Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Nature Versus Open Access

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Image: Orphan.

Wow, have you read Declan Butler’s nasty little hatchet job that was just published in Nature about the Public Library of Science (PLoS)? My jaw hit the top of the table in my little coffee shop where I am ensconced — why would Nature demean their journal by publishing such a snotty little screed where they attack the normal, but probably painful, financial ups-and-downs of a new journal?

Because Nature represents the old way of doing things, so Nature is afraid of those upstarts, PLoS, whom they (rightly) view as competitors, that’s why.

Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature magazine, sets the mood in his article with this opening salvo;

Public Library of Science (PLoS), the poster child of the open-access publishing movement, is following an haute couture model of science publishing — relying on bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize its handful of high-quality flagship journals.

“Bulk” .. “cheap” .. “lower quality” .. the use of cynical and emotion-laden buzzwords such as these in Nature smacks of a petty little tantrum emanating from the other side of the pond, especially since Nature uses this very same business practices to support its own flagship journals!

While it is interesting to read about the financial status and business model of PLoS, the phrasing used in Butler’s self-aggradizing little rant is clearly biased against Open Access — as are his cited “sources“, whose comments add nothing of value whatsoever to his story. Basically, this shameful and offensive piece is not something I would ever expect to read in Nature.

But as Bulter’s jeremiad makes clear, Nature obviously feels threatened by PLoS, so they are busily gloating at PLoS‘s financial ups-and-downs and their evolving business model when in fact, I am not sure this is warranted. I think the financial trajectory of Open Access and their business models are actually open questions since PLoS (and BioMed Central) are the only large Open Access publishing groups on the market right now, so the success of their business models are still being tested (and in fact, the model is still being developed and refined).

So what exactly is Butler’s problem with PLoS? In short, Declan Butler (and by extension, Nature) disapproves of PLoS because;

  1. PLoS ONE uses a system of ‘light’ peer-review to publish any article considered methodologically sound. This means that the “quality” of the papers can vary widely. But Butler overlooks the fact that PLoS ONE was always envisioned as the financial foundation of the organization, that PLoS ONE was intended to provide a platform to publish data that the authors consider “of general interest”, but which the big “general interest” journals do not consider important enough. As such, this mixed bag of papers is not the same as scientifically invalid data. But instead, Butler implies that publishing all scientific content is in some way a bad thing.
  2. PLoS ONE is a little too successful even though profit was never its primary goal; it publishes a lot of papers whose fees help support their two flagship journals, PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine (nevermind that Nature and nearly all other publishing groups also do this). And this is a bad thing?
  3. PLoS publishes four lower-cost specialist journals that are run by volunteer academic editorial teams rather than in-house staff — as if this is a bad thing! (Their impact factors indicate that they are actually doing quite well). If a scientist seeks to publish her highly specialized research, why would she want to hide her work behind a subscription wall where it will rarely be accessed, if ever? Clearly, if she wants her work to be read, Open Access is far preferable to publishing such specialized research behind a subscription wall!
  4. PLoS still needs outside support — as if Nature doesn’t still rely on outside support by exploiting the services of unpaid anonymous manuscript reviewers.
  5. PLoS hasn’t yet financially “broken even” yet — nevermind that the journal only launched in 2002, and most journals don’t become profitable for a decade (and some never do). In his tirade, Butler conveniently overlooks the fact that PLoS is more than just a collection of scientific journals, it is a real-life experiment in scientific advocacy, it is a non-profit organization that advocates providing public access to the scientific literature without charging access fees. Most scientists, who want their work to be read widely to benefit humanity, heartily approve, and this is why PLoS is so attractive to scientists and why it publishes so many papers.

This last point is, I think, the real crux of Butler’s disapproval. “Democratizing science” .. making scientific information freely available to the public means that anyone anywhere with an internet connection will be able to access the primary literature and read it, without paying huge fees to do so. They might even benefit from it. Oh, horrors! The vast majority of scientists think this is a good thing, while publishing groups, such as Nature, and their paid toadies, like Declan Butler, obviously disagree.

Etienne Joly, one of the members of the PLoS ONE editorial board, asks some questions that I think are important for the scientific and publishing communities to consider;

Once research funded by taxpayers money has been carried out, is it normal that anyone (including taxpayers) should have to pay to access the results? At least in the life sciences, who would ever pretend to produce data for a scientific manuscript for an overall cost of less than 200.000 € [sic]? How does 2000 or 3000 € [sic] compare to this? What is the average cost of page charges for papers published in pay-for-access journals? What percentage of their time do scientists spend in successive resubmissions of their manuscripts to journals? How much does this cost? Does impact of research really equate to its quality? If findings and ideas are ahead of their time, will they have an immediate high impact? Is Nature really proud of the numerous papers it has rejected in the past which later turned out to be ground breaking papers? How many of the thousands of papers already published in PlosOne will turn out to represent significant advances? Next year, will there be more papers leading to Nobel prizes published in Nature or in PlosOne?

