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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 eLifethe 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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


27 Thoughts on "Publicity at eLife — Are Media Embargoes Part of the Plan?"

eLife clearly is still firmly in development phase and until they publish no-one in community can adequately judge it, beyond perhaps this embargo issue. The extended pre-launch publicity tease – including promotion of this preprint – and grand pronouncements ensures a level of attention and scrutiny few other journals before have been subjected to, and one wishes them all the best.

It’s interesting also how Nature and Science are mentioned as being competitors, when I think gold OA titles like PLOS Biology and Biology Open (the latter, published by Company of Biologists, who preceded eLife with the ‘scientists for scientists’ approach) will more likely be impacted.

Disclosure: I am a journals publisher at Elsevier.

You make a point: many things happen before publication. In fact, probably the most important ones, in a low-coverage field like mine. However there are a few question that you seem to ask rhetorically that are already answered by existing practices.

1. “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.”

This (that submitted papers are already read, absorbed, and even cited while the referee is working on it) happens all the time in some fields that use heavily open archives (like physics, mathematics, computer science), without any visible negative impact on reviewers.

2. From the author perspective, the famous example of the faster-than-light-neutrino is rather in favor of opening the articles before (eventual) publication : no pool of referees would have been able to scrutinize this experiment as it was.

3. It is also usual, at least in math, to list as such in one’s CV accepted but not yet published articles. Since some top-tier journal have a backlog of several years, this is necessary for a timely evaluation. We encounter no big problem in doing so. Many journals print the submission, revision, and acceptance dates in front of each article.

The fields you’re talking about (computer science, math, physics) aren’t in the purview of eLife, which covers life sciences and biomedicine. In these areas, practices are different, and the stakes for human health and well-being are higher.

I absolutely agree. I mean, who cares about things like the Internet, data analysis algorithms, and semiconductors? Those have had no visible economic or political impact and hence we can be wrong about them without fear of impacting anyone’s life.

Oh, wait, I’m being sarcastic.

I knew I’d get a response like this when I wrote that. All are important, but some people will and can immediately put into effect themselves, often to their detriment. A physics paper about neutrinos is harder to hurt yourself with than a paper about taking some mix of drugs and herbs to stave off the common cold.

So an incorrect physics paper that suggested homeopathy was valid would have less negative effects on public well being than say a “life science” paper on the distribution of gut bacteria in the Icelandic population?

Point is all fields are interconnected and whilst I am sure it was an accident patronizing other disciples with cherry picked examples ain’t nice.

A physics paper about homeopathy?

Points in all fields are not interconnected in practical ways. Dark matter physics won’t affect whether my uncle decides to get a stent or not next year. It’s not patronizing to talk about differences between fields. It’s realistic.

I would assume at this point that eLife’s goal is to generate submissions. In my experience, nothing helps drive that more than the proof of what’s already in the journal–it’s the substance that backs up the claims made in the Aims and Scope. So I can fully appreciate what eLife’s doing at this point.

(I work at Springer–where I mostly do journal marketing–and my opinions are my own.)

The pre-launch PR is definitely understandable, but it also raises questions about ongoing policy, with embargo and media policies front and center. Will pre-publication PR continue after launch, with promotion of accepted papers months prior to publication? How will they handle a hot paper in the future? And what are the ways they might get stung if they deviate from more conservative approaches to press relations?

I suspect the pre-publication PR emphasis currently is them trying to keep community engaged while they sort out the technology nitty gritty.

Two things: firstly, how is this different from the current practice of many journals (e.g. all ACS journals, I think, but definitely other publishers as well) that put up a “just accepted” version of a paper on their website, and then an “early view” version, followed by the final published paper?

And secondly – I have to say, it looks like an interesting paper, I want to read this!

The differences are clearly stated on the ACS web site, to pick one example. “Just Accepted” articles include peer-reviewer comments, and are only awaiting technical editing, copy editing, formatting, and so forth. Plus, the journals at ACS are publishing these versions, not just saying they’re accepted and pointing to an off-site pre-publication version. This is a published version in the journal, and has been peer-reviewed and accepted. It’s in the right venue and includes peer review. Big differences.

These are pretty key differences.

“These are pretty key differences.”

Of course, I’m aware that in one case the articles are hosted by the publisher, and in the other case, by the researcher’s institution. But – at least from my point of view – I’m not sure there are major scientific differences. The paper is described as ‘accepted’, so I’m assuming that it has already been through peer review and any changes made. In this case, it is basically equivalent to a post-print, and if eLife posted “just accepted” versions like ACS, it would be exactly the same text! Or what am I missing?

It’s not clear the version Schekman pointed to has been peer-reviewed, and it certainly isn’t being registered by the journal through citation.

Kent, this was the accepted manuscript that was allowed to be published. I went to an event for eLife yesterday and they mentioned pretty explicitly that this would be the policy for the journal. Once accepted, it would be up to the authors to share and discuss the manuscript as they please without any imposed embargo.

