Annual Report: 2020 in review

We reflect on eLife’s efforts to drive change in scientific and medical publishing during an eventful year.

Letter from the Chairman

Last year was like no other, with COVID-19 having an unprecedented impact on every country in the world. Almost four million people have died from COVID-19, with many more spending time in hospital with the disease, and billions having to endure long periods of time in lockdown. The pandemic also had a huge effect on the global research community, halting countless experiments and disrupting many research groups. However, the research community rose to the challenge of COVID-19 with unprecedented speed and agility by investigating the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself and modelling its spread, developing vaccines, sequencing genomes and advising governments – not to mention the work of doctors, nurses, other hospital staff and public health officials. COVID-19 also shone a spotlight on scholarly communications, highlighting the need for results to be shared openly and rapidly.

On early sharing, preprinting became the norm for almost all COVID-19-related research. eLife has promoted preprints for many years, and announced over the course of 2020 a number of initiatives to move further towards a preprint-first world. These initiatives culminated in an announcement in December that we will, from July 2021, only peer review papers that are first posted as a preprint. This move is significant for eLife because it means we become an organisation that reviews and certifies research that is already published.

In this announcement, we also signalled our intention to focus our editorial process on producing public reviews to be posted alongside the preprints, even if the work does not end up being published in eLife. We understand that this initiative will take time to become adopted, so we offer authors the opportunity to delay posting their reviews if their work is not accepted for publication in eLife.

We also started work on Sciety as part of our long-term vision for a system of curation around preprints that replaces journal titles as the primary measure of a paper’s quality and impact. Sciety is a new platform that incorporates refereed preprints from expert groups and makes them discoverable in one place. We aim to create a space where new preprint-review editorial models can experiment and promote themselves, so that the full potential of this new system can be realised.

2020 also signalled a turning point for many organisations as they realised that they needed to do more to promote equity, diversity and inclusion across science and medicine. The murder of George Floyd in the US prompted a long-overdue outcry against the discrimination toward communities of colour, and highlighted imbalances of these underrepresented communities across the globe. At eLife, our initial steps included increasing representation at all levels of our editorial board, and publishing work that highlights some of the existing imbalances. Together with our communities, eLife committed to using our actions to confront racial inequality in science and bring about some of the changes we want to see. While these changes may take time, we are keeping ourselves accountable by sharing our plans, priorities and progress along the way.

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

Working against the backdrop of a global pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic represented an unprecedented threat to global health that required effective and immediate action at all levels. Governments, organisations and individuals acted to minimise the spread of the virus and address its repercussions, and eLife was no exception.

We detailed our response to the pandemic in March, with staff working remotely to ensure that our operations continued as smoothly and safely as possible. Soon afterwards, we joined a cross-publisher rapid review initiative due to the urgency to openly and rapidly share new research relating to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. We also made changes to our policies on peer review in response to the impact of the pandemic on the scientific and medical community. These changes included curtailing requests for additional experiments during the revision process; suspending the two-month suggested limit for revisions; making the posting of preprints the default when submitting to eLife; and extending our ‘scoop protection’ policy.

In May, we launched a collection of articles relating to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. eLife’s content has always been open access, and we hope that others who lifted access restrictions for their COVID-19 research will see the advantages of making all new results openly available by default. Among our published papers to note in the collection are:

Taking the next steps in transforming scientific and medical publishing

eLife works to transform research communication in part through improvements to science publishing. In light of the rising popularity of preprints over recent years, and especially during 2020, we created a system in which we only peer review articles that are available as preprints, and in which research is primarily assessed on the basis of reviews from peers and not on journal titles.

We first introduced ‘Preprint Review’ as an opt-in service in May 2020, serving as an opportunity for us to learn from and improve the current editorial process. In December, we outlined the key takeaways and next steps for the process in our Editorial, ‘Implementing a "publish, then review" model of publishing’. The key points to note are:

  • Approximately 70% of papers in review at eLife were already available on a preprint server, according to an internal analysis – meaning we are becoming an organisation that reviews and certifies papers that have already been published;
  • eLife facilitates the submission of preprints from bioRxiv and medRxiv, and posts manuscripts to these preprint servers at the authors’ request, if they haven’t already done so;
  • And eLife announced that, from July 2021, we will only review research already posted as a preprint. We will focus our editorial process on producing public reviews to be posted alongside a preprint, in addition to providing detailed feedback on the manuscript for the authors.

