If there is a common theme that connects scientific publishing to American politics these days, it’s a disdain for professionals.
Individuals with little more exposure to politics than watching the evening news are quick to believe they would be a better leader than someone who has dedicated an entire career to public service. Put in the coach’s shoes, many sports fans think they could run a better professional sports team; and scientists, given the chance, could run a top-tier journal better than professional editors.
Or could they?
Announced earlier this summer with great fanfare, but few details, the particulars of eLife, a forthcoming open access journal jointly supported by three large scientific foundations, are now becoming clear:
- Randy Schekman (from PNAS) is Editor-in-Chief
- Mark Patterson (from PLoS) is Managing Executive Editor
- They will be joined by three deputy editors, 15-20 senior editors, and a board of about 150 reviewers
- The journal will levy no article processing fees while it works out a business model
- The journal will employ no professional editors
Professional editors will not be used in the editorial office, where important decisions are made on the fate of manuscripts, although they are welcome to manage day-to-day operations as production editors. After all, eLife is “a journal run by scientists, for scientists.” As Schekman explains:
Our aim is to make eLife a journal that serves the best interests of science – a journal for scientists, edited by scientists
The tag line “by scientists, for scientists” may seem familiar. It was used for years to promote Faculty of 1000 services. It evokes the revolutionary call to action to take back science and return it to its rightful place, which, if you’ve read your history of science, is in the hands of a small group of white aristocratic gentleman scholars. Professional editors may enter through the servants’ entrance.
From what I can understand from their rationale, professional editors are fundamentally unable to understand the research they are charged to evaluate. After all, they are not scientists. In contrast, working scientists are in a better position to evaluate the true merits of a paper and to adjudicate when reviewers offer differing responses. The fact that many prestigious journals use professional editors seems not to enter the argument as evidence of their true value. According to Schekman:
“Too often the professional editor simply collates the reviews and sends them to the author,” without enough weight given to the varying quality of the reviews.
On several occasions, I’ve heard scientists blame professional editors for not being experienced enough to understand the unique contribution of their paper. “Nature is run by failed postdocs who couldn’t hack research,” I’ve heard one senior faculty member complain. There is a certain arrogance to this rationalization, which precludes any notion that his paper simply didn’t make the grade. Being rejected by someone you respect is much easier to accept than being rejected by someone you don’t.
From my own perspective, I’ve found that professional editors are fairer and less biased than their academic counterparts. They generally don’t have theories to defend or get entangled in disciplinary disputes. They tend to be far more knowledgeable of the literature since they devote far more of their time to reading it than a research scientist. I also find that they are faster in responding to my queries, which should be the case, since their time is not split between academic responsibilities and editorial duties.
The proper distinction in editorial competency should not be based on the status of the editors, but on how much they are able to devote to their editorial duties. In this sense, full-time (professional) editors may provide much more value to the review process than part-time (academic) ones.
Within the seven hours per week of editorial work that Schekman expects of his senior editors, editors are required to work with reviewers to discuss each paper, adjudicate disagreements and achieve a consensus decision before writing a constructive and detailed report back to the author. However, such an editorial model seems out of sync with the stated goals of the journal.
- Fast publication, yet relying on scientists, working part-time, to oversee an elaborate review and feedback process.
- Publishing ground-breaking studies, yet not requiring authors to do more than minimal revisions.
- Being efficient, yet subjecting academic editors to a likely flood of manuscripts from authors who desire #1 and #2 without paying author processing fees.
This collection of contradictions may simply be the result of an internal struggle between two forces — one fighting to advance open access, the other struggling to keep scientists in control of journals.
If eLife is able to make this compromise work, it will be a very expensive venture because the process relies upon many highly trained individuals to make it happen. While it’s possible to scale an automated system, human effort does not scale well. An editor in 2011 is about as efficient as an editor in 1981, which is why PLoS ONE requires thousands of them, and they are all volunteers. Either eLife will have to move to a volunteer editorial model to contain costs as they scale or employ professional editors to do triage (and issue a whole lot of editorial rejections) before scientific editors ever lay their eyes on a manuscript. Likely, they will need to do both.
The other option would be to discover, in short time, that they are unable to offer the promised expediency in publishing and hire a team of professional editors, which is exactly what PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine did.
At this point, the public relations strategy for promoting eLife is to position themselves as an elite journal run by working scientists and hope that they are able to attract some groundbreaking papers. Success and a viable business model, they hope, will follow suit:
The ultimate success of eLife probably depends most on whether it can attract top-flight papers—the kind that now go first to Cell, Nature, and Science. “If we can in the first few months get some articles that are seen as groundbreaking, that will take care of matters”
Curiously, this sounds like another example of the Editorial Fallacy –a belief that all strategic problems in publishing can be solved simply by publishing the highest-quality work. PLoS also tried this approach not very long ago with PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, and in spite of assembling a stellar editorial board and attracting some groundbreaking papers, was unable to sustain this model without launching PLoS ONE.
Will eLife follow in their footsteps?