Randy Schekman

Schekman brought bold ideas to the journal that caused ripples in scientific publishing.Credit: Elena Zhukova, UC Berkeley

Nobel laureate Randy Schekman shook up the publishing industry when he launched the open-access journal eLife in 2012.

Armed with millions in funding from three of the world’s largest private biomedical charities — the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute — Schekman designed the journal to compete with publishing powerhouses such as Nature, Science and Cell. (Nature’s news team is independent of its journal team and its publisher, Springer Nature.)

eLife experimented with innovative approaches such as collaborative peer review — in which reviewers work together to vet research — that caused ripples in scientific publishing.

And for the first few years, researchers could publish their work in eLife for free. That came to an end in 2017, because the journal needed more revenue streams to help it to grow.

Schekman stepped down from eLife on 31 January to chair an advisory council for the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s initiative, funded by the Sergey Brin Family Foundation in San Francisco, California, to better coordinate research into Parkinson’s disease.

Nature’s news team asked Schekman about the impact he thinks eLife has had on scholarly publishing, and about the future of open-access journals.

How did you come to start eLife?

eLife started with a quite substantial dowry from the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It was a clean slate, and we could do more or less what we wanted as long as it was successful. Success was not defined by impact factor — we were firmly committed to dampening its influence in science. It was defined by the kinds of papers that people send to us for publication: we would judge it a success if our own board members sent us their best work to publish — some have and some not yet.

One of the principal decisions we made was that all choices of which papers to include should come from working scientists. I took advantage of my experiences as editor-in-chief from 2006–11 at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) to cook up this idea of reviewers consulting each other when evaluating a paper. This has become a unique feature of eLife.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of eLife’s practice of collaborative peer review?

There are many benefits. When you agree to review a paper for eLife, you know that your identity will be shared with other reviewers, so you can’t hide behind your anonymity. People can’t say things that they can’t defend. When a paper is considered appropriate for revision, the board member who is monitoring the review often writes the letter to the author. They organize it so that only the key points are written in a summary, which is helpful for the authors.

One downside is that it creates a bit more work, because the reviewers are not done when they submit their reviews. It takes time to have that conversation to craft a decision letter. The reviewers tell me that they enjoy this process.

Another potential downside is that you can have an assistant professor whose opinion is going against that of an established person in their field — and the assistant professor might not say what they think. But I’ve only had one reviewer tell me they felt intimidated during the process. My feeling is that it might be quite the opposite: the younger person is closer to the technical aspects of the work, and in many cases, young people who agree to review a paper want to prove themselves. If it were a problem, we would find it difficult to get young people to serve as reviewers, and we don’t.

What do you think of Plan S, an initiative to make all papers open access on publication?

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. The public has paid for this research, so they deserve to have access to it.

However, there are legitimate expenses of publishing that need to be made clear. PNAS is published by a science society that does not make a profit, and it recently said that it estimates the cost of publishing a paper to be US$6,000, so any cap on article-processing charges that could come from Plan S might have to allow for this. But $6,000 seems very high to me. It might be that journals may have different article-processing charges depending on their selectivity.

How do you think Plan S will affect scholarly publishing?

There will be a shakedown in the business. Some journals will lose out. Publishing is not a static business — the advent of the preprint server has really changed things, for example. Journals are going to change, and Plan S could have a strong influence.

Do you think that eLife can survive in a Plan S world without extra funding?

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. We want to keep having the same high standards and peer-review mechanisms going forward. 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.