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;
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!
- PLoS still needs outside support — as if Nature doesn’t still rely on outside support by exploiting the services of unpaid anonymous manuscript reviewers.
- 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 â‚¬ [sic]? How does 2000 or 3000 â‚¬ [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?
Butler, D. (2008). PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing. Nature, 454(7200), 11-11. DOI: 10.1038/454011a.
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