We also began our expansion into medical research in 2020 by creating a new Medicine section, highlighting the translational, clinical and health policy research that we publish in all areas of this field. We then announced in November the appointment of two new Deputy Editors in Medicine to lead this expansion and help us explore fresh approaches to peer review and publishing.

New technology to enhance research communication

eLife invests heavily in open-source technology innovation to modernise the infrastructure for science publishing and improve online tools for communicating, using and interacting with new results. We are pleased to report that our technology program continued to thrive in 2020.

Working with our technology partner Stencila, we launched Executable Research Articles (ERAs) for authors in August. This new article format allows authors to post live code and data within the figures of a research article itself, making them executable and analysable to readers in real time. eLife published seven ERAs in 2020 and plans for many more in the coming years.

We also established a small team within eLife to lead the development of Sciety – a platform that brings together open evaluations from different editorial groups, building trust in preprints and helping readers navigate the growing ecosystem of post-publication review and curation. Following this move, we integrated eLife’s journal technology developers within a new Product and Experience team, allowing them to focus and collaborate on continuous improvement of the journal experience and associated tools and services.

Promoting equity, diversity and inclusion

2020 was a sobering year that, among its myriad challenges, shed renewed light on the discrimination and injustices that pervade society, including in science and medicine. Increasing equity in research has always been part of eLife’s ambitions and last summer we committed to anti-racist actions to tackle the many inequalities experienced by Black scientists. Our Early-Career Advisory Group also called for radical changes in publishing to promote equity, diversity and inclusion.

In July, eLife joined a cross-publisher working group to pool resources, expertise and insight, and accelerate progress toward a more inclusive and diverse culture within science and scholarly publishing.

We also appointed Stuart King as eLife’s new Research Culture Manager in August, giving the community its own steward to lead our efforts to improve research culture and set in motion more initiatives to pursue improved standards for equity, diversity and inclusion, in eLife and beyond, over the coming years.

And in November, we announced a policy which enables authors, editors and reviewers to retroactively change their name in published eLife papers. The policy is open to anyone who changes their name for any reason, and is based on recommendations that were developed in consultation with trans researchers to ensure that it fits their needs.

Highlights from the journal

eLife continued to publish a significant amount of research content in 2020, covering all areas of biology and medicine. Additionally, authors discussed a variety of topics relating to science and research more broadly in Feature Articles, podcasts, interviews and other articles in our Magazine. This content remained highly popular with users in 2020, with five of the 20 most-viewed articles being Feature Articles and another two being Editorials. We highlight some of our top Magazine and research content below.

Popular Magazine content

In November, Associate Features Editor Elsa Loissel and colleagues published the results of the survey on mental health in academia that they had conducted at the end of 2019. The results are reported in full in a peer-reviewed report, and are also summarised and discussed in a Feature Article in the journal.

We also published a series of interviews and two Editorials on equity, diversity and inclusion – one by our Editor-in-Chief Michael Eisen and the other by our Early-Career Advisory Group.

A number of articles in the Magazine also described the impact of COVID-19 on the research community. Topics included the effect of the pandemic on early-career researchers, the growth of virtual conferences, and the fact that papers about COVID-19 had fewer women first authors than expected.

Our collection of articles on meta-research – sometimes called the science of science – continued to grow with contributions on preprints, open access, acronyms, peer review and sex as a biological variable.

Articles on research culture also remained an important part of the Magazine section and covered a wide variety of topics, including the career choices of underrepresented and female postdocs, the academic job market, the involvement of early-career researchers in scientific societies, and the evaluation of research.

Research highlights

Below are some additional highlights selected from the 1,870 research articles published in eLife in 2020.

