Can Some of the Largest Backers of Scientific Research Alter the Peer Review Process?

A new journal seeks to rethink how science communication among the masses gets done.

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The so-called Ingelfinger rule bars scientists from publishing the same paper in more than one journal.

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Nicole King didn't know whether she was permitted to share her scientific research with a journalist or obligated to keep it under wraps until it was published by a peer-reviewed journal.

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King, an associate professor of genetics, genomics, and development in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at Berkeley, was confronted by this uncertainty after having presented a paper at the 71st annual meeting held by the Society for Developmental Biology in July 2012.

The paper, which had only recently been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal, detailed how she and her colleagues had discovered that a choanoflagellate—a typically single-celled organism considered by scientists to be the closest relative to animals—undergoes a developmental switch and transforms into a multi-cellular organism when a certain species of bacteria is introduced to its environment. The discovery is significant because it provides insight into how the earliest ancestors might have evolved from single-celled to multi-celled organisms, and it came just as there has been increasing interest in how bacteria are influencing our own biology.

Following her talk, King was approached by a writer for the journal Science who was interested in covering the paper, a request that left King in a serious quandary: with the article not set to be published for a few months, was she permitted to share it with a competing publication?

The question wasn't trifling. Many scholarly publications today adhere to the so-called Ingelfinger rule, a term named after Franz J. Ingelfinger, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, who implemented it in 1969. Put simply, it bars scientists from publishing the same paper in more than one journal, but many researchers view it as a more expansive ban on discussing their research prior to publication, especially with journalists. Those who break the rule risk exclusion from further publication within a journal, and it's considered by some as the industry trying to lock in profits.

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Journalists who cover scientific studies are forced to agree to an embargo period that requires them to hold off publication of their stories until a study is published in the scientific journal. Breaking an embargo, as the New York Times discovered firsthand in 2007 when it broke one set by the World Health Organization, can lead to a news organization being sanctioned from receiving further advanced copies of a journal.

Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, founded the blog Embargo Watch in 2010 to cover just these sorts of conflicts. "The Ingelfinger rule is what journals use, whether they admit it or not, to really restrict the flow of information that really benefits them," he says. "And journalists have allowed them to do it; I think we're complicit."

Perhaps it was fortuitous then for King that her paper had been accepted by eLife, a new journal that seeks to upend decades of scholarly rigmarole and industry practices, invent a new form of academic publishing and, in the process, change how scientific communication is done.

Unlike many other journals, which are published either by commercial publishing companies or individual scientific societies, eLife is funded entirely by three institutions that collectively contribute more than $4.2 billion a year to scientific research: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust.

"I didn't know what eLife was planning, but I knew they placed a high emphasis on making findings available as quickly as possible," recalls King. "So I contacted their press officer and put them in touch with the reporter." To her surprise, not only was she told that there was no embargo, King was also encouraged to simply release the accepted paper on her website (even though eLife wouldn't officially launch until December). In addition to its coverage in Science, it was picked up by a blogger for Discover Magazine and a number of international publications. If King had been forced to wait several months before her article was slated to be published, would the study have sparked just as much interest?