eLife: My Q&A with Editor-in-Chief Randy Schekman

Scientific knowledge is a moving target growing in complexity at a rapid pace. The publication record of the last 50 years is a testament to this: there has been an impact shift from solo to team-authored papers in science and engineering (Wuchty, Jones, Uzzi, Science 2007). This inevitably has led to a more nuanced and laborious review process that depends now more than ever on the opinion of experts. The opaque, tedious and lengthy review process at many journals leaves a lot to be desired (Kravitz and Baker, Front Comp Neurosci. 2011). Some of the new challenges of the review process include the rise of negative reviews due to the brutal competition for grants and jobs. And reviewer fatigue incurred by the high-stakes of glamour pubs (rejected papers win appeals, too many rounds of review, etc). The review process needs to evolve to provide greater transparency and to give the relevant scientific community a greater say. We are losing sight of what’s most important: that the value of a publication is determined by how it is received in its field. This natural process is being hijacked by the obsession with the faulty metric of journal impact factor (http://arxiv.org/abs/1205.4328).

Most scientists agree that changes in life science publishing are in order. Enter eLife: an open access journal for scientists and by scientists. The idea to launch this project stemmed from the widespread opinion that scientists want other scientists to have full control of the peer-review process (see poll below).

One of the advantages of active scientists serving as editors is their direct access to the communal pool of knowledge: it’s very likely that someone in your group/department/university/network is an active expert at something you are not. Some may argue that scientists don’t have a broad perspective, but this is a skill professional editors acquire on the job. Raising another issue, which is that scientists don’t have the time to become good editors. Perhaps, but scientists are already spending a significant amount of time reviewing. And, what if they were compensated for that time?

eLife’s goal is to capture high-impact research; an ambitious goal given the career pressures on scientists today. The journal has attracted a stellar team of scientists including Senior Editors with extensive editorial experience who will maintain editorial consistency across all fields. One of eLife’s innovations is a unique online discussion between the Review Editor and referees. This process will culminate in an editorial decision letter with a clear road map of what needs to be done. Editorially, eLife’s goal is to provide a rigorous, timely and transparent peer-review process. Another eLife innovation is that editors and referees will be compensated for their time. This will initially be achieved thanks to the financial support of 3 private foundations: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society.

As a scientist concerned about current practices and interested in the future of publishing, I was excited to learn more about eLife. I contacted Dr. Randy Schekman (eLife’s editor-in-chief, former editor-in-chief at PNAS, and Berkeley professor) with questions from the skeptics. Below is my Q&A with Dr. Schekman.

HVO: Scientists don’t have enough time to run a lab and do the job of professional editors. This is one of the reasons why journals led by scientists have not been able to reach top-tier.

My personal view on this is that lab heads and their staff already spend a substantial part of their time reviewing for top-tier journals.

RS: We are of course aware of the time pressures on busy academics.  And that is why our founding organizations have provided generous support to compensate all our Editors for the time they will take to make eLife their highest editorial priority. Our Senior Editors have committed to spend up to 7 h a week to consider all submissions and we will ask our larger Board of Reviewing Editors (BRE) to take personal responsibility for 1-2 manuscripts each month.  We feel that these tasks are consistent with the compensation we will provide and well within the normal editing and reviewing responsibilities that our Board members already assume.

HVO: eLife will just be replacing the editor with the junior assistant professor as the scapegoat.

RS: We would not appoint junior assistant professors to BRE positions. For example, one volunteer for the BRE in the area of neuroscience is Nathaniel Heintz, hardly an unseasoned expert. In any case, all decisions will be vetted by a Senior Editor to ensure a uniform standard is applied to all our manuscripts.

HVO: Professional editors are best because they have no stake in a field, they can remain impartial.

RS: Many professional editors are knowledgeable scholars who do a fine job. However, I believe that most authors would prefer to have the fate of their work controlled by other active scientists who are able to weigh the arguments of the referees.  I believe that one’s judgment is sharpened by active engagement in research, much like the argument we make in justifying the connection between active research and effective teaching in our research universities.

HVO: Professional editors have a broader perspective than scientists because of all the papers they handle.

