Interview with Mark Patterson, Executive Director of eLife

Welcome to the most recent installment in my very occasional series of interviews with people in the publishing/science blogging/computing communities. This latest installment is with Mark Patterson, Executive Director of new OA publisher eLife. I attended an ARL Directors briefing conference call on eLife with Mark a little while back, highlighting for me just how interesting this project is and just how little I knew about it before the call.

Hence, this interview.

A huge thanks to Mark for agreeing to participate!



Q0. Mark, tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up as Executive Director of eLife?

I started my career as an academic scientist in the field of genetics. After post-docs at Oxford and Stanford and a few years as a lecturer in Cambridge, I moved into publishing in 1994 to be the editor of one of my favourite journals at the time, Trends in Genetics. I moved to Nature a few years later, and helped to launch the Nature Reviews Journals. In 2002 I got the chance to join PLOS, which I leapt at. Partly because of my background in genetics, where I’d witnessed the profound impacts of completely free and open access to genetic and genomic data, I found the vision of a fully open research literature utterly compelling (and still do!). I stayed at PLOS for the longest time I’ve spent in any job, but after nine years got the opportunity to join another wonderful project, eLife. Although it was a difficult decision to leave PLOS, I felt that working on a project supported by three outstanding funding organizations was another opportunity that was too good to miss.


Q1. What is eLife and how is it different from a traditional journal?

eLife is an open-access journal that aims to publish great research covering life science and biomedicine. More broadly, eLife is a collaboration between the funders and practitioners of science, whose collective aim is to make research communication work better. We want to assist in the transformation of science journals publishing from a system developed in print media to one that is fully adapted to digital tools and serves the interests of science.

So our starting point is to launch a great journal, and experiment with various aspects of the publishing process. First we are exploring ways to make the editorial process work more efficiently. The key innovation here is that authors receive a consolidated letter that summarises the views of the reviewers (who also consult with one another after their reports have been submitted), so that the author knows exactly what needs to be done to get the work published. The aim is to eliminate unnecessary rounds of revision and review, and get work published faster. We publish the decision letters and responses on the articles, so other researchers can see how this works. Second, we’re looking at various ways to extend the reach and utility of open content – from the design of our website, to the dissemination of content via many other platforms (Github, Mendeley, Fluidinfo, PubMed Central and so on) – and to use article metrics and indicators to expose the ways in which that content has been used.

We have a terrific opportunity to experiment and learn, and as far as we possibly can we will share the results with our community. But something I also learnt from PLOS is that it makes sense not to go too far too fast, so we’re also trying to take measured and carefully chosen steps.


Q2. I know that there will be no author processing fees to begin with, but what are the longer-term plans for financial sustainability?

You’re right, the project is completely supported by the three funders, while we work to establish eLife firmly in the research community, as a venue for great new work. Our goals for eLife are ambitious, and we’re competing for content that would otherwise be sent to journals that are not open access or supported by publication fees. The funders felt that the best way to build a reputation for innovation and excellence was to avoid any publication fees for the first few years. Once this is achieved, we will most likely introduce publication fees, and consider other revenue streams to take the project on a path towards long-term sustainability. The publishing landscape is undergoing much transition at the moment as well, so our plans for sustainability will develop over the next months and years. What’s clear though is that the stronger our scientific foundation, the better placed we will be to achieve longer-term success.


Q3. There’s lots happening in the scholarly publishing industry right now -- the Finch Report, the OSTP policy memorandum, FASTR, PeerJ, Episciences and so much more, with seemingly a startling new announcement every week or so. Where do you see the ecosystem in 5, 10 or even 20 years? Will it even be recognizable?

Having been involved in open access publishing for some time now, it does feel that the pace of change has accelerated over the past couple of years in particular. 2012 was a big year in particular because of the policy developments, especially in the UK, but 2013 has had a pretty spectacular beginning as well with lots happening in the US. My sense is that these policies will give added momentum to open-access publishing, but that the growth will be concentrated in the born open-access journals, rather than subscription journals offering a hybrid option. I could be wrong of course, but I see PLOS ONE and the new journals that it has inspired (notably BMJ Open, Scientific Reports, AIP Advances and, most recently, PeerJ) gaining ground. And then there are more experimental approaches like F1000 Research and Figshare to consider as well. Other disruptive influences will be the move towards new metrics and indicators of article impact. Pioneered by PLOS, article metrics are now being provided by quite a few journals, including Nature, and sophisticated services have been developed to deliver these metrics, such as ImpactStory and Altmetric.

