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PLoS (and NPG) redefine the scholarly publishing landscape

7 January 2011 1,919 views 22 Comments
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Nature Publishing Group yesterday announced a new venture, very closely modelled on the success of PLoS ONE, titled Scientific Reports. Others have started to cover the details and some implications so I won’t do that here. I think there are three big issues here. What does this tell us about the state of Open Access? What are the risks and possibilities for NPG? And why oh why does NPG keep insisting on a non-commercial licence? I think those merit separate posts so here I’m just going to deal with the big issue. And I think this is really big.

[I know it bores people, hell it bores me, but the non-commercial licence is a big issue. It is an even bigger issue here because this launch may define the ground rules for future scholarly communication. Open Access with a non-commercial licence actually achieves very little either for the community, or indeed for NPG, except perhaps as a cynical gesture. The following discussion really assumes that we can win the argument with NPG to change those terms. If we can the future is very interesting indeed.]

The Open Access movement has really been defined by two strands of approach. The “Green Road” involves self archiving of pre-prints or published articles in subscription journals as a means of providing access. It has had its successes, perhaps more so in the humanities, with deposition mandates becoming increasingly common both at the institutional level and the level of funders. The other approach, the “Gold Road” is for most intents and purposes defined by commercial and non-profit publishers based on a business model of article processing charges (APCs) to authors and making the published articles freely available at a publisher website. There is a thriving community of “shoe-string business model” journals publishing small numbers of articles without processing charges but in terms of articles published OA publishing is dominated by BioMedCentral, the pioneers in this area, now owned by Springer, Public Library of Science, and on a smaller scale Hindawi. This approach has gained more traction in the sciences, particularly the biological sciences.

From my perspective yesterday’s announcement means that for the sciences, the argument for Gold Open Access as the default publication mechanism has effectively been settled. Furthermore the future of most scholarly publishing will be in publication venues that place no value on a subjective assessment of “importance”. Those are big claim, but NPG have played a bold and possibly decisive move, in an environment where PLoS ONE was already starting to dominate some fields of science.

PLoS ONE was already becoming a default publication venue. A standard path for getting a paper published is, have a punt at Cell/Nature/Science, maybe a go at one of the “nearly top tier” journals, and then head straight for PLoS ONE, in some cases with the technical assessments already in hand. However in some fields, particularly chemistry, the PLoS brand wasn’t enough to be attractive against the strong traditional pull of American Chemical Society or Royal Society of Chemistry journals and Angewandte Chemie. Scientific Reports changes this because of the association with the Nature brand. If I were the ACS I’d be very worried this morning.

The announcement will also be scaring the hell out of those publishers who have a lot of separate, lower tier journals. The problem for publication business models has never been with the top tier, that can be made to work because people want to pay for prestige (whether we can afford it in the long term is a separate question). The problem has been the volume end of the market. I back Dorothea Salo’s prediction [and again] that 2011/12 would see the big publishers looking very closely at their catalogue of 100s or 1000s of low yield, low volume, low prestige journals and see the beginning of mass closures, simply to keep down subscription increases that academic libraries can no longer pay for. Aggregated large scale journals with streamlined operating and peer review procedures, simplified and more objective selection criteria, and APC supported business models make a lot of sense in this market. Elsevier, Wiley, Springer (and to a certain extent BMC) have just lost the start in the race to dominate what may become the only viable market in the medium term.

With two big players now in this market there will be real competition. Others have suggested [see Jason Priem's comment] this will be on the basis of services and information. This might be true in the longer term but in the short to medium term it will be on two issues: brand, and price. The choice of name is a risk for NPG, the Nature brand is crucial to success of the venture, but there’s a risk of dilution of the brand which is NPG’s major asset. That the APC for Science Reports has been set identically to PLoS ONE is instructive. I have previously argued that APC driven business models will be the most effective way of forcing down publication costs and I would expect to see competition develop here. I hope we might soon see a third player in this space to drive effective competition.

At the end of the day what this means is that there are now seriously credible options for publishing in Open Access venues (assuming we win the licensing argument) across the sciences, that funders now support Article Processing Charges, and that there is really no longer any reason to publish in that obscure subscription journal that no-one actually read anyway. The dream of a universal database of freely accessible research outputs is that much closer to our reach.

