eLife: A New Open Access Science Journal

A new scientific journal is being launched this week in Cambridge. We hear how it differs to existing journals and why it is important.
11 December 2012

Interview with 

Mark Patterson, eLife




A new scientific journal is being launched this week in Cambridge. It aims to be distinct and different from existing journals, so we invited the executive Managing Editor, Dr Mark Patterson, to tell us how...

Robert Tjian, Howard Hughes Medical Institute - We do need an alternative to the pre-existing process of publication that every scientists has to undergo and allowing the process to occur in a way that's much more efficient and serves a purpose of getting the most up-to-date high quality scientific information in the hands of the scientific community is really the goal we should go for.

Herbert Jackle, Max Planck Institute - We did a new journal because the journals which are on the market don't have the mechanisms to select the best possible science.

Mark Wolpert, Wellcome Trust - This will be a journal for scientists edited by scientists.  So scientists will be at the heart of the decision making process.  They'll be the best peer reviewers and then scientific editors will make the decision.  So, it will be a journal for peers by peers.

Robert Tjian -   I certainly hope that a defining feature of this journal would be rapid, transparent, scientifically based editorial decisions, one in which we don't at all sacrifice the quality of science, but we make the process much, much more efficient.

Ginny -   The journal is called eLife.  The Managing Editor is Mark Patterson.  So, rapid, efficient, transparent publication uncompromising on quality.  It sounds great what we've just heard on that soundtrack, but how are you going to do this better than a normal journal?

Mark P. -   One of the initial things that we're going to do, you heard a lot of emphasis on quality.  So, one of the things that eLife is going to do is to be a great journal for publishing very influential and important science across all of biology and medicine, and make that work openly available. 

Anyone with an interest in that work can read it and they can do whatever they want with it, which is really important because most of the science that you hear about in programmes like this or read about in the media, maybe 90% of that, you have to pay to read. 

The first step really is to make research openly available.  So that's the first thing that eLife is going to do differently, but you also heard other themes in those talks there, and they were from the people behind the project, the funders behind the project. 

One of the other themes was that the journal should be run by scientists for scientists and so, another thing that's different about eLife is that we have a group of 200 scientists who are committed to a different way of reviewing the work, taking work through peer review, so it's more efficient and more rapid, and more constructive than you see in a conventional journal. 

With just one example of something that we're doing differently is that when the reviews, the review comments, are sent to the authors, what happens is the authors don't actually see the full reports.  Instead, what happens is the editor who's handling that manuscript assimilates and consolidates the comments of the reviewers, after a discussion amongst the reviewers, so that the authors just receive a single set of instructions, and they know exactly what they need to do in order to get the work revised and then published.  And that makes the whole thing happen much more quickly.  So, those were a couple of ways for which eLife will be different.

Ginny -   That sounds great, but if it's so good, why hasn't it been done already?

Mark P. -   Yeah, that's a great question.  There are some pretty powerful forces which keep the system of journals and the way the articles are published in journals, operating in the way that it has done for decades or even centuries, and I think there are probably two main forces at the moment. 

One is the fact that the publishers that publish subscription base journals make an awful lot of money out of it.  So, there's the strong commercial incentive to keep things as they are. 

On the other hand, the scientists who publish their work, they have to publish in journals with an established reputation.  And if most of those journals are subscription based journals, then you've got a kind of a cycle that reinforces itself. 

Now having said that, there are similarly powerful forces of change as well, beginning to operate.  eLife will provide some real momentum towards open access by providing highly prestigious journal home for really great science, and make that science openly available to everybody. 

But there are many other publishers now, new publishers now like the (Public Library of Science) that is showing how this kind of way of publishing can work successfully.  So, we've come so far, we've got to about 10 to 15% of the literature is now available to everyone.  There's a very powerful momentum that will take us further, but there's still quite a lot of work to do.

Ginny -   So, most journals, they make their money through subscriptions.  People pay to read them.  If you're not making money via that way, how are you doing this?  Who's funding it?

Mark P. -   The three voices that you heard at the beginning in that segment there were from three funders.  And so, eLife is supported by three of the most prestigious funders in the world of research, the Wellcome-Trust in the UK, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the United States, and the Max Planck Society in Germany. 

In our case, we're funded and our job is to respond to the kind of vision of the funders behind the project, and launch the best possible journal we can. 

Other publishers are showing through other business models, and other approaches, how this kind of approach to open access publishing can operate in a sustainable way through other business models.

Ginny -   And just one final question, how are you going to make this appealing to the scientists, who at the moment want to get published in Nature, or one of the really prestigious journals?  How are you going to make sure that your journal is just as appealing as those?

Mark P. -   Well, it's another very important question.  I think the things that we have going for us are, that we have - as I mentioned, these three very prestigious funders who are behind the project, so I think that lends a huge amount of credibility to the scientific community who are considering submitting to the journal.  We also have a terrific group of 200 scientists who are responsible for running the journal. 

I think those two things will really help us to attract great work and we have already started publishing work now, and we are in fact, receiving some really terrific science. 

I think the other thing that we have to offer that's very important is just the speed of the process.  Especially for people we are early in their careers; they cannot afford to wait around for months and months to get their work published.  And it's not uncommon actually that people can wait - you know, spend more than a year to get a great piece of science published.  And so, you know, that's another reason why I think eLife can offer something very special to scientists.


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