Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Are new journal models changing PR for science and research?

I was asked to speak at an event last Thursday on behalf of STEMPRA, an informal network for science communicators. The event, it transpired, was put together after an article appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review discussing eLife's media policy, suggesting that the role of the Press Officer could be abolished and scientists could liaise directly with the media using eLife's plain language summaries (Digests). So the event was convened as an opportunity to hear directly from eLife's head of Marketing and Communications, Jennifer McLennan who was in the UK. The rest of the panel included me, representing a traditional publisher perspective, Faculty1000's Eva Amsen, and Zoe Dunford, Communications and Brand Manager for the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory.

From the group's perspective, eLife's policy was offering something that breaks with the conventions of traditional publisher policies and changes how PRs work with the journal. Their stated policy is that no researcher submitting to eLife is discouraged from sharing the results of their work before publication, and that every article is published with a plain language summary, with no media access under embargo. What was particularly interesting to hear from Jennifer about though was how this works in practice:

  • eLife has six (yes, six!!) writers on staff writing plain language summaries for every article that is published. These are therefore high quality journalism-ready summaries which could be issued directly to the media (and this is what the Columbia review article suggests)
  • Jennifer contacts every author two weeks prior to publication, and advises them to contact their Press Officer, making that plain language summary available to the press officer to use
  • eLife themselves issue a table of contents out to their database of contacts approximately a week ahead of publication, but this is literally title and author information, not the plain language summaries
  • eLife haven't actively issued any press releases to the media. What they are doing is using the contact via authors to the Press Offices to have them take on this role of dissemination. This seems really smart to me, as it builds what is currently a rather poor connection between journals and institutional PRs to help spread the word about new content from that institution. It does rely on the author actively seeking out their PR office though but it appears, from Jennifer's feedback, that this is proving effective. She also commented that, on the whole, institutions already knew about those articles which were going to be particularly newsworthy ahead of her reaching out from eLife
  • Every article from eLife has alongside its research article and plain language summary Digest an 'impact statement': a summary written by the author in less than 140 characters which you have no doubt guessed is used to send Twitter a tweet about every article published.

Although I say I was representing the 'traditional' publisher view, I found myself wondering how different SAGE's media policy really was from what eLife was claiming to be revolutionary. SAGE doesn't operate the ingelfinger rule and has never actively discouraged any researchers publishing with us from promoting their research ahead of publication. We do suggest when we are contacted by PRs that they wait to time their press releases to coincide with online publication, simply because that then supports the researcher in having access to the version of record, which we most often will make freely available for a limited period to support anyone looking for the article as a result of press coverage.

As I say above, what I was particularly struck by in the meeting is how eLife is strengthening the relationship between authors and their institutional PRs though. I've long been aware of the issue that we at SAGE have in not knowing the institutional PRs and how therefore to liaise more effectively with them when there's a particularly newsworthy article being published in one of our journals. With more than 700 journals now published from SAGE we know that there's just no way we could actively promote every article in the same way that eLife is, even if we had six writers on the team (which we don't!).

What was also interesting was eLife's insistence that media access does not need to be provided under embargo. There was a lot (a LOT) of discussion about this in the room. Mark Patterson from eLife was also in attendance and I was fascinated to hear him ask why journalists would care if one publication covered a story before another. Frankly, the definition of "news" and "news value" is having it first, or at the very least at the same time as other publications. So from this PR's perspective, allowing media to have embargoed access to stories is still important. As long as journalists continue to demand this, it'll continue to be how we issue stories wherever possible. It was really interesting to have Zoe Dunford actually give a live example of one of eLife's best received articles which has had widespread press interest: she generated the coverage by providing access to the article under embargo.

The other main topic of interest was the post-publication peer review model that Faculty1000 is operating. This again was fascinating, and really does shift where PR and media come into play in the publication cycle. If an article is "published" first and "reviewed" second, at what point is it safe for a journalist to cover an article? They run the risk of covering an article which may then later be subject to negative reviews. Eva commented that any article with two negative reviews is actually then de-indexed (not unpublished but removed from search). She rightly pointed out that there have been cases where articles in traditional journals with traditional peer review have gone on to be shown as poor research, the MMR Wakefield study obviously a key example. What she said that Faculty1000 advocate is that journalists wait until articles have been reviewed. However as many around the room agreed, the difficulty is how to get journalists to wait to report on a juicy story if it's available online. Again, how might a media embargo work, and if there isn't one, what's to stop someone stealing a scoop? Most certainly one to watch as I feel this conversation will continue to evolve.

I was told that it was likely to be storified and somone was recording a podcast, although neither are up from what I can see. If they do appear will add links to the comments below.