Reaching for the stars

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Former astrophysicist Ian Mulvany has recently moved from Mendeley to take on the role of head of technology at the new open-access journal eLife. He talks about the vision for the funder-funded venture and the economics of open access

Why did you join eLife?

eLife was a very interesting opportunity. I’ve always worked on products for libraries or end users. This gives an insight into what funders want. We’re an independent organisation but funded exclusively by funders. It works in a similar way to the way that start-ups work with venture-capital firms. We’ve been set up as a non-profit, but there is still a requirement for return on investment so it is important for us to become self sustainable.

There will be a move by funding agencies towards tighter compliance with open-access (OA) mandates so their message is likely to become ‘you must publish in an OA journal and here is a list of titles that we suggest’. However, the funding bodies behind eLife – Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust – are not going to tell people where to publish and in terms of editorial decisions we are completely independent.

What is your approach to peer review?

We have around 170 people on the board of reviewers. They are very enthusiastic because we have put the design of the review system in their hands. We have a senior editor who will act as coordinator between reviewers and compose a single letter to the author. This will be more efficient. We will publish these letters with the articles.

I think the industry has got the terminology wrong about post-publication review. The ultimate post-publication peer review is for other researchers to write papers. However, we aim to aggregate conversations about our papers wherever they are happening on the web. People entering university in 2017 will have been four years old when Facebook launched. For those people it will feel odd to have media that is not in some way social. The closed-access model completely holds that back. We will use restful APIs so that researchers can ping content and we will have good metadata so they can text and data mine our content.

Publishers are not the natural hosts for datasets, but a journal like ours can make a difference and work well with data. I think it is most important for data to meet the people who will make use of it. Institutional and data repositories are a good first step and we will see publishers working with them.

There are three different levels of data. Firstly there’s small data and that is very fragile. We should be making researchers aware that they should be putting this type of data in repositories like Dryad. Medium-sized datasets such as those of human genome research are well served. With huge datasets such as from the Large Hadron Collider it makes sense to bring researchers to the data.

What are your plans?

At the moment we are busy planning journals but have ideas for other projects. I think that OA is the future and a viable business model, but researchers are not going to publish in an OA venue just because it’s OA. We are trying to provide a high level of prestige in our journal and we anticipate having a rejection rate of around 70 per cent. We hope it will be a catalyst for OA adoption in the life sciences.

I think that success for us will initially be down to the enthusiasm and buy-in of the editorial community. We have the opportunity to showcase best-in-class web capabilities, but researchers are very conservative. They spend their energies doing research and need support to shift behaviour. The research community comes first; the technology afterwards.

How will business models work?

The economics of OA will make sense in the long term. The cost for production is going to go down. At the moment there is an average article-processing charge of £3,500/article, but it is going to be much lower.

There is already a huge range of charges. New publisher PeerJ is claiming it can do OA for $99 for an author’s lifetime, while Chicago-based startup Scholastica is charging $10 per submission. At eLife we will have no article processing charges for the first two years.

All publishers would now admit that gold OA is sustainable. The conversation is now going to move on to what are legitimate business models. In the long term or even the medium term, 30 per cent profit margins are not sustainable. There will be a focus on organisations that give clear explanations of what value they provide.

Another question will be what opportunity there will be for other kinds of initiatives. I suspect there will be a move to break apart the core functions of publishers. Maybe they will become organisations just giving approval. If we break apart traditional publishing roles this could have significant efficiency savings.

I can imagine a future where things are very different. We could have many smaller publishers, consolidated through Google. Or what if a company like Facebook launched a scientific journal? Alternatively, existing publishers could become flexible enough to change. What will be critical is where the talent goes. Scholarly publishing at the moment isn’t even in the present.

Interview by Siân Harris