Interview with Derya Unutmaz – Section Editor for Immunology at PLoS ONE

Derya Unutmaz, M.D. is the Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Pathology and a Member of the Microbial Pathogenesis Program in the Joan and Joel Smilow Research Center at the New York University School of Medicine. He serves as the Section Editor for Immunology at PLoS ONE. Dr. Unutmaz and I did the interview in a very modern, Web 2.0 way – using direct messaging on Facebook!

BZ: I’d like to start by putting a bit more detail on your scientific and medical background – what brought you into your research?

Derya picMy interest in biology and medicine started during my childhood when I realized that biological systems are extremely fascinating and that there is a great need to solve our medical problems. I chose to go to medical school to gain a broad insight into medicine and biology. However, soon after I received my MD, I chose to work in the laboratory and dedicated myself only to research. It has been a wonderful journey.

BZ: What was it that attracted you to PLoS ONE in the first place?

I have always been a big proponent of open biology publishing. I strongly feel that the published scientific knowledge should be freely available to everyone who is interested. We live in an age where information can be accessed from anywhere in the world at any time. In my opinion restricting this access stifles scientific advances. When the first PLoS journal, PLoS Biology, came out I was very excited about the prospects of having freely available journals. Indeed, I sent out our best manuscript at that time to PLoS Biology, which I am proud to say was published at that early stage. Some of my colleagues were quite critical and told me not to take a risk with a PLoS journal and to try another higher impact journal. I guess when you believe in a cause you have to take a chance, which I am very happy that I did.

The premise of PLoS ONE took the concept of open biology one step further by not only freely distributing published scientific knowledge but also facilitating the review process of papers and publication speed. As scientists we have all experienced frustratingly long review processes and constant rejection of manuscripts based on the subjective criteria of some journals. While the science always has to be very solid, sometimes the significance of the work is not readily apparent. I was involved as one of the academic editors from the very inception of PLoS ONE and I am amazed to see how successful it has become, beyond my expectations!

BZ: How many hours a week would you say that you devote to PLoS ONE and when do you fit that into your busy schedule?

As section editor of Immunology I handle relatively large volume of manuscripts, some of which I choose to act on as Academic Editor (AE) myself. These days I have on average 15-20 manuscripts at any given time under my review either as AE or as assigning to other AE’s. I would say, nowadays, that I devote between 4-6 hours a week to PLoS ONE reviews, and that time allocation has been progressively increasing with the number of manuscripts. While our busy schedules only get busier, contributing to PLoS ONE is one activity I do without complaint!

BZ: How does the peer-review process on PLoS ONE work? What is the standard of peer-review on PLoS ONE?

The peer review process of PLoS ONE is not very different compared to other journals. The submitted manuscripts are assigned to either an Academic Editor (AE) or Section Editor, and they then decide to handle them himself/herself or assign them to others with different expertise if necessary. The AE typically then sends the manuscript out to review, although in rare cases if they feel comfortable they can also review it completely on their own.

Once the reviews are received, the AE then makes a decision whether to ask for minor or major modifications, accept or reject the manuscript. At this level, PLoS ONE starts to differ a bit, in that the AE needs to read the reviews carefully and decide what portion of the review does not fit the criteria set for PLoS ONE publishing. Basically, the research needs to be experimentally well performed, controlled, statistically significant and novel (although it could repeat others work if there is controversy or if it is providing additional value). The questions answered by the research also need to be significant and not trivial.

I guess the major difference in PLoS ONE criteria is the judgment we make on the impact of the work. We try to avoid asking for new experiments that would increase the impact of the manuscript once it is published. That is where we enter into the subjective realm and I think we would like that judgment to be made by the larger scientific community. In other words the true value of the published study will be determined at the post-publication level rather than being filtered during the review process.

Another perhaps more subtle difference in the PLoS ONE review process is that once the authors resubmit their papers in response to minor or major critiques, with their rebuttal, then the AE makes the final decision whether or not to accept the paper. For example, if all the questions had been satisfactorily addressed then I very rarely resend the paper for second review. I think this greatly speeds up the review process and also reduces the extra burden on the external reviewers.

BZ: How quickly does this process move?

The first review process takes on average about a month, since the main limitation is to find the right reviewers and receive their reviews.  However, once the authors respond with their rebuttals that typically takes less than a week to issue final decision. This is particularly true in my case as I like to reach a quick decision at this stage to avoid any delays in publishing the work. After that, the PLoS ONE production staff ensure the paper rapidly appears online, a process that is also relatively fast compared to most other journals.

BZ: What’s the general quality of submissions like?

The general quality of submissions, in my experience of 200+ manuscripts, have been solid. There is a some sort of bell curve though. Occasionally we see some fantastic papers and also some rather mediocre studies, which are sound and should be published but nothing to be excited about. Most manuscripts fall somewhere in the middle. I should mention and thank all the reviewers who have, in the overwhelming majority, been incredible in improving the quality of the submitted manuscripts. I think that most authors also appreciate this as the comments are generally very constructive.

BZ: What would you say is the ‘best’ paper you have handled and why?

I will refrain from answering this question, because as I mentioned above “best” is quite subjective. I think that should be determined by the test of time and how that published work leads to unexpected new discoveries by others.

BZ: What do you feel makes PLoS ONE relevant to scientists?

I think an unbiased and relatively fast review process should be very appealing to all scientists. Also, as the success of PLoS ONE shows, scientists want to get their work out as soon as possible so they can focus on new experiments rather than wasting time back and forth on arduous review processes that ask for more and more experiments to increase the impact of their work.

Ultimately, it is the authors of the paper who are responsible for their work. I think every paper should be able to stand on its own and its impact should be determined individually rather than through theoverall impact factor of the journal. I think in the age where technology advances and information flows at ever faster speeds, PLoS ONE helps clear one of those bottle necks in science and I I think that is relevant.

BZ: And finally, what would you say is the thing about Open Access that most excites you?

The ability of anyone, anywhere to access scientific knowledge through the Internet is really a dream come true. I think this will usher a new era where both clinicians and researchers will be able to immediately fact-check or read the details of the published work, rather than worrying about having subscription to the journals.

BZ: Thank you very much for your time. It was great talking to you.

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