inside a journal’s quest to upend science publishing

Final October, the pioneering life-sciences journal eLife introduced bold adjustments to its editorial practice — which some researchers applauded as reimagining the objective of a scientific journal. From 31 January this year, eLife stated, it would publish each paper it sent out for peer assessment: authors would in no way once more acquire a rejection immediately after a adverse assessment. Rather, reviewers’ reports would be published alongside the paper, with each other with a quick editorial assessment of the work’s significance and rigour. Authors could then choose no matter whether to revise their paper to address any comments.

The modify followed an earlier choice by eLife to need that all submissions be posted as preprints on the internet. The cumulative impact was to turn eLife into a producer of public critiques and assessments about on the internet investigation. It was “relinquishing the standard journal part of gatekeeper”, editor-in-chief Michael Eisen explained in a press release, and “promoting the evaluation of scientists primarily based on what, rather than exactly where, they publish”.

Michael Eisen, eLife’s editor-in-chief.Credit: HHMI

The transformation sparked enthusiastic praise — and sharp criticism. Some scientists saw it as a lengthy-overdue move to empower authors. Other people, which includes some of eLife’s academic editors (who are mainly senior researchers), weren’t so content. They worried it would diminish the prestige of a brand they’d worked tough to construct, and some wrote privately to Eisen (in letters noticed by Nature) to say they would resign if the strategy was completely implemented. Amid the pushback, the journal postponed switching completely to its new course of action.

But the dispute only heightened. On 9 March, 29 eLife editors — which includes the journal’s former editor-in-chief, Randy Schekman — wrote to Damian Pattinson, executive director of the journal’s non-profit publisher, eLife Sciences Publications in Cambridge, UK, asking that Eisen be replaced “immediately”. They added that they had no self-assurance in Eisen’s leadership, due to the fact he had dismissed their issues and had not regarded compromise positions. One particular of the journal’s 5 deputy editors had currently stepped down from that leadership position, and “significant numbers” of reviewers and senior editors have been “standing prepared to resign”, they wrote.

Eisen, a Howard Hughes Healthcare Institute (HHMI) investigator who operates at the University of California, Berkeley, fired back publicly on the internet, tweeting on 12 March that academics have been “lobbying tough to get me fired”. He later deleted the tweet, but told Nature in an interview that “opposition to eLife’s model is driven fundamentally by potent scientists not wanting to modify a program that has benefited them and which they have sculpted to continue to reward them”. In response, Schekman and other authors stated that Eisen’s comments have been “not correct and do not reflect our genuine issues with the new model at eLife”.

Eisen says he thinks the dissent is modest in scale. He and Pattinson say they did not dismiss issues, but consulted on adjustments more than two years with editors. “We see massive swathes of enthusiasm amongst the neighborhood,” Pattinson adds.

The row highlights disagreements amongst researchers about the function of journals and peer assessment — and, potentially, about the future of science publishing. Some eLife editors argue that journals ought to use assessment to guide filtering and rejection of papers. But supporters of eLife’s adjustments see advantage in stopping peer assessment from serving as a prestige-gathering function, in which, by rejecting most of the manuscripts submitted to them, selective journals develop into perceived as arbiters of what perform matters. “We rely also considerably on journal titles in judging people’s perform,” Eisen says. “If we want to repair a terrible program, we do have to break some eggs.”

What is a journal’s objective?

When eLife was launched in 2012 with the monetary backing of 3 potent science funders — the Maryland-primarily based HHMI, the UK Wellcome Trust and Germany’s Max Planck Society — it had the aim of getting a non-industrial and academic-edited journal that would rival prestigious titles such as Cell, Nature and Science. In addition to getting open access, one more of its important innovations was a collaborative program of peer assessment, exactly where referees and a handling editor go over comments with each other. The journal attracted dozens of functioning scientists as editors who triage submissions, with hundreds a lot more scientists as reviewing editors.

eLife had its eye on larger adjustments, having said that. In 2021, the journal decided to publish only papers that have been currently preprints. This meant that delays in reviewing wouldn’t hold up an author from sharing their perform. But even just before Eisen and Pattinson joined, the journal had run a trial with a lot more than 300 manuscripts to test the notion of ditching rejection immediately after assessment. Its aim was to merely publish papers with critiques, author responses and editorial ratings. “The peer-assessment course of action does not will need to finish with a binary outcome of acceptance or rejection,” the journal wrote in a 2019 evaluation of that perform.

It was this notion that eLife instituted for all papers final October, with the addition that editors would also append a quick summary assessment of the paper — providing readers a speedy notion of its excellent and significance. “This puts energy back in the hands of the authors, who can then publish what they have, as an alternative of obtaining to do ever a lot more experiments to satisfy reviewers,” says Eisen. The journal plans to charge US$two,000 for the course of action of arranging assessment on submissions previously, its open-access publication charge was $three,000.

Some eLife editors are completely on board with the new program. “It’s the future, exactly where science is going,” says senior eLife editor Panayiota Poirazi, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in Heraklion, Crete. Amongst the journal’s funders, HHMI says it completely supports the new policy. Wellcome says that it supports eLife’s publishing course of action, and the Max Planck Society told Nature it was nevertheless discussing the concern.

