I was recently asked to put together a presentation on how scientific journal publishing has evolved, and toward the end of it, I have a section on the most recent decade of experiments — open repositories, open access mega-journals, and the like, with eLife bringing up the end as an experiment just about the take the stage. In exploring the eLife site, I came across their promotional pitch:
eLife is a researcher-driven initiative for the very best in science and science communication. We promote rapid, fair, and more constructive review. We will use digital media and open access to increase the influence of published works. We commit to serving authors and advancing careers in science. At eLife, Publishing is just the beginning.
There are a lot of interesting assertions in this pitch, even accounting for the breathless and overwritten marketing copy. But a recent series of events puts the final statement — “Publishing is just the beginning” — into sharper focus.
Still months shy of its first issue, eLife recently released news of the acceptance of a manuscript well ahead of its actual publication, all because a talk based on the findings was delivered at the Society for Developmental Biology meeting and covered by Scienceand eLife’s editor-in-chief wanted to brag about it on his blog. (No mention was made of the paper in the Science article from Science Now, so eLife was operating on its own in revealing it had the paper and that it had been accepted.) The manuscript has obvious appeal, but it bothers me to think that a publisher — especially an editor-in-chief — would release news of the acceptance of a manuscript months ahead of publication, purely for self-promotion. If publication is the beginning, wait until publication. (Other media coverage was split in mentioning that the paper was set to appear in eLife — the Scientist mentioned it, while Discover did not.)
Embargo policies for top-tier journals generally seek to ensure that reporters have access to the final paper a journal is publishing. From NEJM to PLoS to Nature, the goal is to make sure of three things — that reporters have the final paper in their hands, that the novelty of the finding isn’t dribbled away before publication, and that access by the media is uniform and not preferential. A tangential concern is about helping authors avoid embarrassing situations — most top-tier journals don’t want their authors to divulge that their paper has been submitted, accepted, or scheduled for publication because things can change (more on this later). There is no “final paper” in eLife yet. Therefore, there is nothing published by eLife. This is promotion on the come.
I asked Ivan Oransky, Executive Editor of Reuters Health, a prominent member of the Association of Healthcare Journalists, and a keen watcher of media embargoes, about eLife‘s approach to this situation in particular. Not surprisingly, the energetic Oransky has been watching it carefully:
I cheered when I read Randy Schekman’s blog post . . . the clearest strike by a journal editor against the Ingelfinger Rule that I’ve seen in a while. . . . . What Schekman can do now, to convince everyone that he’s for the free flow of scientific information — and not just a spot of publicity — is specify that authors are free to release an up-to-date version of their paper to anyone who asks, including the mainstream media and bloggers. After all, talking about a paper without letting anyone see the data and conclusions is neither useful nor scientific. Plus, that approach . . . accepts, at least tacitly, that the strength of a journal’s brand is vetting, not publishing per se.
It’s an interesting knot of concepts at heart. Should publicity precede publication? Does this kind of approach serve authors and funders? Is this too cavalier an approach to embargoes when publication events that get amplified can make or break reputations?
Often, funders want more bang for their buck through coordinated media events around big studies, and they’re also concerned that the paper actually exists and can be shared. Pre-print manuscripts are on shakier ground, and lack the imprimatur and certainty of a final published study.
Reviewers may also be slightly disheartened if they know that versions of the papers they are reviewing might be read, absorbed, and even cited before they’ve been modified to reflect reviewer comments and criticisms. There are mechanical problems this introduces (versioning, syncing of sites between pre-print and final versions, legacy issues), but I’m thinking here more of the feeling that review is actually seen as less important than publicity both by authors and the publisher. That could be a demoralizing signal to the reviewer corps.
Authors might get tripped up if the review and editing processes modify their conclusions, find errors in their pre-print data presentation, or lead to new confirmatory studies being conducted between the time of a meeting, submission, or acceptance and actual publication. What happens if major data points shift, reanalyses tease out slightly different conclusions, or the publicity lens brings a crowd of criticism that leads to major concerns?
Editors may rue the day when they allow authors and their proxies to publicize acceptance of a paper, only to have an undisclosed conflict of interest, a statistical review, or a data error lead to the withdrawal of the paper.
The publishers of eLife — in this case, the funders — may also want to consider the value transaction they’re putting into play. If acceptance becomes the coin of the realm, then how is that acceptance event registered so that priority and prestige are correctly allocated? What happens in the time between acceptance and publication? Right now, the paper in question has no definite publication date, and the acceptance date we have comes from a tweet from a coauthor. That’s not very official.
We all remember the controversy over the NASA tease and release of the arsenic-loving bacteria paper — it was true until it wasn’t, and the publicity was so shameless that it led to a great deal of derision. Only access to the entire final paper is what allowed scientists to tackle the question properly, and the publicity only raised the stakes. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but it sure seemed unnecessarily loud, confusing, and chaotic.
Will publishing truly be the beginning for eLife authors? How the editors and publishers at eLife develop their policies around media and press embargoes will go a long way in determining whether this is so — or whether acceptance is actually the beginning for the authors eLife pledges to support and the careers eLife is committed to advance.