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eLife Articulates Its Media Policy, and Risks Some of Its Editorial Power

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:

  1. Presenting and discussing the work prior to publication
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. We request that articles in the media about papers that are in press at eLife include a reference to eLife and/or elifesciences.org.
  2. Promotion of published content
    1. Every published eLife paper will have a short, plain-language summary (the eLife Digest).
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-score, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “eLife Articulates Its Media Policy, and Risks Some of Its Editorial Power

  1. Kent seems to completely miss the point that eLife is a novel way of ‘publishing’ research, where the ‘news’ element is not important, but the focus is on scientific merits instead. Truly important results will quickly be viral in this day and age and spread without the need for embargoes and shouting from the roof tops. Currently, just about every journal tries to ‘cut through the noise’ with press releases and embargoes and such, without realising that the ‘noise’ is all the other journals that are doing exactly the same. eLife steps off the hamster wheel and is to be commended for that.

    Posted by Jan Velterop | Oct 30, 2012, 6:43 am
    • For things to “go viral,” first the major network amplifiers and linkers need to know about them. Journalists and those who follow them serve this role. For those people to start the awareness, they need to have awareness cultivated for them. A coordinated media release still has the best chance of making this happen. Why do you think Apple, Amazon, Google, and others have their embargoes, too?

      As for eLife stepping off the hamster wheel of press releases, they will still do press releases. They just aren’t going to herd the other parts of the media relationships into any meaningful form. So, they are staying on the hamster wheel while letting it aimlessly roll down the road.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 30, 2012, 7:22 am
  2. It seems to me that ELife is going to be a PR journal for the research sponsored by Wellness and the other funders of ELife. I can see “cold fusion type papers ” but ones that address new drugs and cancer, etc.

    The press has few scientific reporters and even fewer good ones. The only question a reporter has to ask is: What are the implications of X and we will see a generator hooked up to the hamster cage because the rate of rotation will power a small city.

    What a dreadful policy.

    Posted by harvey kane | Oct 30, 2012, 9:45 am
  3. Only biology related disciplines and the top multi-disciplinary journals seem to go by this Ingelfinger Rule. Physics etc. and economics etc which are very big on preprints in ArXiv and SSRN and RePEc respectively seem to get on fine without it.

    Posted by David Stern | Oct 30, 2012, 10:04 am
    • How did that work out for neutrinos being faster than the speed of light? If the work had been properly peer-reviewed and vetted by journal editors, a whole bunch of unnecessary (although amusing and thought-provoking) buzz never would have happened.

      Control is annoying, but it does serve a purpose (e.g. seatbelts).

      Posted by Brian | Oct 31, 2012, 9:16 am
  4. It seems this policy will further devalue the publisher’s role in providing good copyediting. If the news will happen at a stage prior to formal publication, then why should a publisher spend all that money sprucing up the article for final publication? I think the motivation for that expense will be further undermined by the approach eLife is taking, and it will be interesting to see just how much effort eLife puts into copyediting, if any.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Oct 30, 2012, 12:08 pm
  5. It is an interesting policy that seems to put the onus on the author to determine how they want their work communicated.

    There are (at least) two potential scenarios after a paper is accepted in eLife:

    1) If a research group sees value in the coordinated press effort between their institutional press office and the publisher’s press office, then they still have the option of making this happen.

    2) Iff the group of authors does not see value in the coordinated effort and wants to shout to the world that they have an awesome paper in eLife, then they are free to do so.

    I do think eLife could do a better job of articulating the pros and cons of each approach so that their authors are better informed. Perhaps they will do so in their acceptance letters.

