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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Even King, the biologist who benefited from eLife's lack of embargo, hadn't considered the journal as her first choice for submission.
"I will be honest," she says. "I did submit it to Science and Nature first. That's where the irony came with Science; they rejected my paper yet found it exciting enough to have a reporter covering it."