Ah – I didn’t read all the replies carefully enough before. I see you say in response to another comment: “It’s not clear (and not likely) that the paper on the author’s website includes peer-review feedback and modifications in response to same.”

I agree it’s not clear. I assumed it was likely (on no particular basis, I admit), and you assume it isn’t.

For me the key point is not whether the article is published in its final form, but whether the article can be scrutinized. Clearly in this case the article was not yet published. This is similar to when scientists (or conference organizers) promote conference presentations – these are often pre-publication and not yet peer-reviewed, and sometimes attract a lot of media attention, and it is something I am uncomfortable with. However, in the eLife case the article was accepted for publication, peer reviewed and the author had published the paper on her own website, which I would encourage you to read.

This greatly distinguishes this case from that of the arsenic-containing bacteria, where the press conference preceded publication. I think if an article is accepted for publication (all reviews and revisions are in) and a version is available (on the journal homepage as an author version, or on an author’s website), then publicity is perfectly warranted.

Once eLife launches as an online OA journal I imagine they will publish all articles shortly after acceptance, so they won’t have to wait – they can write a press release and publish simultaneously. Print journals do not have this luxury!

(Since everyone is disclosing their place of work – I am an editor at BioMed Central)

It’s not clear (and not likely) that the paper on the author’s website includes peer-review feedback and modifications in response to same.

By the way, most what you call “print journals” publish articles online-first all the time. There is no functional distinction between online-only journals and online-mostly journals in this regard in the vast majority of cases, especially for high-profile journals. At journals like NEJM and JAMA and Nature and Science, articles can be peer-reviewed, reviewed internally (technical and editorial review), edited, formatted, and published in a matter of days, with the publicity riding right alongside. That is, to me, a more legitimate way to do it. If this is such a “hot” paper, then a journal should provide the entire suite of services and processes for it, register it as published, and then publicize it. I personally feel this was a shortcut that raises a policy issue for eLife.

The blog post from Randy Schekman states that “Dr. King posted a copy of the accepted manuscript to her lab Web site.” I would infer that “accepted manuscript” means the version of the manuscript that was accepted i.e. post peer review.

Re-reading the blog post, there is a clear distinction between eLife and most other journals – “we expect that other articles accepted for publication will also attract broader attention before they’re published at our site. In the meantime, authors are encouraged to present, discuss and share their work as broadly as they wish.”

Does he mean that all eLife authors can post a pre-publication copy of their manuscript on their own website, following acceptance? Very interesting and unusual, but again probably only relevant during the pre-launch phase.

Clarity wouldn’t require inference. Also, there is no publication date, citation information, or doi. It has no publisher other than the scientists themselves so far. This is why policy clarity would be helpful — both for perception as well as for practice.

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.[…] 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.

I don’t follow this? If the reviewers required revisions, wouldn’t the paper have been given a “major revision” or “minor revision” decision and gone back to the authors to be revised and submitted for additional review? If the paper is accepted, there shouldn’t be further revisions required. If a journal is “accepting” articles but still requiring authors to make substantive changes in response to the reviews during the production process, the journal has much bigger problems with its review process than anything you’re outlining in this article.

The paper eLife is pointing to might or might not be in a peer-reviewed form. It’s not clear. eLife is saying they have accepted some version of this work, but then pointing to something that may or may not be a version reflecting peer-review changes and modifications. If this were to be eLife’s modus operandi in the future (we’ve accepted something, but here’s a pre-print version we’re not officially publishing for you to look at in the meantime), that could dishearten peer-reviewers, who might think, Hey, I’m doing all this work, but then the publicity push will point people to a version that didn’t reflect my concerns or critiques. Well, why review for this outfit. They are more interested in publicity than in peer-review. It’s not like I’m getting paid for this!

The eLife guy clearly says on his blog that the preprint the author posted was the “accepted manuscript.” I don’t know how clearer it could be.

Now if the “accepted manuscript” doesn’t include revisions in response to peer review, that is a problem with the review process not with their ahead-of-print publicity of the paper.

I do agree, though, that if they’re going to be publicizing preprints, they should be official preprints hosted by the journal.

It probably is the accepted manuscript. The filename of the PDF includes “merged” and “REV” and the date of the file creation is July 17th with a second version created July 30th. But it would be much clearer if, as you said, the journal were providing all the journal services and imprimatur it can, including publishing it on the journal’s site like so many other journals do for similar manuscripts in similar states. It would also not put the onus on the authors or create the possibility of another file being intentionally or accidentally substituted. Once it’s accepted, the journal should take over.

What will eLife do once they are fully functioning? That’s the policy question.

Again, I do not think this is big problem. Even if fields are different, for this precise point I do not see why reviewers should feel differently in different fields (apart maybe because of habits, but I do not see any *intrinsic* reason for them to feel differently). In math and many other fields, we present our result in seminar, conferences and post our papers on the arXiv and web page before publication (sometimes years before), without reviewers to feel bad about this.

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