eLife Magazine: 1000 Insights and counting

From mapping the brain of fruit flies to the science behind kombucha, we look back at more than ten years of publishing Insight articles that explain the impact of a research paper in its field.

Author: Julia Deathridge, Associate Features Editor, eLife

Earlier this year the magazine section of eLife reached an important landmark – the publication of the 1000th Insight article in the journal. Here we celebrate this milestone by highlighting some of the notable Insight articles we have published, and reveal what happens behind the scenes during the commissioning process. But, first…

What is an Insight article?

Insight articles are linked to research papers published in eLife and are almost always written by one of the researchers who peer reviewed the manuscript, sometimes together with other experts. They explain why the results reported are significant in a given field of research, and often outline some of the challenges that remain.

Since publishing our first Insight 12 years ago, we have covered research articles on subjects as diverse as how kombucha gets its distinctive taste, identifying the sex of a dinosaur, and how AI is improving protein research. The range of topics covered in Insights reflects the broad scope of eLife and the ground-breaking discoveries published in the journal (from the most detailed map of the fruit fly brain, to a robot that can culture cells).

Insights also address some of science’s most intriguing mysteries, such as “How the brain constructs dreams” which is our most popular article with over 48,000 views at time of writing. Other highly viewed Insights include articles about how many copies of a protein a cell can make, and a worm’s remarkable ability to regenerate.

Over 60% of Insight articles have also been cited and contributed to further discussions in their field; the most cited article (on advances in cryo-electron microscopy) has received almost 200 citations since it was published in 2014.

How do we decide which research papers warrant an Insight?

Out of the almost 2,000 papers eLife typically publishes each year, only around 90 will receive an Insight – so the competition is stiff. The commissioning process begins after the first round of peer review, when the Reviewing Editor handling the paper is asked whether the article merits an Insight and why.

When deciding which of the papers that have been recommended should be progressed for an Insight, the Features Team take a number of factors into account: how convincing were the reasons given for having an Insight about this paper? How enthusiastic were the reviewers? And how many Insights have we published in this field in recent months? Once the leading candidates have been identified, one of the reviewers is then asked to write the Insight and – if they agree – they are sent a set of guidelines about writing for a broad scientific readership.

What are we looking for in Insight articles?

It is vital that the Insight is both engaging and readily understandable by readers in all areas of the life and biomedical sciences, and a member of the eLife Features team works with the author to ensure that the article meets these criteria. For example, we encourage authors to use short paragraphs and sentences, and to avoid acronyms where possible. Ideally, an Insight article will read more like a Wikipedia entry than a research paper.

We also ask authors to include a figure in their Insight, and published examples range from schematics of pathways (such as how HIV behaves inside host cells), to colourful illustrations (such as how a group of researchers monitored the sleep patterns of baboons). The Insight is then rounded off with a few paragraphs describing what future work may emerge from this research, and which questions remain to be answered.

The finished article is then published on our website with its own DOI and is also indexed in PubMed.

What does the future hold for our Insight section?

In 2023, eLife adopted a new approach to peer review and publishing. Previously articles that had been selected for peer review were either accepted or rejected at the end of the review process. Under the new approach, an article selected for peer review will be published on the eLife website as a Reviewed Preprint that includes an eLife Assessment, Public Reviews and a response from the authors (if available).

At time of writing, we have published Insights on 26 Reviewed Preprints, including articles on a new platform for tracking individual proteins, and how third-party testing revealed the poor performance of certain commercially available antibodies. We are continuing to commission Insights on Reviewed Preprints, with many already in the pipeline to be published over the next few months.

It is not possible to say what topics will be covered in the Insight section in the months ahead, but you can be sure that the articles will cover a broad range of exciting research. To stay up to date with the latest Insight articles, sign up for our bi-weekly email or you can follow eLife on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook or LinkedIn.