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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:

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.

  1. Fast publication, yet relying on scientists, working part-time, to oversee an elaborate review and feedback process.
  2. Publishing ground-breaking studies, yet not requiring authors to do more than minimal revisions.
  3. 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 CellNature, 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?

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


17 Thoughts on "eLife: Can a Top-Tier Journal Run Without Professional Help?"

Some comments I made here a few weeks ago about the valuable role professional editors can play:

“They may have a number of job titles – managing editors, executive editors, associate editors, etc – and they’ll often be highly valued by their journals, academic editors and research communities. The ideal setup is, I think, to have respected academic, research-active editors who bring up-to-date knowledge of their specialties, and also have an awareness of where they’re heading and what could be important, supported by an experienced editorial team who know how to manage the peer-review process, understand the ethical issues, are aware of all the subtleties, and know the things that can go wrong so can work to avoid them happening. This leaves the academic editors free to concentrate on the science, forge strong links with their communities and develop the journal.

With the backing it’s got and its mission, I’d expect eLife to put in place a highly experienced and knowledgeable editorial team to support the academic/research-active editors.

Some of the things the new journal is striving to do aren’t really new, and are already being done by good journals, e.g.

“One of the specific goals of the editorial process is to provide authors with a decision letter that integrates the reviewers’ comments and clearly identifies points that need to be addressed for successful acceptance.”

I’d expect nothing less! The new journal is a very interesting initiative, though, and one that’ll be watched closely by many.”

Well, there actually are numerous journals that do use scientists as editors, rather than “professional editors”, to make decisions about manuscripts. A couple of well-respected examples are Journal of Neuroscience and Journal of Biological Chemistry, both published by large scientific societies. It will be interesting to see whether or not this model can work for a “top-tier” journal, however you define such a journal…

Has there been any rationale for this decision announced, other than the vague statement that, “There’s a great deal of displeasure in the life-science community with the control of journals that don’t use scientists to make decisions”? Surely they must have done a great deal of data collection and analysis to drive a potential multi-million dollar decision like this. Where is the data?

The top journals they’re looking to displace, Science, Nature and Cell (and their spinoff ancillary journals) all use full-time professional editors. Is this just a coincidence, or is it a direct factor in their top-tier status? What are the proven detriments caused by professional editors that they are looking to correct here? Is this attitude really prevalent throughout the community or is it just held by a vocal minority who associate professional editors with journals owned by large corporations (aka “Glamour Magz”), just part of an anti-corporate, anti-business agenda? Note that publishers as diverse as PLoS, BioMedCentral and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press all employ professional editors for journals, so it’s not just the big corporations.

Still, I find it hard to believe that a journal “run by scientists for scientists” would make such important strategy decisions in a vacuum, relying only on feelings and assumptions rather than hard data. Given the open access nature of the proposed journal, one would think they’d be more forthcoming and transparent with such data.

There seems to be a fascinating battle going on in this instance between old-school ivory tower snobbery and the principles of open access. The OA movement insists that scholarly literature needs to be widely available to everyone, particularly those outside of the big universities that have subscription access. Yet this decision is a statement that those outside of academia are incapable of understanding and interpreting journal articles, even those with Ph.D.’s and decades of experience.

If that is indeed the case, then what’s the point of making the papers available to the general public who apparently can’t possibly understand it?

Which is it? Is the literature of use to everyone, or is it so arcane that only a practicing researcher can understand it?

I wholeheartedly agree with the comments of Bartleby Scrivener, above.

In the UK only 1/20 PhDs become lecturers, due to the increased funding for research studentships without a concomitant increase in lectureships (the ratio is less severe in some other countries). This bottleneck means that the majority of able and experienced postdocs leave academia, some into publishing.

A postdoc with many years of experience (in the lab, and then in publishing) could be a perfectly good editor, if assisted by an academic editorial board and peer reviewers. Looking at the top tier journals, both models seem to work well enough.

I suspect that the real gripe comes from when a journal rejects a manuscript based on “impact” or “readership” rather than scientific reasons. Nature, Cell and Science certainly do this, if eLife want a good impact factor then I guess they will too…
[DISCLAIMER: I recently left the lab after 8 years to join a publishers, although I do not myself handle peer review or make editorial decisions]

This was my comment on the chronicle story about this new venture:
“This will be an interesting experiment for several reasons. First, will it really be able to achieve a one-month turnaround on reviewing when so many people are involved? Maybe at the start, when everybody is enthusiastic about this new undertaking. I highly doubt that this will be the norm over time. What happens if, say, 25 of the 150 scientists turn out to be the most involved and active reviewers? The quasi-crowd nature of the peer-review process envisioned here may turn out to become much less so as time goes on. Second, once the startup funding ceases from the foundations, where will the journal turn for its sustainable business model? Author-side fees, very likely. How many journals can such author-side fees support, and will this journal become important enough in its initial three years to be a place for which enough author-side fees can be generated?”

