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.