Fiona Watt: Thank you, eLife

As Fiona Watt steps down as eLife’s third Deputy Editor, she reflects on the achievements of the initiative to date.
Inside eLife
  • Annotations

Back in 2011 when Mark Walport, then head of the UK’s Wellcome Trust, told me of plans to launch eLife, neither of us could have anticipated that he would be the reason for my stepping down as Deputy Editor in 2018. Mark is now head of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and I have been appointed Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council (MRC), one of the funding agencies that make up UKRI. While I will continue to run the research Centre that I have established at King’s College London, these are exciting times for UK science and my role at the MRC offers an unprecedented opportunity to help shape the research landscape.

Although I’m sad to be leaving the eLife team, I am really delighted at what has been achieved so far, and how much more the future promises. eLife has become a favoured place for publishing some of the best and most innovative work in the life sciences and it is really heartening to notice how often eLife papers are presented in support of applications for grants and faculty positions. However, for me, the greatest triumph has been to reform peer review. Speaking both as editor and author, the process of consultation amongst reviewers in order to achieve a consensus decision about publication is far superior to the conventional review process. I believe that it raises the quality of the individual reviews (not least because reviewers know one another’s identities) and it provides authors with clear guidelines on what revisions are required. Posting the decision letter, consolidated review and the authors’ response alongside published papers has proved to be a valuable asset for students who are keen to gain insights into how papers are improved by constructive peer review. Looking beyond publishing, eLife can provide valuable lessons for other types of peer review, such as assessment of grant applications.

I am also pleased at the speed with which eLife has embraced preprints, for example by facilitating direct submissions from BioRvix. In a remarkably short space of time, postdocs and students have become keen to see their work appear in BioRxiv. Preprints not only facilitate data sharing prior to publication but are also a very valuable tool for citing unpublished data in grant applications. The boundary between preprints and peer-reviewed publications is becoming blurred, as in the case of Wellcome Open, where reviewing takes place post-publication.

From the outset, eLife has not been afraid to take part in experiments, such as The Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology. It would be much harder for conventional journals to embark on this type of activity, due in part to financial constraints, anxiety about impact factors and lack of the scientific expertise required to ensure it is carried out effectively. By being at the forefront of new initiatives, as well as by acting as a platform for different researcher communities, eLife is much more influential than a conventional journal.

In closing I would like to pay tribute to all who work so hard for eLife, but particularly to Randy Schekman, for making the eLife concept a reality and ensuring that eLife will remain at the forefront of science publishing. As Anna Akhmanova takes over as Deputy Editor, I wish her every success.