Netflix Plays eLife

Corporate media and an author star pay eLife to get a paper out to coincide with a film's release date

Corporations have become quite adept at using OA journals for publication planning — the purposeful seeding of favorable results in less-cited journals until the citation foundation becomes large enough to make it more likely they can place publications of similar findings in top journals.

More recently, preprints have lowered the cost of publication planning without reducing the benefit of using the journals ecosystem to drive corporate goals. During the early days of the pandemic, medRxiv was played in such a manner at least twice (here and here). Who knows how many other times it has occurred? With 30-55% of preprints never formally published in a peer-reviewed journal, yet each with a citable DOI and many of the trappings of a full publication, it is probably occurring routinely, undetected and without accountability.

A recent situation at eLife shows two media companies and one or more starstruck authors using a lax and unsettling hybrid journal-preprint system to advance their unscientific interests.

Less than a year ago, I wrote about eLife’s “reviewed preprint” approach:

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.

This was the culmination of a multi-year fascination with preprints, apparently driven by eLife’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Eisen, an old school OA firebrand. Eisen came under fire earlier this year from colleagues within and outside eLife for the approach, with the former and founding eLife EIC urging in a letter that Eisen be replaced “immediately.” Eisen withstood the criticism, but perhaps not to eLife’s benefit.

One confusing aspect of the eLife model is that submission can occur prior to preprinting — which violates many preprint servers’ terms, even if those are never enforced because, you know, preprints mean never having to say you’re accountable. In this case, the paper was submitted on May 3, 2023, and the preprint posted on June 4, 2023. The reviewed preprint was posted on July 11, 2023.

This timing appears to have been designed to coincide with the release of a Netflix documentary entitled Unknown: Cave of Bones, in which these claims were featured. The documentary was released on July 17, 2023. The lead author — Lee Berger — is listed on IMDB as the star of the Netflix documentary.

Berger is affiliated with the National Geographic Society — known in the media space as NatGeo. NatGeo released two major, media-rich announcements around the preprint (and a companion preprint). The first makes no mention of the Netflix documentary, while the second does. Both were released on June 5th, just days after the preprint was posted but more than a month after the paper was submitted to eLife.

The apparent coordination of the posting of this paper with the release of the documentary adds an extra little sizzle of corrupt, unscientific purposes.