Last spring, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to attend one of the workshops of the “Library Publishing Services: Strategies for Success” project; a project funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, with additional sponsorship by Berkeley Electronic Press, Microsoft Research, and SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. This was a great program that brought together librarians from around the country to discuss the challenges and possibilities for academic libraries in the area of scholarly publishing. I learned a great deal over the two days and one thing in particular stuck in my head – a comment made by one of the attendees/panelists who works as a publisher within a university press. His message? Just because you have worked with publishers all of your career, it doesn’t mean you know how to do what they do. I took it also to mean, “Just because you CAN do something, it doesn’t mean you should.”

Just as libraries and librarians get tossed aside for Google, commercial artists are deemed unnecessary if you have MS Publisher, and/or lawyers become supplanted by “do it yourself” online wills, there still really is some value in professional skill, talent and expertise. I’m a strong advocate of open access, public access, open science… any and all forms of sharing that speed up the process of scientific discovery, but not at (1) the cost of good quality and (2) the disrespect of others for their talents and skills.

I think we should stop, reflect and put all the pieces together. Phil’s article and the comments highlight a pattern. This is not just a one off event at eLife. One sees a growing trend to disrespect experience and knowledge, this trend is not just limited to general population but is now creeping into the professional world. Instead of asking about the particulars of eLife; isn’t the larger question more important? Why are we seeing this trend at this point in time?

I attribute this trend to two market forces. First there is technological advance: The rise of the net and personal devises provides people tools to do things that before could only have been done by professionally trained people. People write their own wills, do their own editing and so forth, because there are tools that now allow them to do such things without years of education, training and experience. In addition, technology seems to have reinforced a secular trend in the economy towards a winner take all dynamic. Which leads to the second trend: For the past 30 years average wages have stagnated for a large segment of the population. The trend is even worse for lower wage earners, they have actually experienced a decline in their wages. Meanwhile, professionals have enjoyed fairly large and sustained increases in their wages over the past 30 years.

We are observing (I hypothesize) the beginnings of a market correction. People are doing their own editing, legal work, medical care and so on because these professional groups have priced themselves out of the market. I will of course be proven right or wrong by wage trends over the next ten years. But if you have children about to enter university, you might think twice before allowing them to incur large debts for an education to become lawyers, doctors, researchers or any of the professions. The tide may be turning. We are already seeing a decline in incomes for lawyers. Many young legal graduates are saddled with huge debts the prospects of them now finding employment that will allow them to pay those debts off are significantly reduced. I suspect, it won’t be long before we see similar trends in medicine, research, academics and other professions.

The decision to use working scientists as editors represents neither a technological advance nor a market correction. To me, this appears to represent a struggle between credentials and efficiency.

eLife will be paying their senior editors “more than a token” amount for their work, which I take to mean that they are going to be paid close to the market-rate for their time. [As a former Boston-based publisher, you know first-hand how high this is.] Compare this to the cost of hiring a full time professional editor. One does not need to be an economist to realize that hiring full time professional editors would be cheaper and more efficient than part time senior researchers doing essentially the same work.

Is a working scientist any better than a professional editor? Meaning, are they better at objectively identifying important articles, adjudicating conflicts, and writing responses? If timeliness is so important in biomedical publishing, can a group of working scientists turn papers around faster than professional editors?

If the answer is ‘no,’ then eLife is essentially paying for the credentials of the editorial board, and trading these credentials for the efficiency they could achieve with professional editors. I don’t know of any studies that compare these two groups –I vaguely remember a study that shows that postdocs provide much better reviews than senior researchers– but if induction can tell us anything, one has to wonder why so many prestigious journals employ professional editors in the first place?

And have you seen Nature or Science (cannot comment on Cell) editors writing responses? They are merely postman with no guts to tell the referees that they are not being reasonable!


I wan’t much interested in the particulars of eLife. I was instead focusing on the forces and trends that might explain all that is going on around us; including eLife. I was connecting this conversation with the posting with Kent’s posting about technological change.

