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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eLife places a particularly strong focus on ancillary materials like charts, infographics, and tables, and in addition to placing all the material under a Creative Commons license, all articles are also automatically uploaded to Scribd, GitHub, and PubMed Central—a database maintained by the U.S. government—as well as released on a flexible API through Fluidinfo. The journal also makes all article metrics—including the number of downloads, views, and citations—available for public viewing. "I think it's a way of showing that impact and influence goes beyond numbers," says eLife Executive Director Mark Patterson, who left PLOS in 2011. "Numbers will be part of it, but there's also qualitative information as well; you can gather together the kinds of things that people are saying about content, and I think that's an important area to where we'd like to put a lot of effort to build on."

But though eLife's staff believes they are introducing much needed reforms to the science publication process, others have taken a more cynical view. Kent Anderson, publisher of The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, and editor of the blog The Scholarly Kitchen, has written more than a dozen posts questioning the journal's practices. Chief among his complaints is what he considers the problems that arise with having the financiers of scientific research also backing the very journal that research is published in. "Conflict of interest doesn't have to be proven, it can be perceptual," he says. "Because nobody can prosecute every perceived conflict of interest, you have to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest."

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Anderson is also skeptical of the journal's goal to speed up the process of publication, pointing out that the backers of scientific research are likely under tremendous pressure to prove what they are helping to finance has a return on investment. "I've seen studies published very, very quickly and be very important," he argues. "I've seen studies published very quickly and everybody ends up regretting it. I've seen studies sent back to authors saying you need 10 more years of data and the study comes back 11 years later and they've done it, and it's a huge ground breaking study and the editors were right. That's science; every study's set up with a different hypothesis. I don't think there's anything wrong with a high bar and high threshold for publication."

Though eLife editors maintain the journal is completely independent from its financial supporters, Anderson argues that as long as they maintain an ongoing funding interest, it doesn't pass the smell test. "They could have given a $10 million grant to three editors and said, 'Go start a great journal,' and walked away. And that would have been a fire wall. They would have had no more ongoing concern, and their money would have been spent. Instead they've kept an ongoing concern," he says.

Schekman, of course, doesn't agree that such a conflict exists. "The majority of our editors, referees, and authors are not supported by the HHMI, the Wellcome Trust, or the Max Planck Society," he wrote in response to Anderson's statements. "Although investigators supported by these organizations are encouraged to consider eLife for their best work, they are not obliged to do so and they have no favored treatment in the editorial process." Kiley, from the Wellcome Trust, agrees. The backers are "very comfortable that we have raised proper safeguards against any actual conflict of interest," he said in reference to Anderson's claims.

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To date, eLife has already published more than 60 articles in the short time since its launch, and it still remains to be seen whether it can achieve the quick ascendancy to become one of the most-sought after publications for high impact research. Its founders believe that the prestige of its backers, along with the leading scientists who run it, will catapult it to the status of the Cells and Natures of the world, but the question remains as to whether scientists will abandon these closed-access stalwarts.