I did my PhD at UCL in the early seventies when neuroscience was only just beginning to exist as a subject in its own right. It wasn’t until 1980 that the first neuroscience department was established in the UK, so to do neuroscience I had to spend most of my time hopping between the physiology and anatomy departments (with occasional trips to zoology and biophysics to hear the likes of JZ Young and Bernard Katz lecturing.)
Not surprisingly then one of my favorite reads was the Journal of Comparative Neurology, published by the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, which had been transformed into a major communications channel for this new integrated discipline by its managing editor, W Maxwell Cowan.
When I became editor of the magazine Trends in Neurosciences (TINS) in 1979, I was lucky to find Max on my editorial board. He, together with other founding fathers of neuroscience such as Louis Sokoloff, Eric Kandel and Ed Kravitz were fierce critics of TINS in its early days, so Max and I spent a great deal of time figuring out how it could be improved. I was fortunate because Max had become the editor-in-chief, responsible for the launch of The Journal of Neuroscience, the Society for Neuroscience’s flagship journal. We gave a lot of attention to streamlining the design of the editorial review processes and came up with at set of principles that as well as working well for primary journals provided a firm basis from which to manage review journals such as Trends too.
This process wasn’t a million miles away from the outline presented recently by eLife’s Editor-in-Chief, Randy Schekman (last slide).
eLife’s formula includes a swift triage process using editorial board members as reviewers, keeping review decisions simple, and requesting only essential revision requirements with quick assessment of revisions. So whilst it is a compelling editorial vision, it is neither new nor unique.
Furthermore, it has a tendency to breakdown as the journal becomes more successful and publication volumes increase – the simple “hockey stick” relationship that you can see often in eigenfactor.org‘s animation plots of the evolving relationships between article impact and journal size.
So let’s wait and see how eLife’s quality metrics develop. They should be good, given the resources available. But will they become sustainably exceptional?