Broad Dissent at eLife

eLife's travails are real, their EIC is a loose cannon, and problems have burst into view

Broad Dissent at eLife

Strong reporting from Nature today confirms what was only speculation — that Michael Eisen has been facing severe backlash over his approach to eliminating accept/reject decisions at eLife, posting reviews only alongside selected preprints. As Eisen puts it:

People are used to operating in a world where appearance in a journal tells you about the quality, audience or import of a study. This is precisely what we are trying to change.

This is an editor who clearly does not accept his job description.

As a result, I am scrupulously not calling eLife a “journal,” as its editor does not accept those responsibilities, and eLife is no longer operating as such.

With some editors and reviewers leaving eLife and multiple letters of protest sent to Eisen, the situation is pretty remarkable. Even his predecessor, eLife’s founding Editor-in-Chief, Randy Schekman, has expressed alarm at the approach, asking in one letter that Eisen be replaced “immediately.”

Back in October 2022, when eLife’s controversial and misguided approach was first announced, I wrote about how this indicated eLife had hit rock bottom:

eLife is abdicating the role of determining the merits of papers, which is the major purpose of the independent, expert, trusted intermediary — i.e., a journal, and the publishers, editors, reviewers, and professional publishing staff that make one functional.

It’s worth noting that these issues at eLife have been going on for some time, reading between the lines of the Nature reporting, yet nobody caught wind of them until Eisen started complaining on Twitter this week. Is it just me, or is his lack of impulse control notable and more than a little worrisome? He’s a loose cannon, a bull in a china shop, and Wellcome Trust officials and eLife staff can’t be pleased, either.

Now that the imbroglio has burst out into the open owing to Eisen’s kvetching on Twitter, what happens next will be fun to watch. Will the news of dissent increase the amount of pressure on Eisen as those sitting on the fence or leaning against the new approach are emboldened by news of discord? Or will Eisen’s travails rally defenders of the approach, a group of — I think — self-interested people unwilling to compete fair and square for the prestige they so desperately seek.

Either way, other entities outside eLife are surely watching this trainwreck, and wondering if eLife qualifies as a journal at all in their systems. That determination could affect all sorts of factors — indexing, impact measures, funder disposition, author attitudes, and more.

Eisen keeps opening cans of worms. What he’s fishing for remains unclear, but it’s entirely possible he ends up with just a scattering of dead bait.

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