Source

Butler, D. (2008). PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing. Nature, 454(7200), 11-11. DOI: 10.1038/454011a.

Read More About it

Jonathan Eisen, Academic Editor in Chief of PLoS Biology

Drug Monkey, an NIH-funded biomedical research scientist

Greg Laden

Razib at Gene Expression

Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority

Vanya at Frontal Blogotomy

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    July 2, 2008

    I like your hidden title…

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    July 2, 2008

    HEE! actually, only 2/3rds of it rendered as the URL, but yeah, the original title was er .. interesting.

  3. #3 Chris
    July 3, 2008

    What amused me was that in the same issue Nature was busy bigging up three papers from “low” quality PLoS Journals in their Research Highlights section. One from PLoS Genetics:

    An Evolutionarily Conserved Sexual Signature in the Primate Brain. PLoS Genet 4(6): e1000100.

    and two from PLoS ONE:

    Climate Extremes Promote Fatal Co-Infections during Canine Distemper Epidemics in African Lions. PLoS ONE 3(6): e2545.

    and

    A Comparison of Wood Density between Classical Cremonese and Modern Violins. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2554.

  4. #4 Cesar
    July 3, 2008

    GrrlScientist, I was surprised to see the Research Blogging icon on this post. The Nature piece is NOT peer-reviewed research, not even research, but just a news story. Don’t you agree with me?

  5. #5 Hypnos
    July 3, 2008

    In physics, being published in refereed journals is an important step to make sure the work meets a minimum standard, but the real action is at arXiv.org.

    The only exceptions are Nature and Science, which reach a broader audience. If PLoS becomes the frontrunner, physicists will be gunning to publish there. There is no value added by the big journals other than their readership.

  6. #6 Bob O'H
    July 3, 2008

    I’m a bit surprised at all the negative reaction – I thought the point of the Nature article was to say that PLoS had had to change their business model, because the original one wasn’t working. It also says that the new model is working better – they’re thinking they’ll become sustainable in about 2 years.

    I think people (including you) are reading much more into the article than is there. It’s natural that Nature and its readers should be interested in how the PLoS business model is working, and if anything I think this is encouraging for Open Access – a bit question mark has always been over whether OA could be funded without support from donors, and this is suggesting that it can.

    One PLoS One, I think it’s obvious from the way its set up that the quality will on average be lower, simply because it doesn’t filter for quality so severely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s a different model of publishing and peer review, which allows more work to be published in one place. I can only see one quote that says that this is a bad thing (from John Hawley), but they also cite board members as being “generally positive about the overall quality of papers”.

  7. #7 John Hawley
    July 3, 2008

    There’s obviously a lot of emotion attached to Open Access, as this blog and others (and the comments to same) demonstrate. As I pointed out in the Nature piece, PLoS made the case that the business model of other journals was wrong, and thus it seems to me entirely fair that Nature took a look at how PLoS was doing financially, based on the model that PLoS said would work.

    Regarding the statement above “that PLoS ONE was always envisioned as the financial foundation of the organization” — I really doubt that PLoS ONE was part of the original plan. I suspect the economics of publishing two low-volume journals (Biology and Medicine) forced the move into the community journals (themselves low-volume) and PLoS ONE.

  8. #8 "GrrlScientist"
    July 3, 2008

    bob, the wording of the article is very negative and vindictive or don’t you see that? if the reporter had managed to tone down his biased rhetoric to a dull roar, i think his points regarding the evolution of the business model would have been more clearly presented, and the piece would have been far more readable and interesting. (because the topic IS interesting, but this piece reads like a hatchet job, as i’ve already stated).

