Two Thursday Observations

The woes of eLife continue, as do the woes of people struggling to deal with a diminished professional life

Wrapping up the week with two brief observations.

eLife Is a Pipsqueak

Ten years on, and eLife is barely making $5.1 million per year in publication fees, while posting a $439K operating loss in 2022, according to its latest financial statements.

Back in 2013, financial statements from eLife — when it aspired to be a glamour journal — showed that it cost them $14,000 to publish an article.

Based on the current financial statements and their 2022 article volume, it is costing them ~$2,500 to publish an article.

With their new approach, rolled out by the recently-fired EIC, the APC of $3,000 is being reduced to $2,000.

With eLife already running at a deficit before this change was fully baked into their approach, 2023’s financial statements might be a bit of a trainwreck. eLife only has ~$954,000 in the bank, meaning they don’t have much room for error. A 33% drop in revenues without a concomitant decrease in expenditures could bankrupt them. Luckily, they have Wellcome to bail them out — once again.

As a standalone journal, eLife was a pipsqueak before its latest EIC made it an outright bottom-feeder. Its revenues remind me how transactional businesses are much less financially lucrative than revenues from businesses based on recurring revenues — for instance, any good subscription journal makes at least double these revenues in the biomedical space.

What was once a fiery and fierce startup — one that its champions secretly colluded to launch using US government resources in an illicit manner — has become a weak and vulnerable also-ran.

The Voices You Don’t Hear

In the endless cheerleading, saccharine updates, and obvious humble brags of LinkedIn and other forums of public communication between scholarly professionals, there are a few things you may not be hearing, but which are being spoken in hushed voices and non-public settings:

  • Retirement can’t come soon enough
  • I just keep my head down, even though I know what’s going on is wrong, and I disagree with it
  • It’s not a role I’m proud to fill anymore
  • This is not right, but if I say anything, I’m dead meat
  • I’m so much happier since I left scholarly publishing

I’ve heard multiple variations on these again and again over the past few years.

One of the most ironic effects of the “open” era of scholarly publishing is how little room there is for dissent — or interest there is in the dissatisfaction gripping a large swath of the workforce. A major reason for this is that “open” advocates are the quickest to shut any dissent or griping down, marginalize those who do speak up, or mock comments in unconstructive ways rather than engaging with sincere interest.

Railroading an entire industry requires sticking to the script, and the “open” people have been uniform in their practices. However, more people are sensing OA is taking this entire enterprise off its tracks, but the OA conductor can’t hear them over his own tuneless singing.

What was once a vibrant industry that celebrated innovation, pushed for higher standards, expected rigor, and resisted commercial interests in order to focus on the legitimacy of the scientific claims being published has become a diminished, sporadically innovative, lower-quality, less rigorous, and commercially compromised field.

It’s not where it needs to be in order to serve the scientific record and those who depend on its reliability and quality.

No wonder people are discouraged.