Great expectations

24 October 2017

Interview with 

Detlef Weigel, eLife

Chapter 1 Detlef Weigel.jpg

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Deputy Editor Detlef Weigel explains eLife’s ethos to Chris Smith...

Detlef: This really comes from my own experience over the last 30 years, how much more difficult it had gotten especially for young researchers to get published at the very highest level. When I started out, when I got my PhD in ‘88, it was essentially guaranteed when you did very good work, that would be published at a very visible level. And that has really dramatically changed over the last 30 years.

Chris: In what way?

Detlef: The scientific enterprise has grown enormously. Unfortunately, the outlets that are seen as being at the highest level have not kept the pace. They have grown a little bit but certainly, not at the same rate. What that has led to, you very often come across articles where this would not have looked out of place in one of the very general broad interest journals. Conversely, it’s still true that when you look at what some call ‘elite journals’, the work that is being published there is of course very good. But then we also realised that there could be probably 5 or 10 times as many articles that would be fit to appear there.

Chris: How do you see what you’ve been striving to do with eLife as addressing that need?

Detlef: Yeah. So certainly, not having any arbitrary limits very much helps. It’s difficult for me to know whether some of our competitors artificially restrict the number of papers that they publish every week or every month. It would seem so because they haven’t grown at the same rate as the scientific enterprise has grown over the last 30 years. One should not turn away manuscripts that are at the same level as other manuscripts that one publishes. Very regularly, students or post docs will show up and say, “Why did the journal turn away my paper? It’s not any different really or worse than this other paper published here.” They have the impression that what's turned away is inferior compared to what does get published at the very highest level. And that really is not the case. It’s often really the lack of the raw and this is something at eLife, we want to get away from. We strive to give much clearer guidance what is expected and that we do not string authors along or we tell them, “Well, maybe sometime in the future, we’d be more interested in publishing your work and why don’t you just try to add more stuff and convince us then?” That’s really completely contrary to the eLife ethos.

Chris: Yes, because some PhD students I have spoken to have spoken of their disenchantment when they have completed 3 years of work on a thesis, submitted a paper and then had back from the reviewers about another 3 PhD’s worth of additional experiments just to prove a point. Is that what you're getting at? You're saying, “We’re going to give you a direct answer. We’re going to give you a quick direct answer and if you fulfil those criteria, there's no holds barred after that towards getting your research actually out there.”

Detlef: Absolutely. The feedback that we provide after the reviews are much clearer I would say than what you receive from any other journal. For us, this is one of the most important things to be very, very clear what we expect in a revision. We normally list a couple of experiments if we think more experimental evidence is being done and if it comes back, the work has been done, then we very likely will accept it. No moving targets.

Chris: Finally, what do you think is on the horizon or what's next on the agenda? What are eLife going to be pushing to do in the next 5 years to carry on being adventurous, daring and trying to change the way that academic publishing is done?

Detlef: Something that is very high on my list of priorities is actually after having demonstrated at eLife that our process works to convince and if you will, convert as many other journals as possible to take a similar approach so that this really becomes the standard and that in the future, students and postdocs will say, “ If there’s not a transparent consultative process among reviewers, I will not agree to submitting my manuscript to such a venue, no matter how fancy that journal is.”

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