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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But the bigger question to some in the scientific community, however, may be why are some of the largest private contributors of scientific research launching a journal in the first place? After all, there is currently a plethora of scholarly publications already in existence on seemingly every discipline, no matter how esoteric.

Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust's library and one of the eLife's earliest advocates, says his initial goal was to "create an open access alternative to some of the most prestigious journals in the life sciences, including Nature, Cell, and Science."

Open access is a movement that has gained momentum in the last decade and is built upon the notion that the outcomes of scientific research—much of which is funded by either the taxpayer or charities—should be freely available to the public. Over the past few decades, commercial publishing houses have come to dominate the scholarly publishing field, leading universities to complain of the seemingly inexorable rise in prices for journal subscriptions. Though open access can have multiple meanings, it's often ascribed to a journal that can be accessed online without payment or subscription. PLOS—short for the Public Library of Science—was an early pioneer of open access publishing with the launch of the journal PLOS Biology in 2003. But while OA journals have proliferated in the last few years, a small cadre of highly selective closed-access journals have maintained a stranglehold on publishing the highest impact research.

In 2010, Kiley met with a number of leading scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's research campus in Virginia, and it was here that his initial idea for an open access journal blossomed into a much more ambitious undertaking: to rethink how science communication—not just among scientists but with the public at large—can be done. "From there we identified three key things we'd try to do," says Kiley. "The first was an open access option of the most significant research. That was a done deal. But very quickly we moved on from that and recognized that one of the key problems of publishing, particularly when you publish in one of the very prestigious journals, was these slow times of publication and the lack of transparency around the peer review process."

Currently, researchers must navigate a complex, involved editorial system before a journal accepts their papers. After a journal editor decides a study might be appropriate for a publication, he or she sends it to a group of referees, all of whom are anonymous to each other and the author. They then read and offer criticisms of the paper before sending it back to an author. "You'll often get referee opinions that are anonymous to the author that come in with crazy ideas," says Randy Schekman, an investigator for Howard Hughes and editor-in-chief of eLife. "And referees are too often trying to come up with clever things to prove how smart they are." This opaque process, he alleges, leads to conflicting and confusing critiques, slowing down the editorial process and inserting a significant delay between submission and publication.

With eLife, an initial senior editor is chosen to oversee a paper, and then he or she chooses one or two referees to review it. "And then we do something rather different," Schekman explains, "which is the editorial member convenes an online consultation session and the reviewers are then unblinded to one another. They know going into this that their identity will be revealed to other referees, and that forces some civility into the process, I believe." And when the author resubmits the article after the suggested changes are made, the senior editor, because he has already conferred with the referees, can make a quick executive decision as to whether the changes were sufficient.

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The journal's third major goal is to fully embrace the web, or as eLife's head of technology, Ian Mulvany, puts it: "making our content more promiscuous." Though nearly every journal currently has a web version, it's often tied to the vestigial traits of the print issue. "For example Science publishes 50 pages a week and that has been true for many decades all the way back to when my friend and former colleague Daniel Koshland"—who died in 2007—"was the editor in chief of Science," says Schekman. "He hit up against that limit of 50 pages and no more. And yet science has exploded in various fields, and people desperately tried to get their papers published in the most prestigious venues, and these venues really haven't changed." But since eLife isn't on a print schedule, he explains, it is free to publish as many or as few articles it wants in a given week. It also doesn't adhere to artificial limitations on article length.