PLoS ONE: Editors, contents and goals

Recently, Kent Anderson posted some misleading comments about PLoS ONE on the Scholarly Kitchen, a blog site established by the Society for Scholarly Publishing. Although several PLoS community supporters have responded swiftly and vigorously to the comments, PLoS has also decided to make a public statement because Mr Anderson’s comments were extreme and have caused bad feeling particularly among the editorial board members who work so hard to make PLoS ONE a success (on a voluntary basis).

Mr Anderson’s posting and his subsequent responses to comments misrepresent PLoS ONE in four main areas: the PLoS ONE editorial board, the editorial process; the content being published; and the overall goal of PLoS ONE.

1. The editorial board

During his post, Mr Anderson implied that the PLoS ONE Editorial Board (who are now 1,000 strong and as academic editors are responsible for the editorial decisions on PLoS ONE) are accepting sub-standard papers simply to make more money for PLoS. Several academic editors took justified exception to this in the comment thread and elsewhere. The tremendous success of PLoS ONE is in large part a result of the dedication and commitment of the PLoS ONE Editorial Board, and any implication that the PLoS ONE Board members are collectively doing a poor job of evaluating submissions is unjustified.

2. The editorial process

The PLoS ONE editorial and peer review process is very similar to the editorial process on any journal, and is clearly explained on the PLoS ONE web site. The critical difference, and the thing that makes PLoS ONE potentially revolutionary, is that the editors and peer reviewers make no judgment as to the potential impact of the work. Their goal is to focus on scientific rigour alone, although this is by no means an easy task.

Every submission goes through a very substantial quality control check before it reaches an academic editor. This check covers reporting standards, research ethics, competing interests, funding information and so on. We believe that our ‘QC check’ is one of the most extensive and rigorous processes in the industry, and it is overseen by professional editors who are frequently consulted in advance of further peer review. Submissions are then assigned to academic editors, who send the articles to external peer reviewers and take overall responsibility for the editorial decision on the submission assigned to them. Submissions are assessed specifically against the PLoS ONE editorial criteria. We also provide summary statistics on the peer review process and as repeatedly evidenced by published PLoS ONE authors, submissions typically receive excellent peer review comments and go through multiple revisions before ultimately being accepted. PLoS and the Academic Editors are committed to achieving very high standards in the editorial process.

3. The content

Mr Anderson’s post seems to be prompted by some concerns about a specific recent PLoS ONE article, which was critiqued by one of his co-editors on the Scholarly Kitchen blog. The irony here is that one of the goals of PLoS ONE is to open up this kind of dialogue post-publication, so that everyone can benefit from a more open discussion. What we are striving to do better is to capture more of this discussion and link it to the articles themselves.

Putting that one article aside, the implication of the post is that PLoS ONE content is substandard in some way, but evidence to support this claim is not provided. In fact, we do have evidence from usage, citation and media/blog coverage that the quality of content in PLoS ONE is extremely high, and would compare favourably with most journals. For example over 84% of the more than 2700 articles published in 2008 have been cited (from Scopus data), and 39% cited 4 times or more. These and other article-level metric data are publicly available (for all PLoS Journals) on our web site.

PLoS ONE has also been selected for coverage by all major indexing services, including Web of Science and Medline. A round-up of some of the most high-profile content published in PLoS ONE in 2009 was posted in January.

4. The goal of PLoS ONE

As mentioned above, the key innovation of PLoS ONE is that the peer review process involves no judgment about the potential impact of a submission. This is because our view is that the current system of sorting the almost 2 million articles that are published each year, into the existing set of 25,000 journals before publication, with all the delays and redundancy that this involves, is not the best way to organize all research findings in an online world.

Instead, PLoS ONE peer reviews submissions on the basis of scientific rigour, leaving the assessment of the value or significance of any particular article to the post-publication phase. We would fully agree that it is in the post-publication phase that PLoS has not yet achieved as much as we would like. Nevertheless, the addition of article-level metrics to all PLoS content last year is an important step in this direction and there will be further developments in this area.

PLoS ONE thus frees authors from a system of journals that is biased against publication, which means that authors can publish their work swiftly. We have been surprised and delighted that so many authors (now well over 60,000 of them) have supported PLoS ONE by sending us their submissions. As a result of this groundswell of support from the research community, the growth of PLoS ONE has been spectacular and, we believe, unparalleled in the history of scientific publishing (the journal is less than 4 years old and is on target to be the largest peer-reviewed journal in the world this year).

Given that the costs of publication are fully covered by publication fees, it is true that PLoS ONE has helped to move PLoS much closer towards independent economic sustainability. However, it is also the case that the PLoS Community Journals launched in 2005 (PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Genetics, PLoS Pathogens) are fully economically sustainable through publication fees and are now making a positive financial contribution to our organisation. There is no question that the financial impact of PLoS ONE is important for PLoS and for open-access publishing more broadly, but to focus purely on this aspect of PLoS ONE is to miss the real significance of PLoS ONE, which was established as an innovative publication vehicle aiming to dramatically improve the pace and efficiency of scientific communication relative to the established order of academic journals.

This significance was formally recognized last year, when PLoS ONE received a major industry award from ALPSP for publishing innovation. The judges indicated that PLoS ONE “combines the traditional values of the journal with innovative online features to create an inclusive and efficient publication channel. It is bold and successful and shaping the future of publishing.”

Finally, we must acknowledge the tremendous support of the research community who as authors, reviewers and editors have already established PLoS ONE as an efficient and effective peer-reviewed publication, which is successfully challenging the traditional notion of a journal.

Pete Binfield, Publisher (PLoS ONE and PLoS Community Journals)
Mark Patterson, Director of Publishing

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