24 October 2022

eLife chooses not to decide (but still has made a choice)

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Last week, science Twitter was abuzz with an announcement from the journal eLife that they don’t “accept” papers any more.

Lots of people had opinions, and of course I do too.

I think this tweet from editor Michael Eisen is informative (emphasis added):

The future of science publishing is author directed publishing (preprints) combined with multifaceted, ongoing, public post-publication peer review. There is no other way. And I'm glad we're finally getting into the nitty gritty of how to do it right.

This statement has the zeal of a missionary, which I appreciate. But saying that “This is the future of scholarly communication” and “There is no other way” does not make it so. It’s an assertion, not a fact. Karl Marx was convinced that bloody revolutions would lead to more perfect collective societies. But that didn’t work out the way he envisioned.

A bit of background. Eisen was involved in the Public Library of Science, and particularly PLOS ONE. PLOS ONE was revolutionary because it said, “We are not reviewing for importance.” eLife’s new policy is another attempt to get people to not assess whether something is “important” because it appears in a particular journal.

Why does that matter? As far as I can see, this is mostly about career progression. 

Over the last couple of decades, more and more decisions about hiring, tenure, promotion, merit raises, and grant funding have become highly influenced by what journal the work appears in. A lot of people believe that careers are won or lost on the basis of whether you can get a paper in Nature or Science. (Data don’t bear that out – you can have a career without those papers in glamour magazines – but their influence looms large.)

Indeed, these concerns about assessment were the entire impetus for the creation of eLife.

eLife’s new policies feel like an attempt to “fix” committees doing that decision making, in a highly circuitous, roundabout way. This is not an attempt to fix publishing, it’s an attempt to change assessment culture.

Those assessing committees are under no obligation to pay attention to what eLife does. Committees could simply decide that eLife manuscripts don’t “count” for assessment purposes. More likely is that committees will try to force reviews into a binary: to use topline review summaries in the same way that they use “accepted for publication” now.

The “Everyone should just read the paper and assess the science themselves” is understandable. We all want out work to be assessed on its own merits, and with deep reading with attention paid to the nuances. But it runs counter to a world of bestseller lists, boxoffice lists, and online ratings. Lots of people are looking for quick ways of deciding, “Is this any good or not?” I don’t see how science can be immune from that.

I can’t help but think that everyone is all crazy about publication and how it affects careers and assessments because we are so busy fighting for crumbs. The number of people with the desire, training, and skill who want to have scientific careers exceeds the number of career opportunities out there. If we could address that, maybe things like eLife’s new direction in becoming “not a journal” would just be seen as an interesting experiment by a single player in the publishing landscape, rather than a harbinger of doom or salvation.

Update, 26 October 2022: I will be watching the results of this Twitter poll with interest.

Do you think it is sound career advice to encourage a postdoc looking for a TT job or assistant professor hoping for tenure to submit their work to eLife 2.0?

Currently very close.

External links

eLife’s new model: Changing the way you share your research

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