It is a well-known fact that scientists publish their findings in scientific journals. Some of the most venerable journals, such as Science and Nature, have been around for over 140 years, and are frequently seen as the Himalayan mountains of scientific publishing. For a new journal to ascend to these heights takes time, proper guidance, and a lot of luck. A new publication called eLife is challenging these titans right out of the gate by inviting the best biomedical research to publish with them.
I attended a symposium organized by eLife in Montreal on November 8, 2013 to find out what was so different about this journal, which has been around for a year.
What is eLife’s main claim? That their review process is faster and more streamlined. Indeed, the peer review system can be fastidiously long. After an author has submitted his or her manuscript to a journal, an editor has to send it to two or three scientists in this field and wait for them to carve out non-existent time from their schedule to read it and comment on it. These comments are then sent back to the author, who must either make the required changes (which may involve performing additional experiments) or justify why a particular reviewer’s comment is irrelevant.
This is often the beginning of a back-and-forth dance arbitrated by the editor between the corresponding author and the reviewers. eLife’s peer-review process is claimed to be faster, with an initial decision being made in three days. Following an initial “yes”, reviewers take a look at the manuscript and their comments are condensed into a single set of instructions for the requesting author. The entire process takes 79 to 83 days on average.
Fantastic, no? Actually, this desire to be quick may lead eLife to cut corners and accept poor studies for publication. The fact that, unlike paper journals, eLife has no restrictions on the number of papers it can publish monthly only compounds the temptation to publish anything in order to establish eLife as a publishing titan. Indeed, eLife’s current initial acceptance rate is 25%, meaning that a quarter of the manuscripts submitted to eLife are passed on to reviewers and, most likely, eventually published. The prestigious journal Science, by comparison, accepts fewer than 7% of its submissions1. I do not believe that more is better: a quick look at the state of the scientific literature and its overall lack of reproducibility is sufficient to be skeptical of the benefit of a 25% acceptance rate.
The question of how eLife can afford to be so quick while other journals lag behind in tackling manuscript submissions is answered by its funding system. eLife was created and is financed by three major research foundations: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, and the Wellcome Trust. The senior editors of eLife, who inspect the manuscripts and coordinate the peer-review process, are paid by eLife to dedicate a certain amount of time per month to dutifully wading through the manuscript pile. The problem I foresee is that these editors are also full-time researchers and lecturers; some of them are practicing physicians; yet others are CEOs of companies and directors of research institutes. Paying someone money to ensure they do additional work does not create more daily hours out of thin air. I fail to see how the editors at eLife have enough time to dedicate to an accelerated review system. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
For sure, there are some benefits to publishing in eLife. The journal is completely open access (no need to pay a subscription fee to access publications): its philosophy is so open that it encourages authors to self-publish their manuscript while it is being properly formatted to speed up the sharing of their discoveries. The display of the information on the site is fairly intuitive; then again, most top-tier journals publish single-column, HTML versions of their articles too, so eLife is no pioneer there. For now, there are no fees to publish, none to read. Articles have no length limit (virtual pages cost very little). Videos can be embedded within the article. And, for the public, eLife provides a 300-plain-word summary of each paper it publishes.
But a major point of contention arises with eLife’s stance against the impact factor. The impact factor is an old, oft-debated metric which assigns a measure of importance to a journal based on how often its publications are cited. This flawed value has often been wrongfully assigned to individual publications or individual researchers in a bid to assess their worth. Grant acceptance and academic tenure are all hinged around the impact factor of a researcher’s work even though most scientists know it is hogwash. eLife currently refuses to play the game and is using an aggregate of metrics, such as number of times an article has been Tweeted or written about in a newspaper, to evaluate its importance post-publication.
As one of the skeptical researchers in attendance put it during the Q&A, if an article gets cited 24 times in studies that refute the article’s conclusions, it will boost that article’s worth. Talking about it does not mean endorsing it. A well-known local researcher, Michel Tremblay, expressed doubt that the fast-tracking of the peer-review process can successfully be maintained in the long term given the limited resources and the expected increase in submissions. The head of marketing and communications for eLife countered that the publisher received 120 submissions last month and their editors are not at capacity yet.
When the 25% acceptance rate was brought up to her attention, she commented that this rate is of little concern to eLife, as they trust the judgement of their editors in choosing to publish the very best biomedical and health science findings. Actually, metrics exist for a reason. If you are relying on your expert editors to decide what’s good and bad and not paying attention to the discrepancy between your acceptance rate and that of the journals you are trying to emulate, you risk deluding yourself.
Will eLife change the way in which quality papers are published and accessed? I doubt it. If anything, it will become a quick gateway for the publication of more irreproducible research. While I admire what the three funding agencies behind eLife are trying to accomplish, the problem hindering quality publishing is systemic and speeding up the approval process is a step in the wrong direction.
(Feature picture is the eLife logo)
1. Science. “The Science Contributors FAQ”. Accessed November 8, 2013. http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/contribinfo/faq/index.xhtml#pct_faq.