As the Economist has well documented; the dynamics of the world economy have been driven by the following trends the past forty years:
1) The integration of the Chinese and indian Economies into the global economy
2) The mass education and immigration of rural farming poor in the above two countries to urban manufacturing and service jobs
3) The reduction of barriers to trade via the WTO
4) The population explosion of the past 50 years
5) Technological advances that have mechanized many jobs and facilitated the transfer of work from Europe and North America to Asia.

According to the Economist, of these five trends the fifth has had the most impact on the working life and wages of North Americans and Europeans. For the most part, the Economist believes that these trends have benefited humanity, and any casual observer would have to agree that, on balance, the opening up of the world economy and technological advance has indeed lifted hundreds of millions (if not billions) out of poverty. But with every advance there are winners and losers. These trends (especially the fifth) have had a rolling negative impact on income for workers in the West. The first people impacted were steal and auto workers in the 70s and 80s. This was followed by the movement of service jobs to India and China starting in the 90s. My point is that technological advance may now be moving up the income chain to professionals. There is evidence to show that this is indeed now happening.

You mentioned in your original post that there seems to be a trend to “disdain professionals.” I disagree that the events at eLife demonstrate a “disdain” for professionalism. My comments were entirely related to your contention that professionalism is now disdained. If indeed professionalism is disdained; why and how is that happening? The events at eLife demonstrate how technology allows us (or professionals in Asia) to do tasks that were previously the preserve of professionals. You no longer need a lawyer to write a will (there is software to do that). The function of legal discovery is increasingly being farmed out to much lower paid workers in India (reducing billable hours of high priced lawyers in the West).

Why should I pay a high priced American cardiologist to treat my hypertension when it can be done over the net with an Indian or Chinese cardiologist for 1/3 or one 1/4 the price (or I should say why should my insurance company pay for that American cardiologist)?

Even surgeons are not safe. Why go to an American hospital for surgery that can be done in Thailand or India for one tenth the cost?

My point is not that eLife can work more efficiently or more cheaply using one trained Western professional to do the work of another. eLife should take this one step further. Why use American scientists at all for any activity? Indian scientists will do all these tasks for less money than either American scientists or editors. The point I was trying to make is that the technology now allows us to replace Western professionals either with software or with less expensive professionals elsewhere. As was the case with steal and auto workers before them, the impact of this change should reduce the growth of income for American and European professionals in the coming decades.

I think this professional vs. academic editors discussion is a sideshow to the real problem. Our editor-in-chief could be called both. He is clearly an academic, university position, active researcher and lecturer and yet is also a professional, paid a healthy honorarium for his editorial work, essentially a salary. I think the groundswell of support for these efforts doesn’t come from who decides (someone, somewhere always has to decide what gets published) but that they have to decide at all. Page budgets barely increasing as submissions seem to increase exponentially pushes down acceptance rates and many good papers get turned away from top journals because we don’t have space in the printed page, a pretty outdated thought nowadays but one that isn’t dead yet. I fail to see what is so revolutionary about this endeavor.

It’s worth noting, I think, that other constraints beyond page budgets exist for journals — copy editing throughput, composition expenses, impact factor considerations, etc. Journals have a lot of reasons to be selective, both financial and editorial.

Nature Chemical Biology, a journal that employs PhD-trained professional editors published an editorial in their October issue highlighting the reasons they use, and benefit from, professional editors. see:

Our professional opinion
Professional editors provide the perspective, consistency and responsiveness needed to identify and communicate groundbreaking scientific advances.

Nature Chemical Biology 7, 649 (2011) doi:10.1038/nchembio.683

I am a scientist (working in CS/physics/math) and a huge fan of the eLife model (to the extent that I understand it). I put all of my papers on, and publish them in journals only because I need them on my CV for grants and job applications (and for my students’ and coauthors’ job applications and grants). I read all my papers on whenever possible. Note that costs about $7/upload and 1.5 cents/download.

I think that it is morally wrong to put the only copy of papers behind paywalls when open alternatives exist. I realize that my vision would mean less money for copyeditors and other professional editors. That is somewhat sad, but when those professionals create organizations like Elsevier/ACM/IEEE/etc with draconian copyright policies, then perhaps it is a sign that having so much money in publishing is doing more harm than good.

Let me add further that in my field Science and Nature are not necessarily positive forces. Submissions to those journals tend to overstate the significance and novelty of their works in ways that undermines science (in my view). I don’t know how to evaluate their effect on biology. But I am not sure that “more prestigious” = “better for science.”

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