Tuesday, April 02, 2019

eLife and my unanswered questions

Reporting on the scholarly publishing world can be a frustrating business these days, not just because the business model for journalism has all but collapsed but because scholarly publishers seem to be becoming increasingly reluctant to engage with reporters in a meaningful way, especially where the topic is open access. Their clear preference is to communicate by press release or managed events like webinars. 

In fact, this has been the favoured model of commercial legacy publishers for quite some time now. The pity is that it appears to be becoming the modus operandi for non-profit OA publishers and OA initiatives too. Since the raison d’ĂȘtre of OA is openness and transparency this is unfortunate. If nothing else, it smacks of hypocrisy.

PLOS has been guilty of this in the past – see for instance this from 2013. On another occasion in 2011, when PLOS ONE published a controversial paper, I emailed a list of questions to the editorial director (after being invited to do so) only to later receive a message from the publisher saying that it had been decided not to respond to those questions. (As outlined in this article).

Until recently, I had assumed that eLife at least was fully committed to openness. In 2016, for instance, it posted details of its publishing costs. But now I am not so sure.

I will preface my further remarks by saying that eLife is a frequent publisher of press releases, and routinely emails me copies of them. In response, I am assiduous in posting details of these releases on social media. As I see it, the relationship between eLife and reporters like me is a two-way thing: I publicise their press releases; they answer my questions. Simples!

However, it would seem eLife may not see it in the same way. Let me explain.

Signalling something important?

Last month, I was invited to take part in a press briefing webinar with the new eLife Editor-in-Chief Mike Eisen, who has replaced the founding EiC Randy Schekman.

During the briefing, practically all the questions posed by journalists were about business models and APCs. These did not seem to me to be questions best directed at an EiC, and in fact, Eisen had little to say in response other than that he believes APCs to be problematic and in any case the focus should be on achieving open access, not worrying about the details of business models.

In subsequently reflecting on the event it occurred to me that the appointment of Eisen is not simply the replacement of one EiC with another Rather, eLife is surely signalling something important about its future. So far as I am aware this point has not been made by eLife however, and it was not something explored in the press briefing, or indeed in subsequent reporting of the appointment (so far as I am aware).  

Maybe I am wrong, but that seems to me to be a reasonable conclusion to reach if one considers that Eisen’s OA advocacy in recent years has been almost exclusively focused on the need to move beyond the journal in favour of preprint archives and post-publication peer review, which is not what eLife is about. As Eisen put it in a recent Reddit Q&A, “I would advocate doing away with ALL journals – not just for profit journals. The issue is that the idea of a journal as an entity that accepts or rejects papers and ‘publishes’ them is antiquated.”

Eisen outlined his ideas on this in a post last year where he described what he calls an APPRAISE system.

By contrast, eLife has (so far as I am aware) always positioned itself as a high-quality OA competitor to Nature and Science. (I.e. a kind of OA mirror image of those journals).

Moreover, when pressed by its funders to become sustainable, eLife chose not to try something new and different, but simply emulated other publishers by introducing APCs ($2,500 per article). It has yet to achieve sustainability, but in February the outgoing EiC appeared to indicate that the objective and approach remained the same, with sustainability expected to be achieved (in the next two or three years) by a doubling of the number of submissions to eLife.

As I say, this seems very different to Eisen’s view of the world. And that is why I am inclined to conclude that his appointment suggests that eLife is planning to reinvent itself. Either that or there is some kind of misalignment between eLife’s world view and that of its new EiC.

This is just speculation because, as far I am aware, eLife has not stated that it is planning to reinvent itself. Anyway, I was by now sufficiently intrigued that when eLife’s press officer contacted me after the briefing, I responded with some questions. And when it seemed that I was not making much progress that way, I suggested doing a formal Q&A with eLife’s Executive Director Mark Patterson. I was told that he was happy to do this and so emailed over the list of questions below.

Unfortunately, in a strange echo of my experience with PLOS, a week later I received an email saying, “We’ve reviewed the questions that you sent over, and there’s not much more that we’re able to add in response at this stage.”

In a subsequent email I was told, “The answers to the questions we have not already addressed will become clear in time, and we’ll be happy to share more information as it’s available. Having seen all your questions, it’s simply that we’re not prepared to answer them all right now.”

Out of sync?

I get that if eLife is in the middle of a strategic review it might not want to provide detailed answers to one or two of my questions, but for Patterson not to answer any of the questions I sent below seems out of sync both with eLife’s claimed commitment to openness and transparency, and with the unspoken contract I believe should exist between organisations and those like me who report on them: I publicise their news and developments; they answer my questions.

Either way, I have to wonder why eLife was not willing to answer some of the questions. Why, for instance, was it not prepared to say whether Eisen has ever had an EiC position before.

Likewise, why seven months after the initiative was announced was eLife not prepared to share with me its views on Plan S, why was it not prepared to say how many APC waivers it is granting, and why was it not prepared to rehearse for me the results of the peer review trial it held last year? Why also was it not prepared to say whether it believes Read-and-Publish agreements will prove cheaper than the traditional Big Deal, and what impact these agreements might have on small publishers?

