Back to the future
eLife Editor Eve Marder talks to Chris Smith about what makes a great paper...
Eve: My name is Eve Marder and I'm Professor in the biology department and neuroscience program at Brandeis University.
When I was a young scientist, papers were intended to be complete and full descriptions of a piece of work and to lay out the data, lay out the controls, lay out the methods, and then to allow the authors to articulate what they thought the work meant. Over the years, a lot of that became lost as people pushed for publications of higher and higher impact to the detriment of clarity, thoroughness, and to my mind, eLife is a way of going not back to the past, but forward to the future. We can write papers the way they should be written.
Chris: Do you think that’s happening?
Eve: I think that’s happening not perfectly. Many of the papers we publish are papers that I'm very proud of, papers that have enough depth, enough scope, enough clarity that they allow the reader to really see what the important findings are and how the work was done.
Chris: How is eLife competing with other journals though that still do subscribe to what science publishing had become with people submitting papers and then being given another 5 PhD’s worth of experiments to do before they get their paper revisited?
Eve: Many eLife papers are quite substantial so it’s not that other journals are publishing more substantial papers. But eLife refuses to send authors back for 6 or 9 months, or 2 years of work. We basically follow the policy that authors should send the paper when they consider it done and then we try to evaluate it as it is. And so, we might ask for minor modifications or a small bit of additional work if for example, a reviewer says that a specific figure has too much noise in the recording or someone thinks that a Western blot is fuzzy, we might ask them to redo something like that. But we will not provisionally accept a paper and ask them for 9 months’ worth of work because we think it’s really unfair to the young scientists who are doing the work to stretch out their careers and leave them in scientific limbo for a very long time.
Chris: How are you doing that though without potentially compromising on the quality?
Eve: It’s very simple. I’d like to tell you a little anecdote that tells you the difference between eLife and what's happened to a lot of other publishing. Very early on in eLife, we sent a paper to a young man who was a very fine scientist who was beginning as assistant and he reviewed the paper, and he listed 6 or 8 experiments that should be done, probably a year’s worth of work. And in the consultation session, I pointed out to him that we were trying to avoid doing that so I asked him whether those experiments were necessary to support the point of the paper and he said, “Oh no. I just thought the job of the reviewer was always to suggest more experiments.” And so, what we do, if experiments are really necessary to prove the point of the paper and they would take 6 months, we reject the paper. And we tell the authors that they're free to take the paper elsewhere. They're free to do the experiments and maybe resend it to us or elsewhere, but basically, we don’t play those sorts of games with authors.
Chris: When you say to colleagues who were suggesting to you that they might have some work they want to publish and you say, “What about eLife?” Have you noticed that people react differently now compared with say, 5 years ago when things were just getting going?
Eve: Absolutely. I've noticed something else which is really important. Now, when I go to seminars or a conference, oftentimes, you see people showing slides where the work was from an eLife paper. I have some very, very prestigious scientists now are routinely citing work that they had published in eLife. So I feel like we’ve really crossed a very important threshold.
Chris: Where are you going next? What's going to be the sort of strategic direction for the next 5 years? You’ve honed down the peer review process that seems to be bearing fruit, you're attracting some very high calibre publications. You always have, but the numbers are definitely going up. What are you targeting next?
Eve: We’re hoping to grow in certain areas. eLife has been more successful at attracting the best papers in some subfields than others. I feel like we’ve grown eLife tremendously in the past 5 years and that we’ve done it gradually enough so that we haven’t lost the essential eLife ethos...