Heavyweight science journalist Sir Delcan Butler has published an update, of sorts, on the status of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), published today in the journal Nature.* In it, he presents a study carried out by Nature on the financial status of PLoS, and describes the ups and downs of Open Access publishing.
PLoS uses the business model that has emerged among Open Access journals, whereby it charges authors for their works to be published, but does not charge individuals, libraries, or other institutions for access (thus the term “Open Access”). This has been a welcome way of doing things for cash-strapped libraries and individuals. Indeed, this model represents a kind of democratization of science. Most people believe that PLoS is on the cutting edge of this new approach.
However, as pointed out in Butler’s article, there may be some sour grapes elsewhere in the publishing world. Butler cites a variety of both named and unnamed individuals in other publishing houses who are not entirely positive about PLoS, yet seem to have nothing substantive to say. For instance, an unidentified source whom Butler implies to be linked with or at least very knowledgeable of BioMed Central, another publishing concern that sees itself as OpenSource, criticizes PLoS for not having made any profit to date. One has to wonder, however, if profit is the primary motive for an ideologically motivated concern such as PLoS.
One of the most important innovations at PLoS is a journal venue called PLoS ONE. PLoS ONE published a wide range of material with an innovative peer review system, in which reviewers look at the quality of the work and writing but not the perceived importance or media-attractiveness of it. Some may say that this could reduce the quality of material published in PLoS one. However, this is a serious misunderstanding of how scientific publishing works.
The truth is that scientific publishing, including traditional publication and peer review is often criticized and in many areas is considered broken. It is probably the case that peer review is an important winnowing process for journals with limited print ‘real estate,’ which does not apply to the same degree to an On Line journal like PLoS. In these cases it could be argued that only the ‘best’ papers can be published. The problem is that one persons ‘best’ is not another’s. Under such conditions, legitimate and critically important diversity will always give way to narrowly defined standards that limit creativity and, in the end, the progress of science.
How badly broken is scientific publishing and peer review? It depends on who you ask and what field you consider.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the question “Is Nature peer reviewed?” referring to the journal Nature (not the outside Mother Nature type nature). In the business, it is widely believed that the process of getting a piece published in Nature Letters (the primary form of publication in that journal) is a matter of bing in the right time at the right place in the Old Boy Network. I have no idea if this is true, but that is the reputation the famous old British journal has, at least on this side of the Atlantic. For our part, in America, the PNAS has a similar reputation, equally damaging to the process of peer review (which is, after all, a perceptual and regulatory, not objective and measured, process) regardless of the truth of it.
In this context, an explicitly more open form of a journal, like PLoS ONE, is very welcome and will likely be transformative. This is especially true given that articles on PLoS can be commented on, and journal groups can formed to discuss them. Dynamic interest-based open peer review of Open Access published articles … It’s the future.
PLoS may be said to be growing slowly – perhaps it is not making any money yet. But most journals fail, and those that do not are rarely cash cows. Indeed, it is the hunger for profits in the journal producing industry that has turned most academic vehemently against commercial publishers to the point of foaming at the mouth vitriol. In a world where academics see the journal producers as adversaries and pirates, an ideological driven, willing to experiment entity like PLoS is very welcome!
Having said all that, I still had questions about PLoS, how it is working, what the future may bring, and what current difficulties face the new enterprise. So I dug around a bit and came up with some interesting information about both PLoS and the Nature piece.
Impact factors seem to be everything. How does PLoS (and/or it’s various projects) stand in relation to other journals in relation to impact factors? From a piece describing 2007 Impact factors for PLoS Journals:
…impact factors should be interpreted with caution and only as one of a number of measures which provide insight into a journal’s, or rather its articles’, impact. Nevertheless, the 2007 figures for PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine are consistent with the many other indicators (e.g. submission volume, web statistics, reader and community feedback) that these journals are firmly established as top-flight open-access general interest journals in the life and health sciences respectively.
The increases in the impact factors for the discipline-based, community-run PLoS journals also tally with indicators that these journals are going from strength to strength. For example, submissions to PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Genetics and PLoS Pathogens have almost doubled over the past year – each journal now routinely receives 80-120 submissions per month of which around 20-25 are published. The hard work and commitment of the Editors-in-Chief and the Editorial Boards (here, here and here) are setting the highest possible standards for community-run open-access journals. .,.. read the rest here.
I wondered what subject areas are most heavily published in in PLoS ONE and if there an area where PLoS is seeking more growth. A source familiar with PLoS recently told me “As the oldest PLoS journals are biomedical, it is not surprising that much of ONE output is also biomedical. However, over time, the journal has amassed quite a few articles in (neuro) psychology, anthropology, palaeontology, ecology, conservation, evolutionary biology and is expanding into more and more areas every week.”
For more information about the Journal Club I mention above, have a look at these links:
Some will say that the Nature piece by Butler is negative or even cynical regarding PLoS. Maybe. But on close examination, perhaps Butler is just doing his job as a journalist, asking questions, probing, seeking clarity. In the mean time, PLoS clearly stands up well against these questions.
One thing that does bother me a bit about the Nature piece is this: To the extent that it can be seen as negative, it must be seen as negative about a competitor. Normally one would expect a discloser statement indicating that where PLoS loses financially, Nature gains. The sources cited by Butler who have negative things to say about PLoS are also either competitors or simply anti-OpenSource.
I am absolutely confident that Butler and Nature will address (or even redtress) this apparent misstep.
For more information, here are three other posts that I know of on this issue:
* I would give you a link to the article, but since Nature is not Open Access I assume you will either already have this at hand (because you are special) or can’t have access to it (because you are not special). Here is the citation:
Butler, Declan. 2008. PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing. Nature V.454, p. 11. DOI: 10.1038/454011a