Protsiv et al. reported that the average human body temperature in the US has decreased by 0.03°C per birth decade since the Industrial Revolution

Image credit: Public domain

Brook et al. discovered that the unique immune systems of bats may drive viruses to spread faster from cell to cell, giving those viruses the potential to cause extensive disease in humans and other animals

Image credit: Linfa Wang (CC BY 4.0)

In a study of snakebite deaths in India spanning two decades, Suraweera et al. revealed regional risk hotspots that could be targeted with preventative measures and anti-venom treatments

Image credit: Public domain

Phan et al. described a new genetic switch in early development that activates skin repair without scarring, and which could be used to help adult skin repair itself

Image credit: Public domain

An article by Rundqvist et al. discussed how exercise reduces the growth of tumours and increases the effectiveness of immune cells that fight cancer in mice

Image credit: Robin McConnell (CC BY 2.0)

Havurinne and Tyystjärvi showed that sea slugs steal and protect specific cell components from the algae they feed on to directly extract energy from the sun

Image credit: Vesa Havurinne (CC BY 4.0)

Krukowski et al. reported that an experimental drug called ISRIB restores neuronal and immune dysfunction and alleviates memory deficits in aged mice

Image credit: Public domain

And Dominy et al. mapped for the first time the fabled land of Punt, using quantitative methods from the disciplines of primatology, geochemistry and geography

Image credit: Sandro Vannini (CC BY 4.0)

Community updates

The eLife community works to help address some of the pressures on early-career researchers (ECRs) in a number of ways, and we continued to highlight the great work of ECRs in 2020. As opportunities to network and present findings were restricted further by the COVID-19 pandemic, we organised a series of online talks to help ECRs connect with their audience. We also celebrated the many achievements of the eLife Community Ambassadors in 2019 and 2020. These included collaborative meta-research projects; the creation of materials addressing the problems of bullying, as well as increasing equity, diversity and inclusion, in academia; initiatives encouraging data sharing and spreading reproducibility know-how; and facilitating the involvement of ECRs in peer review.

With our ongoing commitment to supporting diversity and collaboration in the life and biomedical sciences, eLife increased the total budget for the second round of the Ben Barres Spotlight Awards in 2020 and awarded six full awards and four runner-up prizes.

As mentioned previously, we see peer review as a central quality control process for science, and preprints as the most democratic and efficient way of releasing new results. We were delighted to collaborate with PREreview on two initiatives in 2020 – one being a series of journal clubs to encourage the reviewing of preprints, and the other a pilot training and mentoring programme to equip new scholars with ethical and constructive reviewing skills. This Open Reviewers programme supports early-career researchers, especially those from minority and minoritised backgrounds, to contribute to scholarly review. We look forward to continuing our work with PREreview to help broaden the benefits of the programme to the academic community.

Financial summary

Analysis of revenue

Our publication fee income increased by 33% in 2020. This was mostly due to the increase in our publishing volumes.

Meanwhile, our grant income decreased due to an increase in our publication fee income, which reduced the need for support from our funders.

Analysis of expenditure

Our publishing costs increased as a result of the higher publishing volume in 2020, coupled with additional costs for Libero. These additional costs are now included as part of our publishing costs, as eLife uses the modules that are now fully functional – namely Libero Publisher and Reviewer Submission Wizard.

Our technology and innovation costs were broadly the same in 2020 as in 2019. However, due to the reallocation of costs for Libero, now included within publishing, the total cost for technology and innovation has decreased. The research and development tax credit we received in 2020 amounted to £160,000.

We are seeing the full year impact of the reduction in fees paid to our editors. As this only came into effect from July 2019, we had started to see a fall last year.

Revenue and expenditure, years ended December 31, 2020 and 2019 (in £ thousands)

 Publication fees3,5362,655
 Technology and innovation1,6322,076
 Research culture318212
 Surplus/(deficit) before tax(407)307

The full audited accounts for eLife Sciences Publications, Ltd for 2020 are available below. As a US-registered tax-exempt organisation, we also publish detailed financial information in our Form 990.


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