We recently hosted Mark Patterson, Executive Director of eLife, as part of the Science & Society Program at EMBL Rome. In case you’re not familiar with eLife, it’s a journal supported by four major Life Science research funding bodies: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wellcome, the Max-Planck Society, and the Wallenberg Foundation, with a mission to explore a more responsible selective peer review system. It’s been a surprising success. Although eLife follows DORA guidelines and formally asked not to be listed by Thompson Reuters, the ascribed Impact Factor is already 7.9. It is widely regarded as a top journal in the Life Sciences on par with the Nature specialty series.
As promised, eLife has been experimenting, and the highlight of Mark’s talk were the results of a recent trial in which they turned peer review upside down (see this paper from Bodo Stern and Erin O’Shea for the origins of the trial). For a limited time, manuscripts sent to eLife were accepted BEFORE being sent out for review. Sounds crazy – I know. No need to respond to the reviews if you don’t like them – your paper is already accepted! The hitch, however…
…is that the reviews and how you decide (or not) to respond are published alongside your paper. Shame is the most powerful emotion, they say, and the system surely forces you to be pretty sure you’re ready to stand behind your work before submitting. In that way, it’s a bit like accumulating comments and retorts on your latest BioRxiv publication – except, of course, that the eLife editors have to like your manuscript first.
The trial is closed now and it’s not clear they will switch to the accept-then-review system any time soon. It was associated with some distortions. For example, a larger fraction were recalled following review –apparently under fear that the reviews would be published, or perhaps just having gotten some good advice. It was associated with an increased rejection rate at the editorial level (from 72% to 78%), and it appeared to show some bias against early career researchers. But I think the trial shows that there is much to be discovered and less to fear in radical peer review publishing alternatives. The aim was to break the power relationship between authors and reviewers and, in this, it clearly succeeded. Keep tuned to the eLife Twitter site for the latest developments and don’t forget to follow EMBL Rome’s very own ex-blogger Emmy Tsang, eLife’s new Innovation Community Manager.