RS: As I said, there are many fine, highly intelligent professional editors with years of experience in the publishing business.  However, with the proliferation of spin-off journals by Nature and Cell, the pool of experienced editors is quite shallow.  In fact, many of the editors at these journals are quite junior people with little or no exposure.  At eLife, we are bringing on academics with wide experience in research and journal editorial work.  Just take a look at our list of Senior Editors and I think you will 

see that our collective experience exceeds anything that can be accomplished in the journals that compete for the most important papers (visit our website: elifesciences.org).

HVO: It’s not clear how eLife will be any different than most journals where several editors have to approve each other’s decisions.

RS: I think the referee and editor consultation session we plan is unique and provides a degree of transparency, at least among those responsible for the decision, that has not been attempted elsewhere.  

HVO: Similar to top-tier journals, 1 person will have to make the decision on individual papers.

RS: Actually, our proposal is to have the member of the BRE adjudicate an online discussion among the referees to forge a consensus, or near consensus view on the merits of a paper and the value of the alternative experiments that the referees may propose.  The current system at all other journals relies on an editor to make the call and all too often the editor fails to exercise judgment in weighing the sometimes disparate comments of the referees.   Our plan is to provide authors with a single coherent decision letter and not a bunch of scattered comments.

HVO: The proposed eLife approach of more deliberation and more coherent decisions will lead to a lengthier review process.

My personal take on this is that I would rather have a lengthier review process if it saves me from doing useless experiments just to please reviewers because the editor didn’t digest the reviews.

RS: We hope to keep the decision time to around three weeks from date of submission to first decision letter.  Of course, we can’t promise that for all submissions.  The last step in the initial decision involves an online consultation session convened by the member of the Board of Reviewing Editors among the two or three referees who have read the paper.  I am personally familiar with this consultation program, which we use at PNAS to make quick judgements among a group of staff and Associate Editors and I believe it can be adapted for this purpose at eLife with no more than a day or two of exchanges among the experts who have already read and critiqued the manuscript.  And when a revised manuscript is returned, we hope to have the member of the Board of Reviewing Editors make the decision without consulting the referees.  This should greatly speed the overall decision time.

HVO: Does eLife plan to use any of the online commenting/metrics innovations?

RS: We certainly plan to have many enhancements including article-level

metrics, and to post comments from the editor and reviewers.  

HVO: The problem is not glamour-pubs but the life science community that places too much value on the journal brand. Therefore, even if eLife becomes successful the community will simply replace counting Nature/Science papers with counting eLife papers.

RS: One step at a time.  I agree that we are all guilty of vanity in attempting to get our best work published in the highest profile journals. But these journals amplify the problem by imposing an artificial restriction on the number of papers and pages they publish which is dictated by their reliance on the print medium.  For an Open Access, online journal, no such limit need apply.  We will be selective, but not capricious in our decision process.  Our articles will be full-length and we will endeavor to cover life sciences with no bias in favor of “glamour” areas.

HVO: Some editors and scientists believe that eLife’s aspirations are too lofty. They feel that if PLOS didn’t get there and other scientist-led efforts didn’t either, why will eLife?

RS: PLoS started with the goal of achieving Open Access for all content and in this they have had a stunning success and in so doing have encouraged many of the non-commercial journals to follow suit.  The critics doubted PLoS could execute an effective business plan and with PLoS One they have achieved another landmark.  So to say PLoS didn’t get there is a misrepresentation.  Of course, it remains that Cell, Nature and Science grab many of the most important papers, but I believe the community is ready for a new model based on Open Access and control by active scientists.  We are confident that the investigators supported by our founding organization share this view.  Please see the results from just one question we posed to all the investigators funded by HHMI, Wellcome and Max Planck.  Of the ca. 1000 responses, the two clearest answers supported Open Access and editorial control by established scientists. (Poll data shown above).

HVO: Thank you Dr. Schekman for your time, friendliness, and honesty.


1 Comment

Filed under The Future of Knowledge

One response to “eLife: My Q&A with Editor-in-Chief Randy Schekman

  1. Pingback: New Open Access Journal eLife | Open Science

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