  9. #9 Coturnix
    July 3, 2008

    I was not there at the beginning, so this is just my personal impression, not an official voice of PLoS. PLoS started as an advocacy organization (and still primarily is). After a couple of years the founders decided that it is not working – nobody was believing them – so PLoS decided to actually start journals in order to demonstrate how OA works, how OA journals look like, and that OA can work in the first place. Something like ONE was always the goal, a part of the vision of the FORM (not business model, the way Nature folks are focused on) of the future science publishing, but I think Harold, Mike and Pat decided to start out with something that is more familiar to people, something similar to existing journals, just to make them OA and use those journals as tools to show how OA looks like. So they modeled PLoS Biology and Medicine after Cell and Lancet or something like that. Then, in order to gradually get people used to new ways of doing things, they started the four “community journals”, and finally, when the time was ripe, started ONE, which was always thought of as the most important tool in changing the world of science publishing. The finances have always been a secondary concern for PLoS – we are happy that the journals are doing better than we expected, {I think – I am not sure so do not quote me on this – mostly because a greater percentage of authors actually pays (not asking for a waiver) than what the book-keepers expected at the beginning. In other words, PLoS planned on losing money for much longer time than it actually happened – we are super-happy at the fast rate at which PLoS journals, one by one, are becoming fiscally self-sustained. But that only means that we will sooner be able to do new things. Money is not the goal (as it is for Nature), it is the tool for changing the publishing world. And PLoS journals are tools in such change as well – showcasing how it can be done (one of the models – PLoS never claimed that its was the only or the best model) and hoping that all other journals figure out their own ways to go OA and do it soon, for the betterment of the world.

  10. #10 miko
    July 4, 2008

    Bob O’H, if you think that “quality” is the difference between high and low impact factor journals, you don’t know science. Trendiness, first-ness, sensationalism, prior track record of publishing highly cited papers, likelihood to capture mainstream media attention, are as much or more important. This is why high impact factor journals also lead the field in retractions.

    To assert (with no evidence) that PLoS One publishes “lower quality” papers implies that the science is less competently, honestly, or rigorously done. This is a lie. Technical competence and rigor is the core editorial criteria of PLoS One, and as an academic editor there I think we’re better at it, since it’s the only thing we care about.

  11. #11 Bob O'H
    July 4, 2008

    Grrl – it was difficult to read the article neutrally after reading what you had written, but it certainlty didn’t seem as bad as you described it.

    Bora – thanks for the insight! Do you know if the plan you outline was spelled out somewhere? I think the business model is interersting. I blogged about the economics of open access some time ago, so I’m curious to see how PLoS were thinking. The ideals are great, but I think it’s right to have a target of sustainability if you want to show that open access works. I have been scpetical about OA in practice, and I’m happy that I’m being shown to be wrong.

    miko – if you’re going to invent what I wrote (where did I mention impact factors?), and if your inventing my arguments and accusing me of dishonesty (I gave my reasons for expecting a lower quality, which you ignored), AND if you’re hiding behind anonymity (you might be H. Hieronymous Horseposture for all I know), you’re certainly not worth arguing with.

  12. #12 Dr David Hill
    March 3, 2010

    Butler is doing the dirty work of Nature Magazine, totally supported by the executive management of the magazine itself. He is not the nice man that he tries to make out that he is.

    As ‘Nature’ definitely sees PLoS as a threat to their bottom-line and their long-term existence, the only thing that really counts for Nature and its owners (their founder was in the Nazi Party to make things a bit clearer), they will try and take out/destroy any competitor that they sense can do this.

    Butler did the same hatchet job on the World Innovation Foundation and where the real motivation again was corporate greed and self-interest by both Butler, Nature Magazine, others and the giant drug companies. Humankind had to take a back-seat and where they were only a secondary issue. In this respect they destroyed the only global strategy that could stop pandemics happening in the future on the altar of profit and helping big and powerful global friends. The reason, that strategy that they destroyed would NOT make multi-billions for the drug companies as it was a strategy at the source (the ‘Prevention’ better than ‘cure’ philosophy). Now Butler and Nature’s actions have despatched possible hundreds of millions to their death in the future as the drugs strategy has not a cat in hells chance of stopping an equivalent killer pandemic such as the Spanish Flu and where there were up to 100 million deaths (more than the combined toll of the 1st and 2nd world wars put together).

    The reason why the global drugs strategy is a false one is that the Spanish Flu did its deadliest between week 16 and week 26. The recent rush for a vaccine for Swine flu took 6 months and hardly anyone at that time had the vaccine. The logistics of global distribution are a nightmare and would have taken a further 12 months to administer. Therefore by the time we get any antidote most of us would be dead. The sorry fact is that one day we shall have a pandemic on a greater scale than the 1917/18 pandemic as Margaret Chan has said, it is only a matter of time, not when.

    But many have made vast fortunes and profits from the global drugs strategy (Butler and Natures friends in particular)and that is the real reason why the ‘source’ strategy was destroyed.

    The web-link of the strategy that Butler and Nature et al destroyed for anyone who is interested is – http://avian-influenza.cirad.fr/content/download/1931/11789/file/Kennedy-F-Shortridge.pdf
    In this respect your computer may block the download but I can assure you that it is perfectly safe.

    Dr David Hill
    World Innovation Foundation Charity
    Bern, Switzerland

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