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  • nature and plos: Declan Butler’s most recent salvo in his long-standing debate with open-access advocates has raised a real ruckus in the blogosphere; good places to start are on Bora’s blog and Open Access News. Also see Butler 2003 and 2006 for earlier articles, with resultant discussions here and here. The drama led to a clarificatory statement from Timo Hannay, that was much better argued, and Timo actually has some interesting things to say about open-access in this video over at open access news.

    Many critics are complaining about either the appropriateness of Nature criticizing a competing journal (without explicitly discussing conflict of interest) or for criticizing open-access in general. I think it is entirely appropriate for Nature to write well-argued, well-reasoned articles on science publishing, even discussing competing models critically, but the Butler article under question does not pass these criteria IMO.

    Declan makes the same points with new numbers: that PLOS has not yet broken even, they are surviving on philanthropy, PLOS’ operating costs are more than they ever expected or projected, i.e. they are now learning what it takes to publish a selective journal and we told you so in 2003 and in 2006. Declan and Timo are arguing against the PLOS claim that an open-access journal that only publishes a few articles per year can be financially viable on the basis of author-fees alone. Whether or not this is true is an open question, but one that is probably now purely academic because open-access is fast becoming mandatory for federally-funded research (e.g. NIH-funded research in the US and Wellcome-trust funded research in the UK). Besides, it is not easy to pin down what the exact PLOS business model is, since it is constantly evolving, and there  are widely-varying opinions even within the PLOS universe and certainly if one includes all open-access advocates (and supporters of PLOS). It is also not clear whether Nature Publishing Group’s own ever-expanding stable of ho-hum journals subsidize Nature’s more high-profile journals, just as PLOS One subsidizes the other PLOS journals; no discussion of NPG’s own financials seems likely to emerge anytime soon from NPG (but see Lars Juhljensen’s blog for a preliminary analysis of  NPG’s own “haute couture” publishing model (in Declan’s words, since I am not not entirely sure how that term works)).

    But the authors from Nature then add one new twist, and Declan in particular uses some pretty strong language about PLOS One to make his case. Their claim is that PLOS has effectively dumped their model and are now using PLOS One’s revenue stream to stay afloat. And PLOS One, according to Declan is based on “bulk publishing of low-quality papers” that emerge from PLOS One’s “light-review” process. Whether intended or not, the aspersion being cast by the Nature writers (Declan much more so than Timo) is that PLOS One will publish pretty much anything, since publishing papers adds to its revenue stream and helps subsidize PLOS Biology and other selective journals in the PLOS stable.  These are serious accusations that are not backed up by any analysis or reporting on the quality of papers in PLOS One. Exactly what constitutes “light review” in Declan’s mind is hard to tell, but the main difference between the review process at PLOS One and other journals is that there is no subjective estimate of the article’s potential impact (novelty does matter, from the published guidelines). Perhaps there may have been some initial ambiguity about where the threshold for publication would be set in PLOS One, but last year’s record of papers appearing in PLOS One, as well as anecdotal evidence from those involved with PLOS One as reviewers or authors (example, here) suggests a perfectly rigorous and functioning peer-review system. And how exactly does “potential impact” assessed by peer-reviewers (or much more often, by Nature’s stable of fresh out of science professional editors, since the majority of submissions are not even sent out for peer-review) decide the quality of a paper ? Bjorn Bembs has made some excellent points on this topic.

    I agree with the spirit of what Bjorn has written (as well as many others). PLOS One or another archive of material peer-reviewed solely for methodological soundness is the future. For those who wish to get an external assessment of a paper’s impact in a field, appended commentary, ranking by peers, no. citations, H-index can all serve as useful proxies in case one is unable to get expert opinion on the paper. Importantly, the current method of judging the impact of a paper by the impact factor of the journal it appears in, is a particularly bad one, as Chris Surridge at PLOS has pointed out. In addition, journals like Nature can then exist as news magazines commenting on the scientific output deposited there; the excellent science communication skills of Nature’s editorial staff will come in very handy when they discuss the peer-reviewed research published in PLOS One and enable non-experts to further understand and evaluate papers published in PLOS One.

    This brings up another issue: Why have so many PLOS journals, and not just PLOS One, as Biocurious has asked ? It is unclear from the official statements (example here) how PLOS intends these different journals to evolve; perhaps it is too early and the future is too uncertain for PLOS to make any definite statements about how this will all look like in 2015. The only rationale I can understand is that PLOS Biology and others are there for pragmatic reasons and eventually PLOS One will be the future, if all works well. There is a hint that this is indeed the case from reading between the lines of the FAQ on PLOS’ web page. I hope it is true !

    ps1. On an unrelated note, I am sure NPG believes that it is the ahem, high quality of its publication process and editorial staff that enabled its new journals (and they are multiplying like rabbits) titled “Nature xxx” to rise to the top of the impact factor pile, and not the unfortunate susceptibility of scientists to branding. Pedro Beltrao makes the same point here. This, i hope and pray, will change, as a result of such discussions and PLOS One should certainly accelerate this process.

    ps2. Mike Dunford has a nice piece on this entire fracas.

    ps3. I seem to remember that Nature has taken an editorial position somewhere that treating publication in nature (by extension, the decisions of Nature editors whether or not to publish) as the holy grail for scientific career decisions represents a failure of decision-making by the scientific community, and that it is not Nature’s intent to be used in this manner. I agree with them entirely on this issue.

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