Open access and the press

Two ways the new eLife could improve media coverage

After a decade of growth, the open-access movement in scientific publishing still hasn’t overthrown the traditional model of paid content and subscription-based access, but new initiatives continue to try.

The latest entrant, which launched December 13, 2012, is a collaboration of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society called eLife. On Thursday, U.S. News and World Report managing editor Simon Owens looked into the prospects of the fledgling open-access journal, whose founders “collectively contribute more than $4.2 billion a year to scientific research.” Unsurprisingly, they’re aiming high, Owens reported:

To date, eLife has already published more than 60 articles in the short time since its launch, and it still remains to be seen whether it can achieve the quick ascendancy to become one of the most-sought after publications for high impact research. Its founders believe that the prestige of its backers, along with the leading scientists who run it, will catapult it to the status of the Cells and Natures of the world, but the question remains as to whether scientists will abandon these closed-access stalwarts.

According to Owens, eLife’s biggest innovation is its process for vetting papers, which does away with anonymity among peer reviewers and assigns a single editor to handle second- and third-round revisions, rather than sending the paper back to the full team of reviewers. As Owens noted, this is a major departure from the typical system of anonymous, uncoordinated, sometimes conflicting reviews that can mire a paper for weeks or months.

It’s clear that if eLife intends to challenge the norms of scientific publishing, it should focus more energy on disrupting the norms of media relations in the sciences. In a promising first step, the eLife media policy waives the dreaded “Ingelfinger Rule” and the typical press embargo, a major departure from what pay journals do. But given its bold mission “to catalyze innovation,” it could do more.

I would propose two new experiments that could help eLife effect change in how journals relate to the popular press:

News Promotion

One of the problems with the present journal-reporter relationship is that it essentially introduces an additional layer of sensationalism—through catchy press releases—rather than acting as a simple translator. Though eLife provides non-technical summaries for all of its papers, its publications are also promoted through the usual channels: press releases and PR departments.

At the journal level, eLife could start by asking that authors refrain from involving PR departments in publicizing their work. Instead, the “eLife Digests”—which are typically written by eLife staff in coordination with the authors—could be circulated to the press along with contact information and links to eLife’s accompanying editorial-style “Insight” pieces.

Unlike press releases, eLife Digests are published as a section of the technical paper they describe, and are therefore held to a higher scientific standard. Foregoing the traditional PR system would distinguish eLife as an organization that takes both science, and science journalists, seriously.

By distributing the Digests, eLife can maintain interactions with the press, but without the usual power dynamic. Instead of reporters depending on journals to set embargo periods and provide additional materials, eLife would work with reporters in a partnership to ensure that quality science is communicated to the public. Instead of competing with the pay-walled journals for news real estate, eLife could present an alternative system that brings science promotion in line with the values of the open-access movement.

eLife Press Checker

As an extension of its work to add accountability to the peer-review process, eLife could experiment with ways expand accountability to how science is covered in the popular press.

Journalists and scientists alike bemoan the decline in quality of science reporting on the Internet. Headlines like “Eating lots of chocolate helps people stay thin,” and “Visiting family warps your brain,” may be catchy, but they are almost always exaggerations or distortions of the underlying science. If eLife wants to act as a catalyst in this space, it could build an accountability system that looks at news reporting as a critical step in the science-communication process, rather than as a separate endeavor.

Such a system could follow the model of the popular factchecker blogs that hold politicians and political reporters accountable. For science reporting, eLife could start a website that analyzes science reporting at different news outlets, using metrics like “copying from press release,” “additional sourcing,” or “contextualization” that are relevant to the peculiar problems of science reporting.

Adding accountability to the system could potentially yield a number of benefits for science communication generally. Reporters and publications might think twice about borrowing from a press release if it could damage their reputation in a more public way. On the other side of the equation, scientists could make more confident, informed decisions about their interactions with the press.

To make it work, eLife would need to have a firewall between its press analysis and the eLife journal itself, just as it has ensured that eLife is editorially independent from its funders. The embargo system still in place at most technical journals also presents a challenge, as it could allow journals to restrict access to embargoed content in response to unfavorable coverage. But given the stranglehold that closed-access journals have over journalists through the embargo system, exposing and disrupting this reporter-journal codependency might be a positive development for science communication in the long run.

As Owens noted, eLife has drawn criticism from Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen for creating a potential conflict of interest, insofar as eLife could end up publishing research funded by its founders. Furthermore, Anderson argues that the review process takes a long time because it is thorough, not because it is disorganized.

These concerns are important, and likely to dog eLife more and more as it grows. But by making a concerted effort to tamp down hype and improve accuracy in the coverage of the science it publishes, eLife can push back against these concerns. More important, it can spark innovation in science-press relations, challenging the dominance of closed-access journals in the eyes of both scientists and the public.

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Elizabeth Robinson is a science policy graduate student at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute in Washington, DC. She also holds a bachelor's in neuroscience from Columbia University. Tags: , , , ,