Above all, this means that PLoS in particular has succeeded in its aim of making Gold Open Access publication a credible default option. The founders and team at PLoS set out with the aim of changing the publication landscape. PLoS ONE was a radical and daring step at the time which they pulled off. The other people who experimented in this space also deserve credit but it was PLoS ONE in particular that found the sweet spot between credibility and pushing the envelope. I hope that those in office are cracking open some bubbly today. But not too much. For the first time there is now some serious competition and its going to be tough to keep up. There remains a lot more work to be done (assuming we can sort out the licence).

Full disclosure: I am an academic editor for PLoS ONE, editor in chief of the BioMedCentral journal Open Research Computation, and have advised PLoS, BMC, and NPG in a non-paid capacity on a variety of issues that relate closely to this post.

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  • http://twitter.com/Chris_Surridge Chris Surridge

    A thoughtful take on this Cameron. I don’t think that I would start celebrating too much yet though. Scientific Reports is going to show us what is essential about the PLoS ONE model and where there is room for variation. It is not yet proven that peer-validation/open-distribution can support all the valuable functions of older publishing models in all disciplines. I believe that it can, but it’s as yet still a belief.

    I’ve got my champagne on ice (well strictly speaking Phil Campbell’s champagne since it is the bottle that I lost to him in a bet about online commenting), but not yet open. But I completely agree that Scientific Reports should be seen as a vindication of the publishing ideas behind PLoS ONE rather than as a threat to it.

    (Full disclosure in case it’s needed: I was managing editor of PLoS ONE when it launched and currently work for NPG. My views however are my own and shouldn’t be taken as indicative of NPG’s or anyone else’s position.)

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    Chris, thanks for those points. I agree with everything you say here but I’m
    still bullish. I don’t think it /matters/ whether peer-validation can
    support all those functions. The critical point that PLoS ONE showed was
    that the model was /close enough/ to traditional peer review that people
    would accept it. What that suggests me is that there is a good chance that
    people will submit papers to SciRep, pay their APC and it will grow to be a
    big chunk of the published literature regardless of whether there is good
    post-publication peer review or not. Plenty of things can still go wrong of
    course but I would assume those risks are being pretty closely and
    competently managed.

    None of which means that those of us who care about such things shouldn’t be
    swinging into action to make sure we get those downstream systems working,
    viable and sustainable as the rest of the system starts to come crashing
    down around us. Which, as you know, is why I keep getting so exercised about
    licences.

    …and never bet against Phil Campbell except over long time frames when
    you’re also splitting the odds with Timo Hannay…lets just agree that the
    bubbly is on me at some point…

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  • http://twitter.com/stuartcantrill Stuart Cantrill

    Regarding the comments about chemistry, I’m not sure that the ACS, RSC and Wiley will be quaking in their boots just yet.

    I may be wrong here, but my feeling is that the vast majority of chemists do not really care about open access at this time. This may change of course, but in the here and now, I don’t see a lot of support for it, apart from a small and vocal minority.

    Both the ACS (AuthorChoice) and the RSC (Open Science) offer open access options, but I don’t get the impression that the take-up is high (I have no numbers to back this up, but generally a designatory logo appears on the table of contents’ entry for papers that are published through these routes – and I don’t see many of those logos). I don’t know of any open access options at Wiley chemistry journals, but I might have missed those.

    The one truly open access general chemistry journal that I am aware of is the Chemistry Central Journal (published in association with BioMed Central), but since it started publishing in February 2007, it appears to have only published 93 articles to date. This is only 6 more than the number of members of the current editorial board listed on its website – I bring this up because some might perhaps anticipate the board supporting the journal (and the open access cause) by publishing at least one article in it every year or so. And there are also 16 section editors and the editor-in-chief. The journal doesn’t appear to have gained much traction.

    The Beilstein Journal of Organic Chemistry looks a little healthier in terms of content, and the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology is soon to follow. There are other open access chemistry journals from Chemistry Central too – but in fairly narrow subject areas; cheminformatics, systems chemistry and geochemistry.

