Annual report: 2016 in review

A look back at eLife's achievements in 2016, notably in advocating for more open practises in sciences, building an open infrastructure for research communication and supporting early-career researchers.

Letter from the Chairman

The close of 2016 marks an important landmark for eLife as we transition into our second five-year term. Our first five years focused on building a scientific brand associated with research excellence, transparency and publishing innovation. With the announcement in 2016 of the renewed support from eLife’s founders, we now move into a second phase where we begin to capitalise on our achievements to date to have broader influence on research communication and achieve our mission to help scientists accelerate discovery.

When considering the current and future influence of eLife, we can look at a number of dimensions. Our core activity is our journal and in 2016 we published over 1,000 research articles for the first time. As eLife approaches the 5th anniversary of publishing, we have been able to grow rapidly and scale an editorial process that gets important work published constructively and quickly. And the array of work that we publish continues to encompass the full breadth of biomedical science: amongst 2016’s highlights were the ancient history of viruses, drought-resistance in plants, the neuroscience of anxiety and the demographics of human height. Complementing the science, we have also published influential feature articles, covering topics including the benefits of taking a more open approach in the communication of research outputs. With a strong scientific and editorial foundation, we see tremendous prospects for further growth of eLife’s publishing over the coming years.

Our work with early-career researchers has also gathered momentum in 2016, and it remains a high priority for us to support and learn from this segment of the scientific community. The cultural change that eLife is attempting to foster in science will only be achieved in the longer term, which is why our work with early-career researchers is so important. Amongst many other initiatives, in 2016 we recruited several hundred early-career reviewers to participate in eLife’s unique editorial process. This initiative provides an opportunity for early-career researchers to gain experience of peer review, and to share their own valuable insights with other colleagues.

Another dimension of eLife’s impact is progress in technology development. In this area, our goal is to be at the heart of an ecosystem that is driving a more open approach to science. Open infrastructure will be a key part of this and during 2016 we dedicated a little over £1 million of our funding towards the creation of a complete open-source publishing toolset. The first phase of the toolset - named Continuum - was completed in February 2016 and the second phase has just been released. This unique suite of tools will provide eLife with state-of-the-art technology to underpin and explore radical improvements in the design and presentation of content. The tools are also freely available as open-source software for anyone to use. For too long, publishers and suppliers have competed on proprietary solutions to support research communication, with the result that there is much duplication of effort and unnecessary expense. With growing support within the publishing community for open-source software, we hope that Continuum will be adopted as one of the core components of an open and collaborative research communication infrastructure.

For too long, publishers and suppliers have competed on proprietary solutions to support research communication, with the result that there is much duplication of effort and unnecessary expense.

There is much more work to be done in the area of product and technology development, and the eLife Board is delighted to see the collaborations that are developing between eLife and established entities such as Hypothes.is. In addition, new early-stage projects are also being identified and selected for collaboration with the eLife team. As above, the common theme that connects all these efforts is a commitment both to open science and to open source software.

With respect to longer term financial sustainability of eLife, important progress was also made in 2016 as we laid the groundwork for the introduction of publication fees in January 2017. By transparently explaining the basis for the calculation of the fee, we have seen an overall positive reaction to the introduction of the fee. Submissions dropped slightly in the first three months of 2017, but at the time of writing, we have already seen a recovery to previous levels. The fee will cover the costs of journal growth at eLife, so that more of the eLife’s funding can be used to support other activities, including our efforts to make science more accessible to a broader audience and more useful for others to build on and make discoveries.

eLife is motivated by the potential to make science a more transparent and collaborative enterprise. As a multidisciplinary partnership ourselves, between funders, researchers, publishing teams, developers, designers, and other organisations, eLife is being as transparent and collaborative as possible to help open up science for the World.

Transparent reporting forms will be published alongside articles to help improve reproducibility

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Douglas Brumley will travel from the University of Melbourne to Szeged, Hungary, for the 37th Dynamics Days Europe International Conference. There he will present his work on using high-speed imaging to watch the flagella of cells ofVolvox carteri –a species of green alga – and how they communicate and synchronize their beating through the movement of the fluid around them.

Ryo Matsuda from the Department of Molecular Biosciences at Stockholm University will present at the 50th Annual Meeting of the Japanese Society of Developmental Biologists in Tokyo, Japan. His project, performing a genetic analysis of fruit fly embryos, identified several proteins and signalling molecules that control whether tracheal precursor cells become D-fate or P-fate cells, helping the airways of the fly to develop in the correct pattern.

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Rachel Lowe from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will travel to Trieste, Italy, to the Impact of Environmental Changes on Infectious Diseases Conference. There she will present work on a prototype early warning system for Dengue using climate forecast information and how this could support public health decision-making in southern coastal Ecuador.

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Less diverse investments could also lead to a less diverse workforce

Needhi Bhalla is concerned that concentrating funding in the hands of a few researchers will have an adverse impact on the diversity of the biomedical community:

There’s a lot of data that suggests that people of colour, specifically women of colour, and white women […] are often less likely to get funded by the NIH.

To counter this bias, Bhalla believes that NIH Program Officers should actively advocate for grants submitted by these groups to be funded, particularly if the grant is on the borderline between being funded and not being funded.

Peifer, who has served on the advisory council for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS, which is one of the largest institutes within the NIH), notes that the NIGMS does analyse the race and gender of the people who apply for and receive funding. NIGMS has also implemented a “soft” funding cap where grant applications from investigators who’ve received over $750,000 of funding go through extra scrutiny. This may partly account for why a higher percentage of applicants for NIGMS funding are successful compared with applicants for NIH funding more generally.

Why aren’t early and mid-career researchers getting funded?

Casey Greene has made several grant applications to the NIH, but to date none have been funded despite the reviews of the applications being reasonably strong. “From my own reviews and from talking to colleagues”, says Greene, “what we’ve seen is an emphasis against risk”. This produces a subtle bias against early-career researchers, because it will always be more risky to fund an early-career researcher than a senior investigator who has worked on similar projects for years. Mid-career researchers are also struggling, but receive less support from the NIH than early-career researchers. “What I’m seeing”, says Bhalla, “is that people will often get their first NIH grant […] but then the big hurdle becomes getting their first or second renewal”.

We still don’t know how best to distribute biomedical funding

“I think it’s funny that as scientists we spend so much time on our science, but so little time on the science of science”, says Greene. Bhalla agrees: “we need to have more data about what works and what doesn’t work, and we can’t rely on anecdotal data”.

What can researchers do to improve funding distribution?

Peifer says researchers should speak up and make their opinions known by, for example, talking to colleagues, writing to the director of the NIH or engaging with scientific societies. However, Greene cautions that “the costs of speaking up can fall differently on different people” – for example, researchers from underrepresented groups may feel that speaking out presents a greater risk of damaging their career – so we cannot blame those who choose not to.

Bhalla thinks the culture surrounding the way research is funded needs to change: “I think we’ve lost sight of what we’re supposed to be doing with this money”, she says. What’s needed is a funding system that allows the biomedical community to focus on science and on educating the next generation of researchers.

Further information

Take a look at our post-webinar Twitter chat with the speakers.

Make your views known to the Next Generation Researchers Initiative Working Group.

Sign Mark Peifer’s petition in support of an NIH funding cap.