Mark Patterson: On leaving eLife

Having joined eLife in 2011, recruited and lead the staff team, Mark Patterson is planning to retire and leave his role as Executive Director at the end of this year. Here, he offers some personal perspectives on his time at eLife.
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by Mark Patterson, Executive Director

When I learned about eLife in 2011, discussions between the three founding funders (Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust) and the scientific community were crystallizing into a vision for a new open-access journal driven by the interests of science and run by scientists. I was intrigued in particular by the role of the funders in the new venture and curious about the long-term goals.

At the time I had been at PLOS for a little over 8 years and had seen this organisation go from an idea to a strong and sustainable non-profit organisation. But while progress towards open access had certainly advanced across the world in that time, it also felt like there was still an awfully long way to go to make scientific publishing open by default and truly fit for the web. For me, eLife therefore represented a further opportunity to explore how journals could work better online, as well as a chance to build a team from scratch to help turn interesting ideas into something tangible. As I learned more about the first staff position to be recruited (initially called the Managing Executive Editor), I became all the more enthusiastic to apply and was delighted when I was selected for the position.

From November 2011, I spent my first few months recruiting a team of professionals with all the necessary experience. Our top priority was then to get the journal off the ground, publish great papers, and introduce a peer review process that would give researchers (as editors, reviewers and authors) a constructive and collegial experience. The process was devised by the founding Editor-in-Chief of eLife, Randy Schekman and was launched by a team of world-class scientist editors, recruited by Randy. This community of researchers created the buzz around eLife which then turned into submissions, and the journal grew rapidly over the first few years and now publishes around 120 articles each month.

During those first few years, we also spent time working on our long-term goals and mission for eLife. We knew we wanted to run an outstanding journal, and quite rightly this has always been our focus, but what was the ultimate purpose of our initiative? In these discussions, one of the themes that we could not escape was the way that existing incentives in science perversely encourage secrecy, suspicion and lack of trust. Many parties involved in research feel that the journal system, where publication in elite journals is considered to be the mark of success, has led to an unhealthy, hyper-competitive culture in science. Of course, journals are not the only factors at play here, but we wanted eLife to be an initiative that is more inclusive, celebrates great science in all its forms, and promotes values such as transparency and collaboration. In time, we therefore developed a mission statement that incorporates these ideas and remains our guiding star today: “to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science”.

Our journal is core to this mission, but there were two other broad and complementary areas of work where we felt we had to try and make progress. First, although eLife was created using infrastructure that has and, in some areas, continues to serve our purposes very well, we felt there was a huge opportunity to develop new technology to improve research communication and drive discovery. Crucially, not only should that technology serve our needs, it should also be usable by a broad community of organisations and people. So began our efforts to build out our product and technology teams, which now represents around half of the staff team. We have also put a lot of effort into creating and participating in a community to work together on these tools. In this way, we hope to share tools that would help to promote “responsible behaviours” such as widespread transparency and sharing of data, ideas, and feedback. I have learned a great deal from colleagues and collaborators in this aspect of our work. The work is painstaking and challenging, but thanks to the commitment of our funders, including the newest funder, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, we are making steady progress.

We also recognise that cultural change is a long road and there are many ways that we work on this: publishing relevant content, advocacy and outreach, online events, community building and so on. A theme that runs throughout these efforts is our engagement with the early-career community. We created an Early-Career Advisory Group in 2014, which led us into various initiatives such as running webinars, creating the ambassador programme and building an early-career reviewer pool. In turn this has led to recruitment of more early-career researchers into the editorial team and in 2018 we recruited the first early-career researcher onto the eLife Board of Directors. Every new initiative that we try with early-career researchers only encourages us to do more and we gain massively from this work. Above all, the energy, passion and commitment of the early-career researchers we’ve worked with helps eLife as a whole gain and maintain momentum. On a more personal level, I’ve found this aspect of our work to be rewarding and inspiring. I sincerely believe that any organisation interested in creating a healthier culture for research and researchers would benefit from bringing early-career researchers into their decision-making processes.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my 8 years at eLife, but it also now feels like a good time for me to move on. Most importantly, eLife is in great shape. My colleague from PLOS days, Mike Eisen, has taken over as the new Editor-in-Chief from Randy Schekman, and together with editors and staff, we are mapping out some interesting next steps to take in the area of publishing. We have a strong foundation in the area of open-source technology development. Our funders remain as committed to reform of publishing as they were at the outset. Outside of eLife, the landscape of publishing continues to shift, not just towards open access but towards models of publishing that are more suited to a networked world. And we have a wonderful team of people who operate eLife, create technology, nurture communities and shepherd fascinating content through to publication. I’d like to thank all of them, and the many other friends and colleagues outside of eLife with whom it’s been my pleasure to work. It’s been an honour to work here and I’m looking forward to passing on the reins to the next eLife Executive Director.

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The role of Executive Director at eLife is currently being advertised here.

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