we will host it and make it available, as source data files. We will also host code and make that available. The most important thing is that these research objects are treated individually, and are each assigned a unique identifier (sub-article DOI), so that these components can be discovered, linked to, and cited independently.   

Q: How will reviewers maintain impartiality to manuscripts from the founding organizations vs. other papers, or will they?

A: As with all journals, the task of the editors and reviewers is to review as objectively as possible every submission to eLife, regardless of sources of funding.  All reviewers and editors are therefore asked to declare any financial or non-financial competing interests that might interfere with their impartial assessment of a submission.  Safeguards that help to ensure such objectivity include the consultation sessions amongst the reviewers and the handling editor before the decision is rendered and the oversight of the editorial process by the senior editors.  Funding sources are also clearly declared by authors and displayed on the published articles.

Q: Who do you see submitting work to eLife? Describe what you see a common submission to eLife looking like.

A: We are encouraging submissions from researchers working in all areas of life and biomedical sciences.  The editors then look to select the most influential and significant work for full peer review and publication.  But they are also considering influence and significance in the broadest possible sense.  For example, a new report might offer fundamental biological insight, brilliant methodological inventiveness, or profound societal benefit.  

In addition, as an online publication first and foremost, eLife is not limited by the space constraints of a print publication. eLife can publish as many reports as the editors identify that meet our standards. We can publish longer, more complete bodies of work, but shorter contributions are also encouraged.  

Q: So what makes an eLife paper? Our editors have offered the following thoughts:

A: Great papers move a field forward: “When I read a great paper I feel that I have just fitted a critical piece into a jigsaw puzzle. There is a sense of completion, satisfaction and admiration. And the work seems somehow, in retrospect, simple, elegant and obvious.

The work might “describe a new resource or tool that will empower a large number of scientists to address and answer interesting and important questions” or offers an entirely “fresh approach to a problem leading to results and conclusions that may never have been possible with the prevailing methods.

An eLife paper might “describe a technology that has the potential to improve the lives of people,” with efficacy “in the clinic – or the farm.

We recently posted more on this to our blog.

Q: Why should a reader of the Mendeley Blog send their work to eLife?

A: If any of your readers has a piece of work that they feel fulfills our criteria, they should definitely send it to eLife. With such a simple and fast initial decision process, why not? If the work is selected for full peer review, authors benefit from a swift, efficient and constructive process as outlined. This is really important for researchers at an earlier stage in their careers, in particular. They need a rapid, constructive and fair process so that their work is published swiftly and can support their career progression. If the work is published in eLife, it will be sitting alongside other outstanding work. Published articles also benefit from the addition of a professionally written non-technical summary (eLife Digest) and in some cases accompanying Insight articles are commissioned from experts. Authors are encouraged to tell their story in full, and to provide the underlying data. After publication, eLife will add dynamic measures of article impact to every published article, to provide evidence of the impact and influence of each research article for authors as well as readers.  

Q: Will you accept negative results for publication? If so, under what conditions?

A: eLife will publish any article that is judged to meet the high standards that we have set for publication. As outlined above, the editors interpret significance and impact broadly. It is certainly possible that a well-conducted study on a biological or medical question of major significance, which provides evidence that an important hypothesis should no longer be supported, could be appropriate for publication in eLife.  

Q: Given that traditional citation-counting metrics like the Journal Impact factor are losing their influence and appeal, how does eLife plan to build its brand?

A: There are certainly more critics than ever of the impact factor, but sadly, we’re not sure it’s fair to say that the journal impact factor is losing its influence. The impact factor remains embedded in the practice of research assessment at many institutions. The promising news is that credible alternative measures of impact and influence at the article level are beginning to emerge (see below). (Also see the #altmetrics hashtag on Twitter and the Altmetrics manifesto. – WG)

eLife will build its brand through its association with highly prestigious research funders and the terrific team of scientists (20 senior editors and around 180 reviewing editors) who run the journal.  Already, many of these scientists have submitted their own work and are encouraging colleagues to do the same.  In this way, a nucleus of great research is beginning to be published in eLife that will then help to attract further influential findings from across the field.

Q: What sort of metrics will be given to authors?

A: We will be tracking a range of article-level metrics (ALM), and making these available to authors and readers. Initially, we will present usage data from our journal website as well as from PubMed Central.  In addition we will show citation data and social web metrics and we will steadily increase these metrics over time.  We will be working along with other organizations active in the ALM community such as Impact Story and publishers who share these goals, including PLOS – the pioneer in this area.  In time, we also plan to publish metrics about the editorial process and the overall performance of eLife.  Finally, we have just completed building a very flexible API. In principle, there will be no limit on the shape of metrics that we will be able to capture about article on behalf of the authors and users.

Q: What sort of promotional assistance will authors be given, and under what conditions will a paper get promotional assistance?

A: eLife has recently released our policy for working with the media and authors before and after publication.  Key points are that we are encouraging authors whose work has been accepted for publication to discuss their work with colleagues as much as they wish.  If writers or journalists hear about the work and wish to write about it, we encourage authors to discuss their work with the writer(s) concerned, and we suggest that authors make the accepted manuscript available at a suitable repository or their own website. eLife is therefore not applying the Ingelfinger rule, which strongly discourages interaction with the media ahead of formal publication.  

