eLife, a revolution in publishing

16 June 2013

Interview with

Fiona Watt, Deputy Editor, eLife

Chris speaks to scientist and eLife Deputy Editor, Fiona Watt, about the free journal and its funding. eLife Logo

Fiona -   eLife is all about a publishing revolution.  It is a journal which is fully funded by three organisations, the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Max Planck Society.  And by 'fully funded', I mean that at present, none of the authors pay and none of the readers pay for the content.  ELife was launched with three main objectives.  The first was a feeling that it was important to push the concept of open access further, that the open access movement in a sense had started well but had stalled.  Second was that if we published a journal which is purely digital with no paper copy, we could completely revolutionise the way content is explored by the authors and by the referees.  And then thirdly, very importantly, we felt there was a need to take science publishing back into the hands of scientists.  As I like to say it, we wanted to end the tyranny of that bastard referee 3.  So in other words, we wanted to avoid months and months of papers being revised and resubmitted.  Young scientists career's are really on the line because of a single referee wanting more and more data.

Chris -   Well, let's look at each of these things in term but since you've brought the review process first, I was sitting in a meeting at my institution the other day, and one of the professors of one of the research departments at Cambridge University said it's not uncommon when you send your papers off somewhere that a referee will come back with some suggested additional experiments that basically, they're a year's work.

Fiona -   I don't know really at what stage this really began to spin out of control, but certainly, my experience in my lab is that when we submit the paper, we are probably looking at at least 6 months work even if we have favourable reviews.

Chris -   So, how will eLife address that?

Fiona -   The process of handling papers in eLife is distinctive in a number of ways.  All of the people involved in the review process are practicing scientists.  So, we're all accountable.  Secondly, when a paper is submitted, we line up members of our - if you like - college of referees who are actually paid to be part of the review process, and we have an online discussion about the paper.  So, we ask our office to submit a simple pdf and we aim to make a quick decision about whether or not the paper is likely to fly at eLife.  And if a decision is made that the paper should go out for review, we've already lined up people who are familiar with the content of the paper and are committed to steering it through the full review process.

Chris -   But how does this solve the problem of that nasty referee number 3 who then says, "I want 18 months more experiments to be done before I will consider this adequate for publication"?

Fiona -   Well, if your paper has gone out for full review, it will typically be three reviewers.  When the reviews come in, we consider do we in principle - want to publish this paper and if so, can the authors fix the bits that need to be fixed in a short timeframe.  We would say, ideally 3 months.  Instead of regurgitating the reviews in verbatim, we draft a high end summary where we highlight the things that we think are important and doable.

Chris -   The second point you made was about not being tied to print.  So, how does that benefit eLife and the people who want to send their papers to you?

Fiona -   "Not being tied to print" has been a very interesting experience.  We could say, "Well, do we really need a two column with format?" If most people are going to be reading the paper on an iPad, how would we want to look at the figures?  We're experimenting now with something called lens which means that as you pass the cursor over the text, figures will appear exactly where you want them.  Movies for example are fully embedded in the paper so you can play the movies as you're reading the text.  It's a process which is still evolving, but we want people to be able to essentially play with the data, interact with it in ways that have not been possible up until now.

Chris -   And I suppose the benefit of beginning with something which is built for that purpose rather than taking a traditional print process and trying to turn it into something that has that functionality, it must be easier, more streamlined.

Fiona -   Yes, I think that's right.  One rather amusing, effective of being purely digital is that when we've had stands at scientific conferences to publish eLife, people are so used to picking up hard copies of the journal that we felt we didn't really have enough beyond a few t-shirts and an iPad.  So, we really had to think about better ways to display what we're up to.

Chris -   I think if you gave away iPads, that would probably attract quite a curious crowd.

Fiona -   I'm sure if you'd like to suggest giving away iPads, that would be fine, but we're going to have them anchored to the stand.  But it will be a great chance for people to see what we mean about handling the data in different ways.

Chris -   Also, you mentioned that you felt that Open Access, which is obviously a major driver for eLife, you felt that process had stalled.  Why do you think that?

Fiona -   I was really referring to data from the Wellcome Trust.  So, they have been pioneers in the UK of the Open Access movement and they monitor compliance.  People who are funded by the Wellcome Trust must publish their work, make it openly available to others.  And compliance was rising steadily until a couple of years ago when it seem to sort of level out at about 55%.  So, they actually now have introduced the stick as well the carrot to make sure that their grant holders make their work freely available.  So, I think eLife gives scientists a platform to publish their very best work, Open Access and completely, at no cost to them.  So, I do think that is going to be a boost for Open Access.

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