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eLife, a New Scholarly Communication System
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Posted On January 7, 2013


The launch of a new open access (OA) journal has become commonplace today. In fact, one would be surprised to find a new journal launching that was of the “traditional” bent given the current mood of academic libraries and their budgets. In December 2012, a new journal, eLife debuted and it is different enough from the traditional mode of scholarly communication that merely calling it a new journal does not really do it justice. The eLife Initiative is funded and overseen by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust, all major research funders. According to the site, “Their goal is to develop an initiative in research communication whose primary motivation is to serve the interests of science, and to catalyse widespread improvement of the current system for disseminating and sharing of new research findings." 

The eLife journal (ISSN 2050-084X) is based in Cambridge, U.K. (HighWire Press is actually handling the mechanics of publishing). And while it is unlike most OA journals that get shouldered with the often-inappropriate label of “author-pays” OA journal, no funds are exchanged between the researcher and the journal while the journal is being established, but fees may be imposed later as other revenue streams are developed.

Over recent years, there have been many OA journals launched, and most of these have the same look and management of the traditional journals that came before. The hybrid journals, for example, merely slot OA articles into a pre-existing traditional journal. And it can be reasoned that this was a safe approach to gain acceptance. In many ways, this is like the mid-1990s radical sea change as print shifted to digital journals and it seemed to make every effort to keep the digital experience nearly identical to paper.

There are many features that eLife strives to accomplish, more than can be discussed in this article, but I offer a few of the highlights. The design of eLife makes much better use of being an electronic medium than many journals (OA or not). Content is licensed under a CC-BY license that permits unrestricted use and redistribution, provided that the original author and source are credited. The content is offered in HTML, PDF, and XML, the latter providing an improved ability for data mining, translation, and other reuses. This is a departure from the permissions given by many journals.

eLife is “a researcher-led digital publication for outstanding work, a platform to maximise the reach and influence of new findings and a showcase for new approaches for the presentation and assessment of research.” Randy W. Schekman, an American cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and former editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was announced in 2011 as the editor-in-chief of eLife, although considerable attention is given by eLife to the “over 200 of the world’s most talented biomedical scientists” who are key stakeholders in the journal’s oversight and management.

Another key feature that makes eLife unique is that it seeks to improve the publishing experience for early-career researchers, as is noted on its website. “We aim to make eLife the leading choice for all researchers, in particular for early-career researchers. It’s important that early experiences of publishing are constructive and fair. We’ll deliver a top publishing venue to advance careers in science; we’ll make decisions quickly; deliver a fair, transparent, and supportive author experience; and create maximum potential exposure for published works.”

eLife is using an open discussion between editors and reviewers, also a strategic difference from other journals. Not only is the goal to hasten the reviewing process as to not allow submissions to linger in an inbox, but the process seeks to provide the author with constructive, and one would hope, more consistent feedback than the current model often generates. The assumption here also appears to be that through such a timely and group commitment, the reviewing process would also strive for a higher quality of feedback by all parties. This is a laudable goal if it can be consistently achieved.

A particularly important feature is a page with author information. The “author contributions” section highlights, in respectable detail, the contribution that each listed author made to the work. In many fields, but in biomedical in particular, contributed authors can easily be ten or more (sometimes much more) and typically the principal investigators are listed first even if he or she did not carry about the bulk of the research itself. In turn, this has led to “author bloat” so that authors can add the article to his or her CV but without an acknowledgment of what the actual contribution was. This could serve to offer more truth to the nature of the contributions that were made and that could, in turn, reduce some of the bloat.

In addition, authors are asked to disclose competing interests that he or she may have. In an article citing seven authors, for example, the competing interest section states that, “MR and SWH: Own shares of the Abberior Instruments GmbH start-up supplying RESOLFT microscopy kits. The latter also benefits through IP secured by the Max Planck Society. The remaining have declared that no competing interests exist.”

eLife claims that because of its in-depth editorial process it will only select the most influential work for publication, despite their lack of space constraints. It claims that, “As an online journal not limited by space constraints, we expect to be able to publish a good number of papers each year.” But it argues, eLife is not a megajournal (such as PLoSOne) because these types of journals deploy “a peer-review process that assesses research rigour, but not potential impact or significance.”

“I don’t think eLife affects the gold/green debate at all. It’s an example of gold, not an attempt to resolve the differences between green and gold,” says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project. “It’s an especially interesting example of gold, however, because of the money behind it and the deliberate attempt to reach the highest levels of quality and prestige.”

eLife will be published on Tuesdays every 2 weeks. 


Robin Peek is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She also writes a monthly column called Focus on Publishing for Information Today.

Email Robin Peek
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