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PLoS ONE too many

by PhilipJ on 25 July 2006

The Public Library of Science (of which we’re big fans) has recently launched a website for PLoS ONE, a new journal which will be “open access 2.0”. To quote their site, PLoS ONE is

- a peer-reviewed publication that publishes all rigorously performed science

- a vibrant online forum that encourages scientific dialogue and debate

- a “hassle-free” process that gets your work online within weeks

which sounds great. Rather than having subjective criteria by which referees are to judge a paper (e.g., is this of high enough impact for this journal?), the only requirement is that the science methodology is sound. A commenting system to promote dialogue on the submitted works will be the real judge of a paper’s impact, and will create a better sense of community: it will be easier to foster international discussion—with the authors—about important results without having to wait for an upcoming conference or meeting. These are all good things, as I’m surely not alone in feeling that many articles I read are missing something when it comes to explaining methods, or details in a model, or what have you. And we’ve all heard horror stories of “unfair” referees.

So what’s my issue? I’ve raised it before, over at the PLoS blog itself, so I may as well simply quote myself, with some minor adjustments:

[G]iven the broad nature of PLoS ONE – everything from nuclear physics to cell biology under the same roof, I think PLoS will (potentially) have a hard time getting the critical mass of people from all disciplines needed for good over-publication peer review and discussion. With PLoS having focused on biological and medical science so far, I suspect that these areas will have a reasonable representation in the beginning, but I’m not sure how easy or hard it will be to grow in, say, physics (my own background).

My worry hasn’t changed (and wasn’t really addressed by Chris), so I’ll expound on it here. PLoS journals have come out of nowhere and made a splash, depending on how you value the impact factor ratings from Thomson Scientific. PLoS Biology is quickly becoming a top tier journal for research in biology, and PLoS Medicine seems to be doing fine as well—not at the level of the New England Journal of Medicine, but having launched these journals just a couple of years ago, their growth is impressive.

The splash, however, hasn’t yet reached any of chemistry, mathematics, or physics. Given that PLoS ONE is trying to be a journal for all disciplines, why would someone with an interesting result in any of the traditionally “hard sciences” risk publishing there? The open access nature of the journal is going to appeal to many, but I fear that isn’t going to be enough to draw in a substantial group from non-biology and non-medicine backgrounds, either for submitting important work or being there to comment on the papers of others. The biology and medical communities have already come to trust PLoS journals, but I find many of my physics colleagues know next to nothing of the journal offerings at PLoS.

My other fear, which is the inspiration for the title of this post, is that the open access movement is going to get diluted before it has properly established a foothold in the world of scientific publishing. If I have an exciting result from my biology lab, and I am a firm believer in open access, should I try publishing in PLoS Biology or PLoS ONE, or even PNAS with the open access option? Will many scientists want to take the gamble publishing something in PLoS ONE when PLoS Biology is already becoming a respected and highly read journal?

I feel that the ideals of PLoS ONE are a step in the right direction for the open access movement, but by creating two different open access options (from the same publisher, no less), as is currently the plan, the whole movement may take a step in the reverse direction. I think “open access 2.0” shouldn’t require it’s own journal, and should instead be applied to the already up-and-coming offerings from PLoS, gradually expanding into other areas as financial stability and a demand for a high quality open access option from these disciplines increases. In any case, I hope the PLoS succeeds beyond my own imagination!

  1. Pedro Beltrao    4372 days ago    #

    The available PLoS journals have limited space and they reject a lot of manuscripts based on the decision of having a set of papers that they hope are of high impact to the respective fields.
    Currently in those journals the potential impact is judged before publication by the editors and the peer review. This is where I think One will be different. I think papers will be accepted on technical grounds and impact will determined after publication by the community.

    They could have started a PLoS Physics with the same model of PLoS ONE but I guess they decided to start with a broad scope. Whoever is interested in Physics can then probably view PLoS One articles in the Physics section and hopefully participate with comments, ratings etc.
    It is a different model basically of determining the impact of individual publications. I really agree with you on one thing, the success of ONE will depend a lot on establishing a strong community around the journal.
    What they have going for them is the nice karma of the open access model. If they manage to attract good associate editors for Physics, the Physics blogging community and some nice first papers I am sure that the Physics section would lift off nicely.

  2. PhilipJ    4369 days ago    #

    Hi Pedro, sorry for the late reply!

    My main argument is that Open Access 2.0 should be applied to all the PLoS journals instead of creating PLoS ONE, basically because the open access publishing options are now less clear. By keeping the impact-conscious journals alongside ONE, it makes it unnecessarily confusing to those who now know that the PLoS-published journals are good (see the reputation that PLoS Biology and Medicine have each earned). Is ONE simply going to be a warehouse for correctly-done but uninteresting science?

    Since the original batch of PLoS journals have already garnered trust from their respective scientific communities, it only makes sense (to me) to leverage this and make the transition from what PLoS must consider Open Access 1.0 (the model PLoS Biology et al currently use) to 2.0 (the PLoS ONE model) both faster and less painful. I don’t understand a long-term benefit to keeping both the 1.0 and 2.0 models in parallel, in which case PLoS ONE is going to be redundant when the other PLoS journals “catch up”.

  3. Deepak    4358 days ago    #

    Perhaps PLoS ONE (and I might be completely off base here) is a testing ground for the future of the PLoS journals.

    On the other issue, I am very interested in finding out why the physical sciences have not embraced open source publishing and the kind of search engines like the ones available at Pubmed, etc? Or are they. The journals I am familiar with (J. Phys. Chem, J. Chem. Phys., Phys. Rev. Lett., Biophysics) are definitely old school.

  4. PhilipJ    4358 days ago    #

    Hi Deepak,

    If PLoS ONE is to be just a testing ground, won’t it be redundant in a few years if/when the Open Access 2.0 ideals are embraced by all the journals?

    As to why physicists haven’t embraced OA… I’m not entirely sure! Part of it is certainly that almost all the “big” physics journals are made by societies and are operating as non-profits. We’ve also spearheaded, which has become particularly important for high energy physicists. But as to why we haven’t completely embraced an OA model, I honestly don’t know! I hope it is something that the APS and other societies are looking into.

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