So, I really can’t predict what research communication will look like in say 10 years or beyond. I would say that by then the default will definitely be ‘open’, but my feeling is that there are sufficient new approaches, services, and publication venues right now to predict that there will also be fundamental change beyond open access - both to articles as the primary vehicle for research outputs, and journals as a mechanism to organize those outputs. One possible, and radically different, future was very nicely described by Jason Priem recently in Nature.


Q4. Librarians and traditional publishers (commercial and society alike) view a lot of these developments with a mixture of excitement and unease. How do you see the roles of these types of intermediaries evolving in an ecosystem that includes eLife and all those other exciting new players?

Well, I’m definitely in the excitement camp! But I also try and appreciate the challenges faced by other constituencies involved in research communication. There are many important functions of the conventional publishing process that need to be retained in the new digital ecosystem, but how we deliver those functions might completely change. This brings all sorts of opportunities for those involved, so long as they are able to respond to a changing environment and adapt to it. Open-access publishing is now so well established, that you can see publishers large and small getting stuck in. That said, some publishers are doing this in a more committed way than others, and so I think we can expect to see new organisations emerge as powerful players (as PLOS, BMC and Hindawi have done) and others probably diminish.

I don’t have so much knowledge of the library side of things, but I’ve certainly met some creative and energetic people who are also immersing themselves in the opportunities offered by digital media. Repositories have tremendous potential to organize and present the scholarly output of a particular institution. And there will also be lots of work to be done to help users make sense of the increasingly diverse and complex array of information sources and services to support scholarship and how to use those resources in the most productive ways.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity will be in partnerships and collaborations. Having recently returned from the Beyond the PDF meeting in Amsterdam, you can’t help feeling energized and occasionally bewildered by the range of possibilities. Smart people are coming up with ideas all the time. Those of us concerned with the implementation of those ideas need to join forces with the bright minds generating them, and the other constituencies supporting the research value chain to turn those ideas into powerful, sustainable services.


Q5. There have been insinuations online (particularly in the Scholarly Kitchen) about conflicts of interest and preferential treatment in the relationship between eLife and PubMed Central. How do you respond to these accusations?

The launch of eLife is supported by three world-class funders who are motivated to make a positive difference in the world. These organisations are very familiar with the handling of competing interests, and also the need to respect the concept of editorial independence. eLife is published by a separate non-profit organisation that was incorporated in the United States, and the editors who run the journal operate entirely independently of the funders. All reputable journals operate according to this principle. We think it’s important for all journals to make the funding sources that support an article very clear, and we’re providing this information at a very granular level (source, grant number if available, and the individual funded). We’ve been very clear that all research submitted to eLife is treated equally, and we welcome outstanding work regardless of funding sources.

During the run-up to the launch of the eLife website in December last year, we were able to make some initial articles available via PubMed Central. We felt this would be a great thing to explore with PubMed Central because it would get some excellent new science out into the public domain more quickly than we could otherwise manage. It was an unusual step to take, but the world of publishing is in transition, and eLife has a mandate to push boundaries, experiment, learn from things that don’t work as well as those that do, and even have some fun along the way. When you do try out new things then you have to expect some criticism too – when I was at PLOS we were on the receiving end of some of that as well. I believe you should listen carefully to criticism, learn from it where you can, and move on.


Q6. Issues of incentives and prestige not to mention fear around hidebound tenure processes drive a lot of publishing decisions for researchers. How do you answer questions like, “Why should I publish in eLife when it’s more immediately useful to my career to publish in a famous, established journal?”

That’s the most important question for any new journal. It doesn’t matter how good your processes, infrastructure, websites are if you haven’t got any content to show. And given that eLife is aspiring to publish really great work, it’s all the more challenging for us. When faced with this question then we have to recognise what authors want out of publishing – reputational reward and an outstanding (which mostly means fast) service.

Even before we’d published any content, we had two powerful things going for us – the reputation and prestige of the funders behind eLife, and the stellar team of academic researchers who run the journal. This really helped to convince some people to submit to the journal. On top of that, the editors had devised an editorial process that we all felt could be much better than the conventional process. As mentioned above, the goals of the process are to eliminate as much as possible of the pain and wasted time that’s often experienced in publishing. Prospective authors were very interested in this aspect of eLife, and it definitely encouraged quite a few authors to give us a try.

Now that we have published over 50 articles, we are in a much stronger position. The standard of science is really good across the board, and there are some particular papers that really stand out. Plus, the response to the editorial process has been extremely positive. These first few months are absolutely critical in providing the foundation that eLife needs to really flourish, and thanks to a great initial response from the scientific community, we are off to a terrific start.


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