Second, given our policy to allow open discussion with the media and others ahead of publication, we will not issue embargoed press releases.  Instead, eLife will promote articles at the point of publication.  We will work closely with institutional public information officers to promote selected articles in eLife, and we will use the eLife digests to provide non-technical summaries of the work.  Our approach is designed to encourage high-quality, informed and widespread discussion of new research – before and after publication.

Q: Will the publication and article metrics data be made publicly available as open data?

A: Yes, our intention is to make as much information as possible available as open data, including data and metadata about the article, source data associated with the article, and data relating to the overall performance of eLife.

Q: Will there be an API for programmatic access to this data?

A: Yes, the API will be a REST API returning JSON. We will make this data available under a CC0 license. The API will be read and write, so anyone can add as well as extract information about eLife articles — it won’t just be a publish model. We would like to be able to find a nice way to filter the information that we will be tracking about articles, and then say to authors, look at the way your article has been reused and the impact that it’s had.

Q: What is the financial/sustainability plan for eLife? What needs to happen for it to be revenue neutral, or is that in the plans at all? Maybe the funders just consider it part of their investment in research?

A: For the first few years of operation, the funders are underwriting the costs associated with the operations of eLife, until the project has become firmly established.  At that stage, we will develop a revenue and sustainability model to ensure that eLife is present for the long-term.  Article-processing charges are therefore likely to be introduced in a few years. The critical first goal is to launch the best possible journal we can.

Q: How many submissions to you expect to receive, and how many do you expect to publish?

A: We are currently receiving about 50 submissions per month, and expect to initiate publishing at a rate of 10-15 articles each month.  We expect these numbers to steadily increase as the awareness of eLife increases and the quality of the science that is being published by the journal becomes widely known.

Q: Will eLife be indexed by Pubmed? Google Scholar?  How will you ensure an author that your articles will be easily discoverable by readers?

A: The eLife journal will be hosted by Highwire, who have a very good working relationship with Google Scholar. As you know by now, our content is also listed on PMC, Europe PMC and PubMed. We are also pushing the XML of our articles into github, a separate API, and we are looking to get researchers’ work into appropriate institutional repositories. In general, we are trying to make the content promiscuous, increasing the likelihood that it will be found by the right reader. You can also subscribe to the content feeds by pulling it from the eLife Mendeley group, find them at Scribd, and alerts will also shortly be available from Highwire.

Q: Given the recent JISC study showing widespread misunderstandings about open access among younger researchers, what are the plans of eLife to promote a better understanding of open access among those just beginning their careers?

A: Open access is a critical part of the mission of eLife. As outlined we are making content broadly available to encourage as much access and reuse as possible.  And we are developing ways to surface that usage through the provision of article metrics and indicators.  Probably the most effective way to get across the benefits of open access is by example.  We will therefore be looking to encourage and to highlight creative reuse of eLife and other open content.

Q: What is the long-term preservation plan for eLife?

A: All eLife content will be deposited in the National Library of Medicine’s public archive, PubMed Central as well as mirror sites including Europe PMC.  In addition, eLife will participate in the distributed archiving initiative LOCKSS.

Q: Will the first issue have a theme? What will that be?

A: eLife will operate a continuous publication process, and will not compile content into traditional journal issues.  We will publish content as soon as it is ready. Currently we have no plans to publish themed sets of content, but it is entirely possible that we will publish such collections in the future. We plan to introduce a flexible tagging system as a way organize and link content on related themes.

Q: What needs to happen for the organizations behind eLife to consider it a success? What impact do you hope to have on research as a whole?

A: eLife is a mission-driven project, whose overarching goal is to catalyze innovation and positive change in research communication as broadly as possible. Initially we hope to drive change in three broad areas: open access, editorial processes, and digital presentation of new research. We will judge success by our ability to meet these goals in eLife itself (for example by measuring the author service that we provide, and by assessing the usage of the particular features that we implement on the published articles), but more importantly by the changes that take place in research communication more broadly. We believe that research communication should serve the interests of science above all else, and through collaboration and occasionally challenging accepted publishing practices we hope that we can have a measurable positive impact.

6 thoughts on “Interview with eLife, a new tech-forward #openaccess journal

  1. “They’re also intending to be highly selective, somewhat breaking the newly popular megajournal mold from which PLOS ONE was cast and which most major traditional publishers have hastened to copy.”

    My understanding was that “megajournal” means selecting only on scientific quality and not on guesses at likely impact. If that’s right, then we shouldn’t call eLife a megajournal — it’s very deliberately not one.

  2. “If that’s right, then we shouldn’t call eLife a megajournal — it’s very deliberately not one.”

    Indeed, that was exactly my point.

    “please do not pre-moderate comments on your blogs”

    Mike, we get thousands of spam comments every day, many of which are marked as spam, but many which aren’t. Your comment was among 5 real comments and 387 spam comments not flagged as such. Once you get a comment approved, you shouldn’t have further issues commenting, but as much as I agree with you on the value of open commenting, we just don’t have the resources to handle it until we get a better spam solution sorted out.

  3. Thanks. Yes, I completely understand the moderate-once-then-you’re-free-to-comment system: it makes perfect sense (and indeed is what we use at SV-POW!). I misinterpreted the initial held-for-moderation message as meaning that that’s what you do with all comments. My bad.

  4. I love the eLife philosophy on collaboration and rich media. Traditional science magazines are cumbersome, not least because they have the same space/format considerations of every other magazine. Layout editing on the web is so much simpler, plus you can include full data sets, appendices, etc. alongside the article itself.

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