The non-profit open-access journal eLife has introduced a raft of changes to the way it publishes research. It will publish all papers that it sends for peer review, along with the reviewers’ reports. The move, announced last month, has had a mixed reception.

“This is a significant development for publishing as a whole,” says Bianca Kramer, an open-science analyst at Sesame Open Science, a consultancy based in the Netherlands. “It changes the focus of peer review from a gatekeeping exercise to an open assessment of the quality of research.”

Others have expressed frustration, saying that eLife’s reputation will suffer if it stops rejecting papers on the basis of peer-review reports.

“The current leaders at eLife have taken over one of my favourite scientific journals and killed it,” wrote Paul Bieniasz, a retrovirologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City, in a Times Higher Education opinion piece on 28 October. “The significant prestige enjoyed by eLife, built on the selective publication of high-quality work provided by many laboratories, including my own, is being discarded.”

No more rejections

The idea of making peer-review reports publicly available is not new. eLife itself has been publishing reviews of papers it accepts and rejects since 2021 (also last year, the journal began to mandate that any submitted research first be published as a preprint). Other publishers, such as the London-based platform F1000 Research, publish manuscripts immediately and later add peer-review reports.

Under the previous system, scientists paid US$3,000 to publish in eLife, but this has now been reduced to $2,000. And according to a 20 October editorial announcing the changes, the journal “will no longer make accept/reject decisions following peer review”. Instead, it will publish every manuscript that has been sent for peer review, alongside reports from the reviewers. The paper will be accompanied by an eLife assessment to give readers a sense of the work’s importance (this element sets the model apart from other post-publication peer-review systems such as F1000 Research).

After publication, authors can choose whether to make the changes suggested by the reviewers and resubmit the work to eLife or to send it for review at another journal. Each iteration of the reviewed preprint will receive its own digital object identifier (DOI), the unique string of numbers and letters assigned to research articles for referencing. A separate, ‘umbrella’ DOI will also be assigned to the paper and remain with it throughout the process. At any point, the authors can designate a specific version as the version of record — roughly equivalent to the final published paper in a conventional journal.

The changes will come into effect immediately and will become the only option for researchers wishing to publish in eLife from January 2023.

Speed and scrutiny

eLife says that its new system will drastically speed up the publishing process and save authors from a months-long wait to see whether their work passes peer review. “It’s the immediacy of preprints with the scrutiny of peer review,” said eLife’s executive editor, Damian Pattinson, at a press conference announcing the changes in October.

Richard Sever, who co-founded the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint servers that are used by eLife, says that the changes will force researchers to confront the widely held idea that the name of the journal that publishes research is a proxy for the quality of papers. “One thing it will try to stop people doing is this bean-counter approach. For example, thinking someone has three papers in eLife so they must be good.” Researchers will now have to read the work and accompanying reviews to see whether it is credible, he says.

Kramer says that the value for researchers of publishing in eLife is still “very much tied to the journal brand”, with the reputation now “being built on the quality of peer review rather than on selectivity”. “It will be interesting to see how authors will respond,” she adds.

There are many positives to the journal’s “bold” changes, wrote Sophien Kamoun, a biologist at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK, in a blog post. “It puts working scientists in control of the publishing process,” he wrote. He added that the journal should publish decisions about preprints that are submitted but not sent for peer review. “Desk reject decisions should be open and transparent.”

Others have pushed back against the proposed changes. “People will use proxies like prestige of the institution and of the scientist/lab to determine what they think of a paper,” tweeted Guy Tanentzapf, a cell and developmental biologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “This will disadvantage lower-prestige institutes and early career scientists.”

In his opinion article, Bieniasz accused the publisher of a “bait and switch” for authors who built up eLife’s reputation by publishing their best work in the journal. He added that his eighth paper, which is currently under review at eLife, will be his last published there.

Pattinson says that the new model is not a bait and switch. “We have always been an innovative publisher aiming to transform the science-publishing system. After ten years of this work, we feel the system will never change unless there are viable alternatives that are available to authors and, until now, these have been few and far between,” he says.

“We know researchers value high-quality peer review and editor-led assessment, but they have not really been able to access these services without participating in the journal system,” Pattinson adds. “Now they can.”