illustration of a laptop with small people marking up an assessment
illustration of a laptop with small people filling out an assessment

Q&A: Why eLife Is Doing Away with Rejections

The journal’s executive director speaks with The Scientist about what it hopes to accomplish with its unusual new publishing model.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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The peer-reviewed journal eLife announced yesterday (October 20) that it will be doing away with the long-held practice of accepting or rejecting scientific manuscripts that are submitted for publication. Last year, the journal began exclusively reviewing papers that had already been posted as preprints. Now, eLife will post submitted preprints regardless of their quality, alongside commentary from peer reviewers and an assessment from the journal itself that details the reviewers’ and editors’ thoughts on the significance of the research and the strength of the evidence supporting the paper’s conclusions. Authors will have the option to revise the papers and resubmit, or simply ask that the manuscript be published as-is on the eLife site.

“It’s quite dramatically different system from the traditional journal system,” says eLife Executive Director Damian Pattinson. “It’s all about moving from the assessment being based on where you publish [to being] based on what you publish.” The Scientist spoke with Pattison about the new publishing model and what he hopes will result from it.

The Scientist: Briefly describe for me how the new system will work.

Headshot of Damian Pattinson
Damian Pattinson
Courtesy of eLife

Damian Pattinson: For every paper that we review, we will post a reviewed preprint that is a rerendering of the of the original preprint on the eLife website. It will feature the peer reviews that we’ve received and an editorial assessment—we’re calling it an eLife assessment. And that is a brief summary of the reviews that give a description of the strength of evidence and also the significance of the research. . . . Rather than having published in eLife being the primary . . . indicator of quality, we’re replacing that with something which is much more nuanced, which essentially focuses on the actual research itself and highlights the strength of the paper itself.

TS: Will it be clearly notated when a reviewed paper is considered faulty in some way, such that it may have been rejected under the old system?

DP: In the assessments . . . we have a common vocabulary that we use to describe papers. And in the significance area, that ranges from ‘landmark’ to . . . ‘very minimal significance.’ . . . We then have a strength of evidence, which starts with ‘exceptional’ and goes to ‘incomplete’ or even ‘inadequate,’ where we would say that the methodology is not adequate to support the conclusions of the paper. So that’s how we highlight the papers that we see as having significant flaws.

TS: My thought would be, being presented by a journal known to be a peer-reviewed journal such as eLife, people might not see it as a preprint. And if you review a preprint that your peer reviewers then decide is not good . . . how do you project to the reader to take caution?

DP: Part of the reason that we’re . . . redisplaying these [preprints] on the eLife website is we do feel it’s important that the display of the assessment is really central to the display of the preprint. By publishing it on our own website, that allows us to actually put this assessment as really front and center in the article itself. So essentially, what you see is the abstract, and then directly below the abstract is a box that says what we think about the paper. So if there are any concerns, then they’re clearly flagged to readers pretty much as soon as they’ve read the abstract.

TS: Will all eLife papers be treated in this way now?

DP: From the end of January, they will be, yes. We are allowing authors to opt in from now, and so if people do want to test the system in advance and to post this way, then they’re able to, but we’ll make the full switch on January 31. [See examples of reviewed preprints already posted to the eLife website.]

TS: Tell me a little bit more about what motivated the change and what you hope to see come from it.

DP: We wanted to take advantage of the change that’s happening anyway in the research ecosystem around people posting preprints and sharing their work early. Once that world becomes the norm—and we do feel that that is the way things are headed—then the obvious next step is, what is the best way of reviewing? I don’t think anyone would claim that the current system of going through multiple journals and rounds of review at different venues makes any sense in this current world where you’re sharing preprints early. And so the eLife model is a way of saying, well, in this new world where research is shared early, what is the best way in which peer review can be applied? And this [new] version, we think, makes the most sense in that world.

The obsession with journal title and the venue in which you publish in biomedical literature really has to end, and we feel that this is an opportunity to do that. . . . Because when work is shared early, then the way it’s reviewed can be radically different. . . . In this model, what we’re saying is that having a single journal title that assigns quality, or assigns that research on the hierarchy, is incredibly inefficient. And so instead, a model where you actually assess and post reviews publicly—it’s a much fairer and faster and more equitable way of publishing.

TS: Anything you want to add real quick? I know you gotta run.

DP: This does just feel like the next stage in the evolution of publishing. And we do think that it’s an opportunity for everyone to move away from this obsession with journal titles, and instead replace it with something that just works better and is much more designed for the internet. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity.