Annual Report: 2021 in review

A look back on eLife’s efforts to transform research communication in 2021, notably with our new ‘publish, then review’ model and ongoing work to improve technology and research culture.
Inside eLife
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Letter from the Chairman

2021 marked 10 years since eLife was conceived by our funders and incorporated as a non-profit organisation. We became an official business in 2011 and hired our first staff – Randy Schekman who joined as Editor-in-Chief in July and Mark Patterson as Executive Director in October. We published our first paper the following year and will be marking that occasion with celebrations later in 2022. The world has changed a great deal since our inception, and science has progressed tremendously, in part because of the eagerness of the research community to change and improve the existing systems. Perhaps the most notable change to scientific communication has been the growth of preprints in the biomedical sciences, and eLife has been quick to embrace the opportunities that have arisen from this important trend.

2021 was the year we became a fully ‘preprint-first’ publishing organisation. In July we made the full shift to only reviewing preprints, removing the opt-out for authors who did not want to post their work as a preprint. We were pleased to see that our authors were happy to share their work early, and we helped many thousands of them post their manuscripts to bioRxiv and medRxiv. This has led to a great deal of new research being shared much sooner, speeding up discovery across the globe.

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt all aspects of normal life in 2021. It also highlighted the need for early sharing in research; it was apparent from the outset that important discoveries could not languish on editors’ desks while a global pandemic was raging – they needed to be shared immediately. Preprint servers provided a way for that to happen, and we are now building on their increasing popularity to introduce a system where new findings are shared as early in the research process as possible and publicly reviewed to ensure trust in the findings. The goal is to make the outputs of peer review the primary way research is assessed, rather than journal title.

To support this, we have continued to develop Sciety, the reviewed preprint aggregation tool. Sciety brings together groups involved in preprint review from across the web and displays them in one place. In 2021 we added seven groups representing many different models of preprint review. We are making it easier for new groups and societies to participate in the review and curation of preprints, so that the movement can grow beyond eLife’s walls and take root across the scholarly ecosystem.

I am delighted to announce that Prachee Avasthi has agreed to take over as Chair of eLife. Prachee was the first early-career researcher to join the eLife Board back in 2018 and has played an integral role in encouraging the involvement of early-career scientists across the entire organisation, especially in the review process. Her ongoing work with eLife and other organisations to promote the public review of preprints makes her the ideal person to oversee our direction towards a preprint-first model and support us in our mission. It has been a genuine honour to serve as Chair over the past eight years and I wish Prachee all the best in her new role.

Toby Coppel
Co-Founder and Partner
Mosaic Ventures
Chair, eLife Board of Directors

Transitioning to a new ‘publish, then review’ model

As preprints have grown in popularity in recent years, we have focused on taking advantage of the unique opportunities that preprints provide to build a more open and effective system of peer review. Following the announcement in 2020 about changes to our editorial process to emphasise the production of public reviews to be posted alongside preprints, we took further steps towards this new ‘publish, then review’ model in July 2021. As we moved to only reviewing preprints, we reminded authors of the new process and shared feedback from the community. We are now working to add a ‘curate’ component to the model with the addition of a shared vocabulary for reviewed preprints – forming the ‘publish, review, curate’ mission that marks the next step in our evolution.

Since its inception, eLife’s mission has been to accelerate and improve research communication, and one of our priorities to fulfil this goal is to focus on the peer review of preprints. To support us in our efforts, we were pleased to announce in December that our four funders – the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Max Planck Society and Wellcome – had once again renewed their commitment to eLife. Their new investment in our preprint-first model allows us to continue working towards our vision for a system in which the outputs of peer review, rather than journal title, are the primary way research is assessed.

Additionally, as part of eLife’s expansion into medicine, we announced in April that we had integrated medRxiv – the preprint server for health sciences – into our submission process. With the support of eJournalPress and medRxiv, we enabled authors to submit their preprint to medRxiv and have it transferred to eLife for consideration at the same time. Alternatively, authors could choose to send their manuscript from the eLife submission system directly to medRxiv. eLife was the first journal to facilitate this kind of bidirectional integration with medRxiv into its process. Later, we published an Editorial in June about our new approach to publishing research in medicine, highlighting eLife’s desire to make peer-reviewed preprints a currency of trust in medicine by bringing rigorous review and editorial oversight to clinical preprints. We then followed up in December with an announcement of more than 60 new eLife editors who came on board to help us drive change in medical publishing.

Engaging more communities in the public review of preprints

As we moved to the ‘publish, then review’ model, we also worked with the eLife community to start engaging more early-career researchers in publicly reviewing preprints. Most notably, we announced in December that AfricArXiv, Eider Africa, eLife, PREreview and the Training Centre in Communication (TCC Africa) partnered on a new peer-review training programme for early to mid-career researchers in Africa. The course aims to raise awareness around preprints and foster the participation of African researchers in peer review, especially the open review of preprints.

The project followed on from the announcement from eLife and PREreview earlier in 2021 that we had partnered in our common commitment to bring greater diversity to the peer-review process. This paved the way for new opportunities for us to work more collaboratively with PREreview and other partner organisations to engage more diverse communities in open peer review.

Technology efforts to support public review

eLife continued with our open-source software development efforts in 2021 to support further community engagement in the open review of preprints. This included our work on Sciety, an application that brings preprint evaluation and curation together in one place, helping people navigate the growing preprint landscape.

In February 2021, we announced our collaboration with the Novel Coronavirus Research Compendium (NCRC) on the curation and review of preprints related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. As part of this collaboration, we set up a dedicated section for the NCRC on Sciety that displays feeds of articles curated by the Compendium’s community and links to a summary of each article hosted on the application. The NCRC’s preprint reviews are included on Sciety in the same way as those carried out by other communities that review preprints, such as eLife, PREreview, Review Commons and, as we announced in November 2021, Biophysics Colab. Our ongoing work in bringing together these and other diverse groups in the evaluation and curation of preprints, most notably through the development of Sciety, is supported by the Wellcome grant ‘Infrastructure for an open platform-publishing ecosystem’.

We also announced in May our ongoing support for Coko to develop open-source software solutions for publishing, including Kotahi – a new journal platform that can also help facilitate the publication and review of preprints. Kotahi is a solution for streamlining the publication of reviews to preprints posted to bioRxiv and medRxiv, as part of eLife’s review process. It also provides peer-review management capabilities for other organisations, such as the NCRC, that are interested in peer-reviewing preprints and having their evaluations appear on Sciety.

As we continued to focus our technology efforts on solutions that support the ‘publish, then review’ model, we prepared for Libero Editor and ScienceBeam to be handed over to the open-source community in November. The team at Coko adopted both products in December, ensuring they live on for those who wish to use them.

Highlights

eLife once again published a significant amount of research content in 2021, covering all areas of the life sciences and medicine. Additionally, we continued to provide a space for the research community to discuss issues of relevance to them through podcasts, personal stories, interviews and other articles in our Magazine. We highlight some of our top Magazine and research content below.

Popular Magazine content

Magazine articles in eLife continued to cover a diverse range of topics. Examples in 2021 included an article on March Mammal Madness, a science outreach project that reaches hundreds of thousands of people in the US every year; an interview with the scientist who is the “king of science memes” on Twitter; and an introduction to a 3D interactive tool for visualising cells called Nanoscape.

Equity, diversity and inclusion remained a priority, and eLife published important articles on racial inequity in grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health in the US, the award gap between white and minority ethnic students in exam performance at a leading university in the UK, and the need to eradicate non-inclusive terms from the life sciences.

2021 also saw the launch of Sparks of Change, a collection of articles about how research culture is evolving – or should be evolving. Each article centres around a moment that ignited change for an individual or a community. Sparks of Change is a collaboration between the Features and Communities teams at eLife.

Research highlights

Below are some additional highlights selected from the 1,962 research articles published in eLife in 2021.

Karlinsky and Kobak used the World Mortality Dataset to track and provide new insight on the death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic across more than 100 countries.

