The Questionable Authority

As you may or may not know, there’s been some conflict in the scientific publishing industry over the last few years. Traditional business models have been challenged by an “open-access” model, where the papers are freely available to the general public. In the traditional model, the money comes through subscription charges, and the readers pay for the privilege of access to the research. In open access publishing, the papers are freely available. The costs are covered through a variety of means, including fees paid by the authors.

Many of the traditional publishers have clearly felt threatened by the open access movement, and have taken fairly aggressive action to try and curb the perceived threat. (Back in early 2007, for example, an industry group hired a public relations pit-bull, and launched a massively dishonest lobbying effort in an attempt to derail efforts to require free access to papers that report results funded by federal grants.) Apparently, at least some of the major “traditional” publishers are still feeling threatened. Yesterday, an article by Declan Butler appeared on the Nature website that discusses the current state of financial affairs at PLoS. That would be fine, of course, if the article was reasonably objective and neutral in tone. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t. The article was not entirely unfair, but it certainly fell far short of what I would have hoped to see from a journal with Nature‘s history and reputation.

The problems with Butler’s article begin with something that was never said. Nature is a representative of the traditional publishing model, and one of PLoS’s many competitors, but the article did not note either of these facts. It’s fair to say that most of the article’s target audience is well aware of this financial conflict of interest, of course, but Butler really should have made it explicit anyway.

The overall tone of the article is also clearly non-neutral. PLoS is treated disparagingly throughout the piece, which focuses on the financial state of the company. The most egregious issues involve Butler’s treatment of one of the company’s newer journals, PLoS ONE.

Unlike most (if not all) other scientific journals, PLoS ONE manages to cover the entire range of the scientific disciplines without restricting access to a small number of very carefully selected articles. PLoS ONE accepts articles from any branch of science, and the articles are not screened for their “importance”, “significance”, or for the originality of the research. They are reviewed prior to publication, but the reviewers focus on making sure that the authors followed good scientific practice. The idea is that this will allow the publication of articles that represent good research, but with might not otherwise be able to find a home due to the more restrictive nature of other journals.

Butler’s thesis, which he returns to several times in the course of the article, is that this means that PLoS ONE is more of a “database” of articles than an actual “journal”, that articles in PLoS one are of “lower quality” than other journals, making the entire journal “sub-standard”, and that the journal is really nothing more than a “cash cow”. He supports this thesis with a pair of quotes – one from the publisher of a competing open-access journal, and one from an anonymous source.

This is where we get to the real tragedy of this article. By accepting as a given that PLoS ONE is much more of a scientific “dumping ground” than a real “journal”, Butler was definitely able to make his article a better hatchet job on a competitor. But in the process, he also managed to miss an opportunity to examine some legitimate questions.

PLoS one is attempting to do something new in peer review. They accept any article that is methodologically sound, but they’ve also created a set of web tools that other scientists can use to effectively continue the peer-review process beyond the publication of the article. Other scientists can annotate the papers, leave comments on specific points, and discuss the techniques and results with the authors. If enough scientists can be convinced to use these tools appropriately and well, PLoS ONE may well turn out to be an extraordinarily useful journal. If the tools sit unused, PLoS ONE may ultimately wind up as nothing more than the dumping ground Butler claims it is.

A story that fairly examined what PLoS ONE has done so far, how it’s perceived by other scientists (or even how aware other scientists are of it), and whether the increased number of articles appearing there means that more scientists are using the journal’s articles as resources would be an interesting read. It’s sad that Butler and the editors at Nature decided to go with the snide hatchet job instead.

Reference:

Butler, Declan. 2008. PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing. Nature V.454, p. 11.

DOI: 10.1038/454011a

Comments

  1. #1 David Lee
    July 3, 2008

    Very interesting. I was promoting open access today while doing an interview with a researcher. She’d never heard of the controversy.

    Thanks for the update.

  2. #2 redstart
    July 4, 2008

    I agree with most of your points and deplore the tone of the Nature commentary. However,by now, the commenting, rating and discussion in the papers in PLoS ONE – I published there a paper – is, regrettably, almost inexistent for most pieces of research, including mine.

  3. #3 Jonn Mero
    July 5, 2008

    Nature and Butler’s approach sounds very elitist when judged by this article. I haven’t read the original piece by Butler, but, like what is done in many science – and other blogs, the PLoS publication both gives other scientists chances to something like peer reviews at the same time it gives ‘the rest of us’ a chance to get an insight in the process.
    If initially the bar is somewhat lowered by publishing papers of less gravitas, then this no doubt can be rectified as the PLoS evolve.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    July 5, 2008

    By accepting as a given that PLoS ONE is much more of a scientific “dumping ground” than a real “journal”, Butler was definitely able to make his article a better hatchet job on a competitor.

    Right. It seems to me that this is the main or even only point he was trying to make, the rest being smoke screen, as well as cover for arguing about this post later. Or at least that seems to be the tactic developing as the commentary progresses.

  5. #5 northbanksurfer
    August 12, 2008

    PLoS one is attempting to do something new in peer review.

    The ideas you suggest are exciting, but as other commenters noted, it’s not happening yet. PLoS ONE might need to hold out for the younger scientists.

    New waves of researchers will be more accustomed to getting info from online sources and better equipped to filter out the noise inherent to web2.0 models. Assuming that they go into academia, they might be interested in using something like PLoS ONE.

    But the community as a whole will have to take the time to develop the resources, which means that they have to be aware that the resources are out there.

    *shrug* We’ll see how it goes… the traditional model is pretty time-consuming as it is…