Destroying eLife’s reputation for selectivity does not serve science

Changes that pretend scientists do not care about publishing in highly selective journals will end eLife’s crucial role in science publishing, says long-time supporter Paul Bieniasz

October 28, 2022
Source: istock

Scientists like to publish their best work in the most prestigious and widely read peer-reviewed science journals. In the life sciences the “big three”, Cell, Nature and Science (CNS), are especially prized.

Sadly, but inevitably, the existence of these desirable and highly selective publishing venues comes at a price – frequent rejection. Many accomplished but disappointed biologists have a story about a seemingly incompetent editor or an anonymous, malevolently critical peer reviewer, who unfairly blocked the publication of their Nobel-worthy submission in CNS.

More seriously, CNS editors and reviewers have developed an infuriating habit of imposing enormous volumes of additional experimental work as a condition of publication when unable to reach a clear “accept or reject” decision. Thus, complaints about CNS decisions and peer review were, and are, rife. Nevertheless, CNS has frequently communicated important discoveries and publication therein remains highly sought after, while the publishers of CNS rake in huge profits by charging exorbitant subscription fees.

I was at a meeting of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) scientists, a little over a decade ago, where then HHMI president Robert Tjian revealed plans for a new scientific journal that would challenge the dominance of the big three. With the Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck Institute, HHMI would underwrite eLife, a journal that would publish work in “the top tier of life science”. eLife would be unashamedly elite and highly selective. “We invite you to choose eLife as a preferred venue for the publication of your best work” proclaimed eLife’s debut editorial.

But eLife would be different from CNS in two important ways.

First, it would be free to readers, adopting the increasingly popular open access publishing model. Second, eLife would change the way peer review was done. Editors would be working scientists, selected for field-specific expertise. Reviewers, whose identities would be known to each other, would discuss manuscripts and collaborate with editors to arrive at accept or reject decisions, where necessary generating a short list of manuscript revisions.

Gone would be anonymous reviewer sabotage, and many months of reviewer-imposed experiments. In short, eLife would provide a more thoughtful, decisive and humane review process. The model was exciting and enticing to many who frequently suffered at the tyrannical whims of CNS reviewers and editors.

While eLife never succeeded in toppling the big three journals, it nevertheless became a successful and prestigious journal. Over the years my laboratory published seven papers in eLife. Like many others, I regarded eLife as a go-to venue for studies that represented our best work but were not quite flashy enough for the editors of CNS.

We supported eLife, not just because its peer review process was the fairest of any scientific journal, but also because of the imprimatur and kudos that acceptance of a manuscript in eLife implied. Indeed, some of the papers we published in eLife were springboards for members of my team, helping them land elusive faculty appointments and launch independent laboratories. It is an uncomfortable, but nonetheless true, fact of life that the same work published in a lower-tier journal might not have provided the same career-defining boost.

Now, under different leadership, eLife is changing. Most importantly, eLife leaders are eschewing the traditional binary “accept versus reject” publication decision model in favour of an offer to publish every manuscript that can get past a cursory editorial screen (although there is significant uncertainty about how much initial gatekeeping editors will do). Manuscripts will be posted online alongside reviewer critiques and an editor’s summary of them. A set of standard buzzwords in bold typeface, such as “important”, “solid” and “inadequate”, that effectively amount to a grading system, will be included in the editor’s summary.

Noticeably absent from the list of standard buzzwords are descriptors that come anywhere close to conveying the sentiment “should be rejected”. Authors will decide whether and how they respond to reviewer comments – additional rounds of review can ensue, at the author’s discretion. In essence, eLife will offer to publish manuscripts with an “inadequate” grade, that editors and reviewers would have previously rejected.

It’s an experimental approach to scientific publishing that has some merits and some supporters. However, it is hard for me to see the changes at eLife as anything other than its demise.

The changes are akin to a “bait and switch” for all the authors that have long supported the growth of eLife as a “preferred venue for the publication of your best work”. The significant prestige enjoyed by eLife, built on the selective publication of high-quality work provided by many laboratories, including my own, is being discarded.

It needn’t have been so. The leaders at eLife could easily have begun a distinct offshoot journal with their experimental “no rejection” publishing model. If that model was what scientist-authors wanted, then they could vote with their feet.

However, it is clear that the eLife leadership, confident that they know what is best for us, don’t simply want to create a new publishing model, they want to destroy the traditional one. They argue that the names of scientific journals have assumed too great a role as a proxy of the quality of the papers they publish. They have a scintilla of a point.

But the journal title does, in fact, give an indication, albeit imperfect, of the scientific quality of the studies therein. Thus, eLife helped provide opportunity – an additional prestigious venue for high-quality science to be fairly reviewed, published and promoted, and careers to be launched. There are many things wrong with the scientific-publishing-industrial complex, but eLife in its originally envisaged form is not one of them.

Ultimately, the current leaders at eLife have taken over one of my favourite scientific journals and killed it. Our eighth paper is currently under review at eLife. It will be our last.

Paul Bienasz is professor of retrovirology at Rockefeller University, a private graduate-only institution in New York. He has been a been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 2008.

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