Thursday, 29 December 2022

Hypocrites in the air, and Barnabas Calder

Since travel by plane is one of the main sources of carbon emissions by researchers, climate scientists who take the plane have been called hypocrites in the air. The expression could be applied to many other researchers, who worry about climate change (without necessarily working on the subject), but fly much more than is really needed.

But what is “really needed” plane travel for a researcher? Surely, we could eliminate much plane travel without compromising our work, by renouncing useless or marginally useful meetings, conferences or visits. Videoconferencing can be helpful: it is often profitable to save the time and expense of travelling, by accepting some loss in communication quality. However, if we take the climate seriously, this cannot be enough. Emissions need not just be halved, but be brought close to zero, and quickly.

Taking the climate seriously implies reducing emissions even when this is detrimental to research – or other activities. Some researchers are already doing it. Barnabas Calder, author of Architecture: from prehistory to climate emergency, explains in his introduction that he did not visit many of the buildings he discusses:

Parts of the book might have been better with first-hand experience of the buildings, but in a world that can ill afford the carbon burden of jet-fuelled travel, the move towards sustainable energy consumption will involve bigger and tougher compromises than this.

Unlike most research subjects, Calder’s work is relevant to addressing climate change, and yet he accepts the handicap of travel restrictions. How does one call the opposite of a hypocrite in the air? A honest scientist on the ground?

Thursday, 24 November 2022

No more rejections: eLife reinvents the academic journal

Academic journals as gatekeepers

Nowadays, the role of academic journals is not so much disseminating information, as choosing which submitted articles to accept or to reject for publication. Gatekeeping was surely important when journals were actually printed, in order to save paper and shelf space. Nowadays, it serves as a token of quality, which can make or break the careers of the articles’ authors.

The journal’s publishing decisions are based on the peer review process, which involves the work of reviewers and editors. The process can be fair — or biased, it can be rigorous — or cursory, it can be constructive — or confrontational. How would we know, when the result is only one bit of publicly available information? Not even one bit actually, since when an article is rejected, we do not even know that it was submitted.

In good cases, the process can in fact yield more useful information: because it results in the article being improved, and/or because the reviewers’ reports are made public. However, this generally does not occur when the article is rejected, even in best-practices-in-their-field journals such as SciPost.

eLife’s new model

To avoid wasting the reviewers’ work, and to make it impossible to judge articles by the journals that publishes them, the obvious solution is to eliminate accept/reject decisions. This is the basis of eLife’s new model, announced here. As with most radical progress, the challenge is to succeed in spite of the system’s corruption and its perverse incentives. In eLife’s case, this requires that the resulting articles count as publications for whoever manages the authors’ careers. To this end, eLife is assigning DOIs, and the authors can designate an official Version of Record.

Will eLife will thrive or perish? Will its new model be emulated? Will much-needed systemic change follow? Hard to tell. What I can do for the moment is to discuss the model’s logic in more detail, and point its strengths and weaknesses.

The editor is back

A striking feature of the new model is the crucial role of editors. In old times, editors used to run their journals without help from reviewers — Einstein was outraged when presented with a report from an anonymous reviewer in 1936, for the first time in his career. Nowadays, editors delegate much work and responsibility to reviewers, who are often asked to provide explicit recommendations on whether to accept or reject submitted articles.

In eLife’s new model, reviewers still write reports, but they can focus on giving their scientific opinion without worrying about journal’s publication criteria. Editors now make important decisions:

  • Performing an initial screening to decide whether the submitted article deserves consideration, or should be desk-rejected. Given the large numbers of articles that are written nowadays, some sort of screening is unavoidable.

  • After peer review has been done, rating the article for significance and strength of support.

The purpose of the rating system is to help readers quickly decide whether the article is worthy of trust and attention. Crucially, ratings are not optional and delegated to reviewers as in SciPost: they are done systematically, and involve the editors. This will hopefully allow the ratings to be done consistently and meaningfully, by people who are well-placed to compare many articles. To evaluate the quality and interest of an article, explicit ratings are potentially much better than a crude accept/reject decision.

This system requires a lot of work and commitment from editors: this could well be a weakness. However, not rejecting articles and doing all the review work in public can certainly save a lot of the editors’ and reviewers’ time, if not at eLife in particular, at least at a systemic level.