More puzzlingly, why if he was unwilling to answer any of the questions I sent him did Patterson agree to do an interview in the first place?

This is all the more baffling to me given that the day before eLife emailed to say it was not prepared to answer my questions, Eisen was introducing himself on Reddit by saying that his objective is “to build a new ecosystem of scholarly publishing based not on journals, but on immediate, author-driven publication coupled with post-publication peer review and curation, and the role I envision eLife will play in this new ecosystem”.

In that Q&A he also said, “F1000Research isn’t, at least not yet, interested in doing anything beyond technical peer review of papers. They do an excellent job of this, but it’s a different problem than what I was thinking with APPRAISE, and now what I want to do at eLife, which is to help organize the literature, to help people find what’s interesting and important to them, and to help contextualize works for readers, and to help authors and people potentially interested in hiring, promoting or funding them to know what the community thinks of the quality and impact of their work.”

Could not eLife have responded to my questions about its future strategy by at least saying something similar to that?

Financial models?

It is worth noting that the very first question posted in response to Eisen’s outline of his APPRAISE idea was, “Fascinating stuff, but what’s the financial model here?” – a question to which Eisen did not respond.

Certainly, if the new strategy of eLife involves making APPRAISE a reality some kind of a financial modelling will be necessary, not least because if the publisher is still not sustainable and its funders expect it to become so in the next few years, it will presumably need to find additional resources from somewhere. In other words, while business models may not be something Eisen is concerned about, someone at eLife needs to take an interest in them. It was partly in order to gain some understanding of this that I invited Patterson to do a formal Q&A. And I asked him specifically because as eLife’s Executive Director I assume that is his bag.

Doubtless the open source Libero products that eLife is co-developing are relevant here too. And I was again puzzled that eLife was not prepared to answer my question about its open source activities even though it has been giving webinars on the topic (e.g. here). I can only conclude that while eLife is happy to broadcast press releases and organise managed events, it is reluctant to answer specific questions from reporters outside of these managed events. A cynic might think that this is because reporters tend to ask probing questions – questions like, “Was that a wise decision you made?” and “Where is the business model here?”

It is also worth pointing out that in the webinar linked above eLife was asked about business models. The reply was that business models are not relevant to non-profits, which have only to achieve sustainability. This seems to me to miss the point that in order to achieve sustainability some kind of financial model is necessary – as Knowledge Unlatched discovered.

The fact is that regardless of any new development work Eisen might be hoping to see at eLife, 30% of its expenditures are already going towards “technology and innovation”. Moreover, eLife has made it clear that Libero Publisher is being developed as a post-peer-review publishing platform, not some kind of preprint APPRAISE solution. If those authors (and/or their institutions) who are now having to pay eLife APCs find themselves having to subsidise a growing number of technology projects, they might start to feel a little aggrieved.

Presumably, eLife hopes that at some point it will be able to earn revenue from providing software-as-a-service solutions around Libero – much as Public Knowledge Project does with its Open Journal Systems platform. The challenge, of course, is that developing new publishing workflow systems is neither easy nor cheap, as PLOS discovered. True eLife is sharing the load with third parties – but even so.

This post is about my personal disappointment with eLife, but I believe there is a wider issue here: what I perceive to be a decreasing level of openness in the OA movement – an issue I have previously raised here. I think we can see the same trend evident in the way in which Plan S was developed and proposed. But do not those who advocate for open access and greater transparency (which, we could note, they consistently demand of legacy publishers) have a responsibility to walk the talk themselves, not least by answering reporters’ questions?

Be that as it may, I await with interest to learn more about the future eLife sees for itself in the developing new world of scholarly communication, the role that its new EiC will play in this, and whether the task it set itself in 2012 is about to be recalibrated in a significant way.

It is just a shame that after appointing a new EiC eLife seems unwilling to answer questions about the significance of its choice, or even answer questions about current OA developments like Plan S and Read-and-Publish agreements.

Anyway, for the record, I am posting below the questions I sent to Patterson.

Questions for Mark Patterson 

        Mike Eisen’s appointment as eLife’s new Editor-in-Chief is an interesting development. As I understand it, eLife was founded in 2012 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Max Planck Society, and Wellcome Trust as a high-quality open-access journal intended to compete with prestigious subscription journals like NatureScience and Cell. Its first Editor-in-Chief was the besuited, suave Nobel prize winner Randy Schekman. Eisen is the rumbustious T-short wearing co-founder of PLOS. It was PLOS that in 2003 pioneered use of the article-processing charge (APC) and it was PLOS that in 2006 launched PLOS ONE, which is committed to publishing any paper deemed to be technically rigorous and worthy of inclusion in the published scientific record.  The PLOS ONE model has been characterised by some as bulk-publishing. Eisen is also a firm advocate for preprints and in 2017 said to me, “We should all publish in bioRxiv and review papers outside of journals. It’s the only way forward.” This would seem to be a very different view of scholarly publishing to the one that has been espoused by eLife to date, and so must signal a change of direction for eLife. How would you characterise that new direction?

