Interview with Mark Patterson

Mark Patterson

Mark Patterson

eLife is an open access journal which outstanding contents are selected by a renowned group of researchers. Patterson also talks about the recent controversial article on open access published by Science and its impact on the credibility of these journals. Mark Patterson attributes to SciELO the growing visibility and quality of Latin American journals, and says that now the challenge is to integrate them into the international mainstream.

Mark Patterson was a genetics researcher for 12 years before moving into scientific publishing in 1994 as editor of Trends in Genetics. After several years in Nature, where he was involved in the launch of Nature Reviews Journals, he moved to PLoS in 2003. As Publishing Director until 2011, Mark helped launch several PLoS Journals and was a founding member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association.

1. What are the contributions and innovations that eLife is bringing to scholarly communication and to open access.

eLife is an initiative of three major research funders – the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust – and therefore emphasizes that research communication is an integral part of the research process.  eLife is also a collaboration between funders and the practitioners of research: the selection of content and the editorial responsibility for eLife rests entirely with an outstanding group of reputable and active researchers. Our overall mandate is to drive innovation in all aspects of research communication, by selecting and presenting the most important findings in biomedicine and life science and making them openly available. 

By providing a high-prestige publication venue, eLife will help to drive open access, as well as other improvements in communication processes.  For example, the aspect of eLife that is currently capturing the imagination of the relevant research communities is the editorial process.  At eLife, the editors consult with the reviewers before decisions are sent to authors, and consolidate the essential revision requests into a single set of instructions.  Authors therefore receive explicit guidance, and the outcomes are that work is being published more quickly than comparable journals, and that authors find the process constructive and refreshing.  We are also exploring a number of new ways to present research for more effective consumption by readers as well as computers.  eLife has been publishing for one year now, and is rapidly emerging as an attractive venue to publish high-quality science.  Through collaboration and innovation, we hope that eLife will be a strong and positive force in the transformation of research communication from print to digital media. 

2. In which aspects do the objectives of eLife differ from those of PLOS?

eLife is being launched at a time when open-access publishing is now part of the mainstream of scholarly communication.  However, even in biomedicine where open-access publishing has been particularly successful, open-access (freely accessible and fully reusable) content is estimated to represent only around 15% of the whole, so we still have a long way to go.  The motivations for launching eLife also go beyond open access, and extend into reform of editorial practices and presentation of content.  As far as content is concerned, eLife has a very specific focus on the most influential research, where authors’ open-access options are most limited

Having said that, I would add that eLife has much in common with PLOS with respect to open access and reform of research assessment practices for example.  We therefore hope to join forces with PLOS and other like-minded organizations in various areas to drive broad improvement in research communication.

3. One week after the publication by Science of Bohannon’s “sting” news article, what is your evaluation? In spite of its methodological flaws how does the article contribute positively to the advancement of open access?

There has been a great deal of commentary written about the “sting” operation conducted by John Bohannon and reported in Science.  I agree with the general view that the exercise provides some useful data about substandard editorial practices operating in a number of journals, but that the conclusions that can be drawn from the study are limited. The lack of any control group and the approach that was used to sample the journals allow no conclusions to be drawn about whether substandard practices are more or less common in subscription relative to open-access journals.

Ultimately, it needs to be remembered that the Science article is not in any sense a rigorous scientific study, and has not itself been subject to peer review.  One of the positive outcomes of the exercise will be that it emphasizes that organizations such as the Directory of Open Access Journals and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (as well as those representing subscription publishing) have an important role to play in identifying publishers and journals that are rigorous in their practices.  As a member of the board of OASPA, I am now working with colleagues on the next steps that we should take in light of the information presented in the Science article.

4. The SciELO Program favors a global integrated view of scientific information flow in place of the traditional split between mainstream and regional publications.  In your view, what are the main challenges and opportunities developing and emerging countries face to strengthen and advance their capacity in scholarly communication?

SciELO and related programs in Latin America are already serving to break down barriers to the use of scholarly literature by making the content open access, and by providing a platform that is consistent over a large amount of scholarly content. I would say that one key challenge is to integrate this content with the ‘mainstream’ so that research outputs are more ‘global’ and interconnected.

Now that open access is an established mode of scholarly communication across the entire world, there is the opportunity for organizations representing different parts of the world to collaborate and build a truly global open corpus of literature upon which new services can be developed.  SciELO15 is itself an opportunity for such ideas to be explored.  In this way, we could establish methods and tools that begin to deliver on the broader vision of open access – to transform research literature into a much more powerful resource for research, education and the benefit of society.

Use of emerging approaches such as altmetrics and article-level metrics and indicators will also help, because these approaches provide evidence of the impact of individual scholarly articles, and in time will reduce the emphasis on the journal name as a proxy for research significance.  But it is important that such approaches take account of the specific indicators that will be relevant in different contexts and nations.  I conclude by emphasizing that there are lessons that can be learned in the developed world from the successes of initiatives such as SciELO, which have shown tremendous leadership and creativity in raising the profile and utility of scholarship in the countries in which these programs operate.  


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