More details on the rating system

The rating system or “eLife assessment” system is described here:

  • 5 ratings for significance of findings, from useful to landmark.

  • 6 ratings for strength of support, from inadequate to exceptional.

These ratings are supposed to be embedded in a short text that summarizes the editors and reviewers’ opinion of the article. Having standard ratings promises to allow easy comparison between articles, and should be very valuable to readers. At the same time, it makes it possible to do statistics and build metrics, with all their potential for misuse. These metrics would however be directly based on an explicit evaluation of the article, and could therefore be more meaningful than citation numbers, let alone journal impact factors.

This rating system is not far from what I have been proposing in general and in particular. Possible improvements to the eLife system could include letting authors suggest ratings for their own articles, and adding a rating for clarity i.e. quality of writing and presentation.


  • Thoughtful blog post by Sophien Kamoun.

  • The usual criticism that researchers have to play by the rules of the system, and would commit suicide by participating in eLife’s new model. By this logic, eLife should have been content to perform good quality open peer review: attempts at further improvement are doomed.

  • HHMI’s enthusiastic support. After Plan S, another case of funders pushing researchers towards good practices.

Tuesday, 4 October 2022

Suprisingly good CNRS guidelines on open access

When it comes to good practices, research institutions are often good at declarations of principles, and not so good at implementation. For example, it is easy to declare that research assessment should be qualitative and not rely too much on bibliometrics, but harder to do it in practice.

This is why I am pleasantly surprised by recent CNRS guidelines on open access. These guidelines take the form of a letter to CNRS researchers who have to fill yearly reports on their work. 


The salient points about open access are:

  • Over the last three years, the proportion of articles by CNRS researchers that are openly accessible rose from 49% to 77%. (OK, these data mean little in the absence of more details.)

  • CNRS is adopting a rights retention strategy, as proposed by Coalition S: it recommends that all articles be distributed under a CC-BY license. In particular, this allows the articles to be made openly accessible right at the time of publication.

  • CNRS is not asking researchers for their lists of publications: instead, CNRS just takes publication lists from the national preprint archive HAL.

  • The weak point of all this seems to be the impractical and clunky nature of HAL. However, as reminded in the letter, HAL is increasingly interoperable with disciplinary archives such as ArXiv and BiorXiv. And indeed, my recent articles were automatically harvested by HAL from ArXiv.

This goes in the direction of having a strong open access mandate while requiring no extra work from researchers. To get there, it remains to make the CC-BY license mandatory, and the upload of articles to HAL fully automatic.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

The war in Ukraine: directives to French researchers from CEA and CNRS

My previous post reproduced a letter from Maxim Chernodub, suggesting how French scientists could help Ukrainian colleagues, and also calling French scientists to not boycott Russian collaborators. However, it seems that we will not have much choice in the matter, at least if we follow the official directives, which I will paraphrase below.

Directives from CEA (received by email)

Russian scientists may remotely attend online conferences, but only as individual experts, i.e. provided they do not represent an institution. 

Already submitted publications are OK. But it is forbidden to submit a new publication with a coauthor who is affiliated in Russia. 

Press release from CNRS

CNRS is suspending all new scientific collaboration with Russia. Russian researchers who work in France may continue their activities. 


From CNRS we only have a press release so far. The precise directives, when they come, may well look like CEA's. It is unclear how these directives will be enforced. Most scientific journals still allow submissions from Russia-based authors. 

As far as I can tell, such drastic measures against Russian scientists are unprecedented. No similar measures were taken in other cases of human right abuses, including wars of aggression. 

For researchers who want to keep collaborating with Russians without violating the official directives, technical loopholes might help: the directive from CEA is about submitting publications, but preprints are not publications, right? Co-authors may not be affiliated in Russia, but could they publish as private individuals, without citing an affiliation?

The war in Ukraine: a letter from Maxim Chernodub

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western researchers have been wondering how to help our Ukrainian colleagues, and how to behave with our Russian colleagues. A letter by French-Russian-Ukrainian physicist Maxim Chernodub has been circulating, which offers valuable perspective and advice on these issues. (It was written on 27/02/2022.) Below is the text of the letter, reproduced with the author's permission.