But other researchers have been openly vital from the start off. In November, 47 editors wrote privately to Eisen asking for a rethink or for a lot more time to experiment — maybe operating the new program alongside the standard a single, or building a second journal in which to publish papers of significantly less significance. They worried about harm to the journal’s collaborative open-reviewing course of action, and that the excellent of papers on the eLife platform would drop. With no possibility of rejection, some authors may well opt for to ignore reviewer comments or only superficially address them, they wrote — and that expertise may well discourage reviewers from creating detailed critiques. Responding to these issues, Eisen and Pattinson say that they haven’t noticed such complications so far, though the project is in its early days, and that operating two systems would lessen the probabilities of the new model’s good results.

Editors also argued that removing rejection-immediately after-assessment meant a lot more stress on the gatekeeping step that remains in eLife’s program — the triage point exactly where editors opt for no matter whether to send out a paper for assessment. That step had been “opaque and topic to errors in judgment”, their letter stated, an concern that would develop into a lot more consequential if later adverse critiques could no longer lead to rejection. Editors may well react by becoming a lot more conservative and choose not to take a possibility on manuscripts from significantly less-properly-recognized authors. But Eisen says that, in the new program, sending a preprint for assessment shouldn’t communicate something about its excellent or value: the critiques and editorial assessments do that as an alternative. The guidance that editors ought to comply with when deciding what to send for assessment is “can you create higher-excellent and broadly helpful public critiques of this paper?”, he says.

In some nations, hiring and promotion choices nevertheless rely heavily on journal titles in candidates’ publication lists — one thing that is unlikely to modify rapidly, the editors added in their letter. They worried that scientists there would cease sending their manuscripts to eLife. Eisen, having said that, says that problematic reliance on journal titles will continue till there is an option program, such as eLife’s.

In a additional private letter sent to Eisen in January, 30 editors stated they would resign after the new policy was completely implemented.

The complete scale of the discontent is unclear. Despite the fact that Eisen and Pattinson say they’ve had broad assistance, Axel Brunger, a structural biologist at Stanford University in California, who initiated the very first letter, says he reached out only to his colleagues in structural biology and neuroscience, and that almost all agreed to sign up. “The issues are widespread,” he says.

One particular researcher who signed all 3 letters is neuroscientist Gary Westbrook at the Vollum Institute at Oregon Overall health &amp Science University in Portland. He is a vocal critic of what he sees as the monopoly that industrial journals have in science publishing, and says he signed “because I didn’t consider the new policy was realistic”. Far from assisting eLife as a non-profit, higher-excellent option, he says, he thinks the model will diminish its influence.

Reviewing preprints

The idea of reviewing preprints is catching on in the life sciences. At least two dozen preprint-refereeing initiatives of many sizes have been launched in the previous handful of years. The biggest (apart from eLife itself) is Evaluation Commons, launched in December 2019 by the California-primarily based non-profit organization ASAPbio and EMBO Press. The latter runs 5 journals and is component of the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany. As a assessment-sharing collaboration involving 17 journals from six publishers, which includes eLife, Evaluation Commons utilizes EMBO Press editors to choose referees for submissions. Authors can ask Evaluation Commons to post critiques and any additional author responses on a preprint server, or they can submit their paper, with critiques and responses, to any journal. Much more than two,000 critiques of 540 articles have been run by means of this program.

The notion of ‘journal agnostic’ reviewing is nevertheless at proof-of-principle stage, says Bernd Pulverer, EMBO’s head of scientific publications. But he sees merit in obtaining each peer-reviewed preprints and standard journals, which, he says, present “real added worth in condensing and stratifying information”.

That view is shared by Maria Leptin, president of the European Analysis Council. “If I want to study about a new field that is not core to my personal, then I want a trustworthy supply that filters for basic interest,” she says. “eLife now does its filtering upstream, in a non-transparent, unaccountable way.”

The triage stage shouldn’t be noticed as this type of filter, says Eisen. “People are utilised to operating in a globe exactly where look in a journal tells you about the excellent, audience or import of a study. This is precisely what we are attempting to modify,” he says. He argues that the quick editorial summary eLife appends to its articles serve as excellent guides for readers. They grade the significance of the findings (landmark, basic, significant, useful, helpful) and assess the strength of their assistance (exceptional, compelling, convincing, strong, incomplete, inadequate).

Much more consultation?

Endocrinologist Mone Zaidi at Icahn College of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, is a single of eLife’s 4 remaining deputy editors and has been attempting to mediate the concern. He admires Eisen’s vision, he says, “but any new, transformative modify has to be performed in a cautious manner, with get-in from the community”.

Collectively with some of his colleagues, he is attempting to persuade Eisen to slow down, to prevent mass resignations and to establish milestones to assess the effects the adjustments would have on the lives of functioning scientists. “There has to be consultation and danger-mitigation plans,” he says.

The deputy editor who stood down, cell biologist Anna Akhmanova at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, shares Zaidi’s view. She says she helped to create the new program, but stepped down as deputy editor due to the fact it was getting pushed by means of also quickly. “We will need evolution, not revolution — numerous modest, cautious methods to attempt to move the neighborhood towards what would be a greater publishing program,” she says.

Eisen says he has currently responded to issues by extending — for a quick time — the deadline for the common reviewing program. “We anticipate issues to evolve in intriguing techniques as people today start off to see the benefits and possibilities of not generating publishing choices.”

eLife is performing a massive and intriguing experiment, having said that it operates out,” says stem-cell biologist Fiona Watt, a former eLife deputy editor who is now EMBO’s director. “My sense as a scientist is that the publishing landscape is altering once more.”

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