The launch of eLife has been less than ideal, from the structural conflicts of interest (COI) inherent with funders backing the journal and funding the editors, to the cronyism with and subsidization by PubMed Central (PMC). Their press or media policy has also been hazy, until yesterday, when they clarified it in a way that reflects an idealistic but not necessarily realistic understanding of how the press works.
The policy is short enough to be reproduced here. Note, it only comes into effect after acceptance:
- Presenting and discussing the work prior to publication
- Prior to publication authors are encouraged to present their findings to their peers, including at meetings and conferences; to deposit copies of their manuscript (original and revised versions) in open-access repositories, or to make the manuscript available via their website; and to blog about their findings. None of these activities will affect consideration of a manuscript by eLife.
- When there is media interest in a paper that has been accepted by eLife, but not yet published, we encourage the author to deposit the accepted version of the manuscript in an open-access repository, or to make it available via their website. Media reporting will not affect consideration of a manuscript by eLife.
- We request that articles in the media about papers that are in press at eLife include a reference to eLife and/or elifesciences.org.
- Promotion of published content
- Every published eLife paper will have a short, plain-language summary (the eLife Digest).
- Papers in eLife will be promoted to the media and to interested readers on the day of publication. We consider this to be the optimal moment to promote the work, because readers will have access to the final published version, including any added-value content and functionality.
- We will issue press releases for some papers on the day of publication. Because authors are completely free to release their content ahead of publication and to talk with the media at any stage, we will not be releasing content under embargo.
The editors also state:
eLife is therefore not applying the Ingelfinger rule, which strongly discourages interaction with the media ahead of formal publication.
Having worked with authors, editors, reporters, institutional public relations offices, and readers over the years, I think these policies are likely to create all sorts of shortcomings for everyone involved, including eLife itself.
First, let’s talk about the Ingelfinger Rule, which eLife states it will not be enforcing. Instituted in the early 1970s by Franz Ingelfinger, the rule was put in place to make sure that the media didn’t steal news from journals — in effect, journals could keep the news they had, retaining their brand power.
Now, there are plenty of critics of the Ingelfinger Rule, most of whom want it abolished in order to gain a clear path to owning the news from science, without the trouble of waiting for journals and abiding by their rules. However, for journals, the press embargo serves many useful purposes.
By waiving the Ingelfinger Rule in its modernized and evolved form — which still places a premium on embargoes but makes pre-publication communications allowable as long as they don’t threaten the news power — eLife is running a huge risk in the attention economy. Namely, there is only so much time and attention to go around, and if you don’t cut through the noise, you won’t get the attention.
Social media has only made this competition for attention more acute, with only 10-minutes of fame granted by the vertical scrolls of the modern information economy — your news goes into Twitterblivion before you know it. And most social media still draws on mainstream brands. Without coordination across branded media and news sources, the chances of drawing attention diminish sharply. Allowing authors to blog about their accepted papers threatens novelty without a compensatory bang of impact.
Like it or not, but press embargoes help journals, authors, sponsors, and institutions cut through the noise. Most reporters appreciate them because they level the playing field, provide time to report on complicated and novel science, and create an effective overall communication scenario for important science news. Without embargoes and coordinated media activity, interviews become more difficult to secure, complex stories may go uncovered because they’re too difficult to do well under deadline pressures, and coverage becomes more fragmented.
The attention economy extends to reporters and their habits, as well. Embargoes are good at focusing science writers’ and reporters’ attention, which leads to better reporting, and helps to get the word out. Embargoes are often part of a media office, which means someone a reporter trusts has contacted them with pre-embargo information, further cutting through the noise of the reporter’s desk. If authors are bombarding reporters in an uncoordinated fashion through outreach or blog posts, they are only creating more noise. Reporters will ignore it. And if stories seep out in dribs and drabs, reporters will likely not notice, or be unsure their reporting will actually be perceived as “news,” and instinctively avoid it. This also leads to less robust reporting of new papers.
There’s another wrinkle to this — most academic institutions have their own press offices enforcing their own press plans. Allowing authors to release their papers whenever they want sounds good, but most authors will also have to get clearance from their institutions or funders, especially if the science is truly interesting and not just incremental. With multiple authors from multiple institutions, these release dates may not be coordinated. By abdicating its role in embargoes, eLife is leaving authors to wrestle alone with institutional or funding offices without giving anyone an objective date to coordinate activities with.
Ultimately, my feeling is that this is a policy that sounds like an advance, but is actually a setback in an era of abundance, in an attention economy, and with splintered media.
Sometimes, open access (OA) publishers offer less service in the guise of doing right by authors, like hotels offer you the privilege of reusing towels so they don’t have to do so much laundry. Want to keep your copyright? We’ll gladly give up that expensive, difficult, and superior handling publishers have traditionally provided, leaving you, the author, with something our license makes essentially valueless and your ownership makes virtually unprotectable. Want to tell everyone about your paper immediately after acceptance? We’ll let you, and gladly give up the expensive, helpful, and effective role of coordinating media outlets, interviews, and publication dates for you, leaving you with a release that is more a whimper than a bang, but making you feel like we’ve empowered you.
There are cases where less is more. In this case, less is less — less effective media policies risks less impactful editorial power.