Meet Mike Eisen

31 May 2019

Interview with 

Mike Eisen, eLife

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Mike Eisen, Editor-in-Chief, eLife

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eLife has a new editor in Chief. He’s called Mike Eisen; he’s a geneticist and he studies flies for a living at UC Berkeley. He also dabbled for a while with being a baseball commentator on the radio, and has been a powerful proponent of open access. I went to see him to find out what he has planned for eLife during his tenure…

Mike - What I want is a world in which I as a scientist, or you as a scientist, or anybody as a scientist who's done something interesting, can communicate that work to us in whatever way they see appropriate. Write a paper. Maybe they'll just share a bunch of figures. Make a video. The format that we use for scientific communication is overly constricted, because we have this notion of a journal that we're stuck with from Francis Bacon. So step one is: scientists should produce whatever it is they want to share with the rest of the community. Step two is: they share it with us in a way that it's completely freely available, everybody can see it, they can access it, there’s no paywall, science is a free and open endeavour.

Chris - So are you saying then, that I go off on some trip somewhere, and I take some photographs, I think there's a scientific story in it; I just write you an essay, and I send that to eLife, and you'd say, “great, we'll publish that”?

Mike - Well I wouldn't say we publish it. I think the whole idea that we are a publisher is the wrong concept. The publisher of science is the scientist. There's a great blog post that someone pointed me to a decade ago or so: on the internet, publishing is not business, publishing is not a process, publishing is not an industry, publishing is a button. That is the way we should think about science communication. I, as a scientist, I do it. If I take pictures of a weird animal, or I do an experiment, or I have a story about how some gene works, you record in whatever way you think is most effective for communicating that with the public, and you publish it. We have a place where you can do it; like, I think we need a central place where people can publish their work - and it's funded by science funders who support the infrastructure just like they do genome databases and other things - you publish your work, and then you come to us, whether it's eLife or some scientific society or another group, and you say to us, “I want you to evaluate my science. Do you think I need to do additional experiments? Have I convinced you that the conclusions I'm drawing from this work are really merited by the experiments and the data I collected, and the context of everything else we already knew about science?”

Chris - How do you give them a gold star if you really like it? What's the eLife badge of honour then?

Mike - So this is the challenge. This is what we're going to be working on now, which is there's parts of peer review that are a dialogue between the authors and the reviewers. That's actually just a dialogue between scientists and other scientists trying to improve their work. The reason why journal title sticks around as such a powerful thing is it actually encodes a lot of information. It tells people what articles to read. There's two million papers published every year and in a future world where you can publish other things, that number is likely to grow exponentially. You can't look at everything that's relevant. You need some guide to know what likely to be interesting to you, and the peer review system in which other scientists read papers and try to render their own judgment about who it's going to be interesting to, is a very useful guide. Right now, that's encoded in journal title. It encodes a sense of how well done the work is, and it encodes a measure of how likely the people who did this work are to do something interesting and important in the future. And that is the primary way in which it's used by, in hiring. And so what I want to do more than anything is for us to figure out: how do we,as not just a publisher or a journal, but as reviewers and editors, how do we communicate the things we're thinking when we read a paper, about who should read this paper, why you should read it, what other things you should know while you're reading it, how do you connect it to the other parts of the literature, and what does it say about the capacity of the people who do it for doing interesting, important, creative science in the future? We want to say that without using this antique system of encoding it in journal title. I like to say, if not for the historical accident - and it is a historical accident that Gutenberg invented the printing press before the internet - led to so many different things in the way we do science publishing, including the use of journal title. We want to shed the historical accident of the birth of journals, in the way that we share the evaluation of scientists. And that's why I came to eLife: because eLife has this fantastic system of peer review, it has an incredible editorial team, it has incredible editors, good at judging works of science; and I want to take that intellectual engine of peer review, and just change the way that they judge works of science. I think if we do that well we can free all of science from these shackles of journal title. In doing so we would empower just a massive flowering of new ideas and new ways of communicating in science, all of which are on people's minds, but have never been able to take off because we are so stuck on journal title.

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