Randy Schekman — YURJ, eLife, and Scientific Publication

LC: I wanted to ask, with one of the leaders of scientific publication innovation on the line, in my neck of the woods there’s a new journal popping up called the Yale Undergraduate Research Journal and I wanted to present it’s structure to you, and maybe you can provide some insight or some advice. Does that sound alright? 

RS: Sure, we have such a thing at Berkeley. 

LC: I would imagine, lots of places do, last year we did not curiously enough. 

So the idea is online and in print. In print is restricted because of length and printing costs, online is, as with eLife, based on a sort of standard, not a percentage. 

RS: How do you review? 

LC: Great question. Review is currently done by graduate students and professors at Yale.

RS: So these are undergraduates who are writing reports on their research while they’ve been in the laboratory at Yale?

LC: Right, and it’s as open to the disciplines as we can feasibly review with Yale-affiliated faculty and graduate students. So it covers social science, humanities, and STEM. I think that’s the basic structure, do you have some recommendations from your time in running journals about how to optimize review, how to optimize publication? 

RS: Well you probably could use the eLife model, which is a consultative review process. Are you aware of that? 

LC: I read, I forget the name of the paper that you published in eLife that goes over this model… 

RS: Yeah, I think that’s been our unique innovation. The effort is to diminish in a sense the influence of an editor, in my case what I really don’t like are these professional editors at these commercial journals. But it turns it into a nice dialogue among peers so the paper is reviewed independently by three experts, one of whom is on the editorial board, and then there is kind of an online chat about the paper, about the comments of the individuals, and the editor then compiles a decision letter based on the original reviews and then the dialogue among the referees. And that’s very different than what other journals do. So I would say most people who have gone through that process as an author find it very refreshing because it tends to diminish the ad hominim comments about “stupid experiments” and makes it more constructive. 

And I’ve been disappointed that more journals haven’t adopted this, but you know the very powerful commercial journals that I rail against are controlled by professional editors and publishers who are in the business of selling magazines, making a profit. So they won’t relinquish control to academics for the ultimate decision about a paper. But of course you have no reason to play that game–you can easily have the academics in consultation with one another decide what’s important. 

LC: That was actually initially in the plan. We were thinking of it in a way of having a professor lead a discussion with graduate students partly because it’s easier for us to recruit graduate students than professors but also because this serves as a kind of training in reviewing papers. Yeah, I think the eLife model seems really appealing. 

RS: Does Yale give you some financial backing? 

LC: The process was disrupted by a pandemic. We have committed funding from a few sources, but no bank account to date. 

RS: Well that is critical. One of the reasons that eLife was able to launch was we had the financial support from very powerful private, or in the case of Max Planck, public research foundations that we couldn’t have done what we did without that support. People have often asked me how they could replicate such a model in a different scientific discipline, and I say well you need some foundation that is willing to support you. 

When I started eLife, my concern was the toxic influence of a metric called the journal impact factor and how that dictated the journals that students and postdocs wanted to publish in. And this was reinforced by the commercial outfits–elsevier, and springer nature–shamelessly, and the professional editors that they hire, they were scientists and they may be bright and honest but in the end they are picking papers that are going to generate buzz. That’s their mission. And I think that’s antithetical to the intellectual exercise of academic science. So I’ve hit hard on that point as you’ve probably read, made myself some enemies, like Franklin Roosevelt said when he took office, “I welcome their hatred.” 

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