Image credit: Gal Kabiri (CC BY 4.0)

Reese et al. demonstrated that domestication and industrialisation have had similar effects on the gut microbiota of animals and humans, respectively, likely due to similar kinds of environmental change.

Image credit: Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Rosenberg et al. showed that stress-induced hair greying can be reversed, providing insights into the malleability of human aging and how it can be influenced by stress.

Image credit: Philippe Alès (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the largest placebo-controlled trial on psychedelics to date, Szigeti et al. demonstrated that placebo microdoses can lead to the same improvement in psychological wellbeing as genuine microdoses.

Image credit: Self-blinding microdose study team (CC BY 4.0)

Landis et al.’s analysis of sourdough starter cultures from 500 homes across the world suggests that, contrary to widespread assumption, geographical location has little influence on the microbial diversity of these cultures.

Image credit: Lauren Nichols (CC BY 4.0)

Plummer et al. found that supplementation of the nutrient selenium protects against diet-induced obesity and may extend the lifespan of mice by controlling energy-regulating hormones.

Image credit: Public domain

Klump et al. showed that, similarly to humans, New Caledonian crows are particularly careful when handling their most valuable tools.

Image credit: James St Clair (CC BY 4.0)

The Reproducibility Project

The Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology (RPCB) came to an end with the publication of the final three papers from the project in December 2021. The first RPCB papers were published in eLife in 2014 – and we ended up publishing 61 distinct articles – so this was a marathon effort. The project – which used a Registered Reports approach to reduce bias and increase rigour – found that preclinical research in cancer biology was not as reproducible as it should be. The RPCB team makes a number of recommendations for increasing the reproducibility of research. The final RPCB papers were accompanied by an Editorial and a related commentary article, and the whole project received substantial media coverage, including in Nature, Science, ABC News and the Washington Post.

Community updates

In 2021, our former eLife Community Ambassadors from the 2020 cohort continued to drive change, innovate solutions and advocate responsible behaviours across science. They summarised their activities in December, from publishing papers on the topics of reproducibility, meta-research, fair funding and research collaboration, to holding awareness-raising initiative events. Our Communities team outlined a plan and strategy for a new cohort of eLife Ambassadors to begin in February 2022, alongside a new programme, consisting of a revised structure with a learning and community-building phase prior to the activism phase in September 2021. The team opened the call for applications in October 2021 and received over 300 applications from approximately 60 countries.

In November – following on from some Australian research councils’ recent changes to their policy positions on preprints – eLife, PREreview and Sciety discussed the future of science communications with Australian researchers. The discussion took place as part of a Monash University Preprint events series, hosted by Dr Senthil Arumugam from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute.

Our #ECRWednesday webinar series also continued throughout 2021, with events taking place from March through to November. They covered such diverse topics as Promoting inclusion in science, Preprinting in medicine, The "science of science" – using meta-research to make research more transparent and reproducible, and Becoming an eLife Community Ambassador.

Financial summary

Analysis of revenue

Our publication fee income decreased by 1% in 2021. Meanwhile, grant income from our funders increased to support our investment in a new approach to publishing – the ‘publish, then review’ model.

Analysis of expenditure

Our publishing costs decreased in 2021 as a result of a decrease in the number of initial submissions we received.

Our technology and innovation costs increased as we continued to develop ways to make the ‘publish, then review’ model a reality – including our investment in Sciety. The research and development tax credit we received in 2021 amounted to £156,000.

In terms of our publishing costs, our payment to editors increased as we expanded our editorial board to maintain sufficient capacity to support the changes we made (and continue to make) to our editorial workflows.

Revenue and expenditure, years ended December 31, 2021 and 2020

  2021
£000
2020
£000
Revenue   
 Publication fees3,5153,536
 Grants3,2612,034
 Total6,7765,570
    
Expenditure   
 Publishing3,9464,027
 Technology and innovation1,9551,632
 Research culture546318
 Total6,4475,977
    
 Surplus/(deficit) before tax329(407)

The full audited accounts for eLife Sciences Publications, Ltd for 2021 are available below. As a US-registered tax-exempt organisation, we also publish detailed financial information in our Form 990.

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