    Posted by Brian | Oct 31, 2012, 9:51 am
  6. Maybe I am missing something but I have a hard time seeing how this policy differs in any meaningful way from Elsevier’s with the exception of a couple of their journals. Authors can post preprints, and in most cases accepted versions of their articles on their web site. There is no gag order discussing them with the media.

    http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/authorsview.authors/postingpolicy

    Posted by David Solomon | Oct 31, 2012, 12:40 pm
    • You are missing something, in that you are pointing to a policy about posting articles, not to the media embargo policy of any particular journal. The embargo is touched on slightly in the pre-print area of this long set of policies:

      . . . please note that Cell Press and The Lancet have different preprint policies and will not consider articles that have already been posted publicly for publication. This is a rule agreed upon by The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

      But you’ve pointed to a different policy altogether. You might want to start here instead:

      http://support.elsevier.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/829/~/embargo

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 31, 2012, 12:46 pm
  7. “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”.

    This is not the case at my university nor I expect at most other universities. We do have a press office and they do strongly encourage us to work with them when there is a lot of media attention in our research but it is not mandatory. That would be a breach of academic freedom.

    Posted by David Solomon | Oct 31, 2012, 12:57 pm
    • You can choose to ignore your press office, but most researchers don’t, and actually see them as allies helping them. In biomedicine, these offices have even more influence. Most people don’t spit into the wind.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 31, 2012, 1:49 pm
      • My point was authors at academic institutions do not have get clearance as stated.

        Posted by dsolomonmsuedu | Oct 31, 2012, 4:01 pm
        • And my point is that’s probably generally true, but for high-impact research, it’s often “required.” The spotlight is too bright.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 31, 2012, 6:20 pm
          • Not to belabor the point because it is not worth arguing over but I believe most institutions adhere o the AAUP guidelines on academic freedom and a faculty member would not be penalized for failing to work with their press office no matter how important a finding.

            “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.”

            Since most research at academic institutions isn’t done for money the last part of the AAUP statement wouldn’t apply.

            The eLife policy seems pretty consistent with how at least my institution and I expect most other universities handle this issue. Yes, it makes sense to coordinate announcing an important finding and authors are strongly encouraged to work with their university press office and the publisher in developing and disseminating press releases when an article is published. But there is also a recognition that authors have a right to disseminate their research results as they please.

            Posted by David Solomon | Oct 31, 2012, 7:37 pm
            • We’re arguing a technicality, and I don’t have time to find evidence to refute your argument that this can’t be “required.” It has always felt like it’s been required from the side of things I’ve been able to see. Many institutions have press offices that wield a pretty firm hand in these matters, especially if the researchers have findings that have significant patent implications or public health implications. Having dealt with these things over the years, especially with big biomedical studies, the authors are often toeing the line their institutions have drawn, and actually are grateful for the help in managing a big announcement that will likely make them rich and/or famous, at least to a greater degree than before. I also think it’s realpolitik that if a researcher had a major finding with patent, public health, and/or financial implications, and freelanced the announcement, there would be major backlash in every realm of their institution — subtle, real, and powerful.

              Since eLife is aiming to compete with the big journals, I think it’s playing with fire not to acknowledge a few things. First, most major research comes from many institutions collaborating. This requires more coordination between them and their press offices, and often with multiple societies or funders on top of that. Second, there are potentially big issues at stake related to patents and public health, and letting authors dabble in PR is rife with problems when it comes to those things. Third, big-time authors are familiar with how the other big journals support big findings, and eLife might look pretty bush league if it can’t step up to the plate in the same way. Finally, novelty is still a major differentiator for journals, and the eLife policy downplays that, which I think is a mistake.

              To quote you back to yourself:

              . . . it makes sense to coordinate announcing an important finding and authors are strongly encouraged to work with their university press office and the publisher in developing and disseminating press releases when an article is published.

              Rights and reality don’t always walk hand-in-hand. Whether the requirement is contractual or cultural, either is equally real.

              Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 31, 2012, 10:48 pm

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  1. Pingback: Take that, Ingelfinger! eLife announces its media policy, sans embargoes and Ingelfinger « Embargo Watch - Oct 31, 2012

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