        Has Mike Eisen ever worked as an Editor-in-Chief before?
        eLife was wholly subsidised by funders for the first five years, but in 2017 it introduced an APC of $2,500. It has, however, yet to become sustainable. Doubtless, that is why during the press call that Eisen gave on March 5th all bar one of the questions asked by journalists were about business models and APCs. Responsibility for business models and financial matters at eLife is not in fact part of Eisen’s job description. Who is responsible to the eLife Board for business models, financial sustainability and strategy? You as Executive Director perhaps?

        When pushed on APCs during the press call Eisen said that he views them as problematic. He did not, however, propose any alternative way of funding eLife. Instead, he said that since there is enough money in the current subscription system the research community should simply focus on achieving OA rather than worrying over the details of business models. All that is needed, he said, is to reallocate subscription money to pay for OA. Leaving aside the problem of how one does that, I am wondering if the claim holds up. One of the primary reasons why librarians have been calling for open access over the past 20-odd years is that they say they cannot afford the subscription model, which they believe to be unsustainable. Their assumption has always been that open access will be cheaper and so can solve their affordability problem. It has, however, yet to be demonstrated that OA is cheaper. Nevertheless, librarians continue to insist that they should pay publishers less money. One of the reasons UC gave for walking away from its negotiations with Elsevier recently, for instance, was that the publisher was not prepared to reduce what it charges the university. As Jeff MacKie-Mason has explained, UC set two goals when it began the negotiation: “a reduction in costs and default open access publication for UC authors”. At the same time, we could note that the Wiley/Project DEAL Read-and-Publish agreement is not expected to be any cheaper than a traditional Big Deal. Do you think open access will reduce the costs of scholarly publishing? If not, will there not continue to be an unresolved problem in an OA world?
        As noted, despite introducing an APC, eLife is still not sustainable. The funders supporting the publisher say they want it to do so in the near future. In an interview he gave to Nature in February, Randy Schekman said, “The journal still receives income from charitable funders, as well as from article-processing charges. But we hope for eLife to be self-sustaining within two or three years. The financial models we have drawn show that it can be done.” He added, “We believe that eLife has the bandwidth to grow maybe two-fold in submissions — and if we do this, we can sustain ourselves without charitable funding.” Eisen seemed unaware of this financial modelling at the time of the press call. Can you say more about it? Is it enough (and even possible) to double submissions in the next two or three years? eLife’s 2017 annual report indicated that submissions fell after the introduction of an APC.
        In that same report, eLife said that around half of its submissions did not attract a fee. I think this was partly because APCs were introduced during the reporting periodHowever, eLife does also offer waivers for “labs under financial pressure – whether because of local economy, career stage, or a lack of funding.” What percentage of the papers eLife is currently publishing are attracting a waiver, and how do you see this changing over time?
        eLife operates a novel open and consultative peer review system. Last year it announced a trial to test the feasibility of what it called “a radical form of peer review” in which “once an editor has invited a manuscript for full peer review, the journal is committed to publishing the work along with the reviewer reports, the decision letter, and the author response.” Some initial results of that trial have been published here. But how would you summarise these results and how do you envisage peer review developing in future, both at eLife and generally in scholarly publishing, particularly in light of the growing preprint movement and Eisen’s view that peer review ought to take place “outside of journals”?
        I may have missed it, but I do not believe eLife has published a response to Plan S. I do know that when Schekman was asked about Plan S in February, he commented, “I’m very supportive of this. Open access is the future. Commercial journals have been fighting against this very hard because it poses a clear danger to their profit margin … There will be a shakedown in the business. Some journals will lose out.” Is that eLife’s official position? If not, what is its position?
        In light of the Project DEAL/ Wiley agreement, I am thinking that this model (and/or the Read-and-Publish one) is likely to become the norm going forward, and I assume such deals will eventually be done with Elsevier. The problem for eLife I would think is that these are essentially new-style Big Deals, a model that inevitably favours large commercial legacy publishers and by its very nature tends to elbow aside small publishers like eLife. Unable to cut such deals with libraries, funders and/or consortia might it be that eLife will be one of the journals to lose out (as Schekman puts it)? How can it best adapt to the kind of changes that initiatives like Plan S are likely to introduce?
        eLife has been actively collaborating with third-parties (including the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation, Coko) to build open source publishing solutions. Recently it announced Libero Reviewer and it has been experimenting with live-code articles. Can you say something about these innovative initiatives and how they fit into eLife’s strategy going forward?
        There has been a lot of interest in the past couple of years in developing funder publishing platforms – primarily by using F1000 Research technology. More recently, we have seen Elsevier moving into this space too. For instance, it just announced that it has reached agreement with the Association of Arab Universities to use its proprietary platform Digital Commons (bepress) to eventually publish 1,000 Arab journals. What does this tell us about the future of scholarly communication, and where does eLife fit into this development? Does it?
        Why is it that the topic of open access seems only ever to be able to be discussed in terms of wide-eyed uncritical faith in “the cause”, or bad-tempered complaints about the kind of changes it is leading to – i.e. APCs, mandatory open access policies, predatory publishing etc. Can we ever expect to see a consensus over open access? If so, how?

1 comment:

Federico said...

I share the interest in eLife's financials, but you have to admit that the questions were slightly loaded. :)