    So, things may change, and perhaps they should, but I doubt it will happen any time soon.

    (In the spirit of full disclosure here, I’m the chief editor of Nature Chemistry, but am commenting here in a personal capacity and these views may not necessarily reflect those of NPG. I’ve also worked for Organic Letters at the ACS in the past…)

  • DrdrA

    But PLoS One doesn’t do the peer-review part any differently- so how it would have to be ‘close enough’ I’m not sure. I send a paper to PLoS One it gets the same peer-review as when I send it to a society journal, or a higher tier journal- with the single exception that potential impact is not considered. The critical evalulation of the data part itself is indistinguishable, and the same quality as anywhere else.

    I think they have done an amazing thing.

  • http://jodischneider.com/ Jodi Schneider

    “From my perspective yesterday’s announcement means that for the sciences, the argument for Gold Open Access as the default publication mechanism has effectively been settled.”

    I wouldn’t say it’s settled — but it’s good to see a major publisher promoting Gold open access.

    “Furthermore the future of most scholarly publishing will be in publication venues that place no value on a subjective assessment of “importance”. Those are big claim, but NPG have played a bold and possibly decisive move, in an environment where PLoS ONE was already starting to dominate some fields of science.”

    What makes you think this? (“Most” seems like possible — but to me it seems too early to tell).

    As for chemistry–it beats to a different drummer. As long as a large proportion of chemistry research is commercial (i.e. in pharmaceuticals) the incentives and rationales are different.

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    No, PLoS ONE doesn’t do the peer review process any different but the shift
    in the criteria (explicitly not looking at an assessment of importance) was
    a big radical and risky jump. The point is that quite a few efforts tried to
    do both of these at the same time and none have been particularly
    successful, and most have disappeared. PLoS ONE is successful precisely
    because it tackled one of these issues and not both.

    Bear in mind tho that as an academic editor on PLoS ONE I do have the power
    to editorially review papers without reference to peer reviewers. Few of the
    papers in PLoS ONE are done this way but I think the proportion will rise as
    the volume continues to increase.

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    Hi Stuart and thanks for the contrary view. I agree that from a practical
    perspective there has been little take up of open access but of course as is
    true in most sciences you will get “motherhood and applepie” level support
    when you ask people.

    The reason I think this will shift things is because of the Nature brand
    (more of which in the next post). The most likely reason for me to be wrong,
    particularly in the chemistry area, is the very strong traditional
    attachment to a small number of specific journals. But these are the top
    journals, the JACS, Angewandte, JPhysChem, ChemComm, Advanced Materials etc.

    In a world where there is a funder push towards OA and an institutional push
    towards prestigious publishing venues I think there is a real potential for
    the whole second tier to collapse and that in chemistry this could lead to a
    wholesale flight to Nature Chemistry/Nature Comms/Scientific Reports as a
    self contained trickle down path.

    I have quite a few conversations with chemists about where they publish and
    the conversation three years ago went:

    “…got rejected from JACS again, don’t know why I bother…”
    “Why not send it to PLoS ONE? Clear criteria at least…”
    “No, can’t do that, they don’t have an impact factor.”

    Then when it got an impact factor…

    “No, can’t do that, its all biology isn’t it?”

    If the branding switches, and there’s even a sniff of that Nature brand then
    that automatically adds prestige. Add the fact that volume journals are
    going to statistically have higher impact factors than they “should” given
    the statistical distribution of papers in them (algebraic mean is the wrong
    one to use) and a background of chemists having to shift into more
    biological and medical funding sources as their traditional funders dry up
    and I can easily see the bottom tier of ACS and RSC journals vanishing.

    The point about both ACS and RSC “open access” options is that they aren’t
    (they’re limited free access) and they’re hideously expensive for what
    you’re getting. One of the great things about Scientific Reports now
    alongside PLoS ONE and also BMC and Hindawi is that there is a wider market
    with a bit of diversity but that hopefully we’ll start to see real price
    comparisons.

    So I don’t think the ACS is folding tomorrow, but I really do think that
    both ACS, RSC, Elsevier, and Wiley, who I have no doubt were already looking
    at journals that only make them money because of the big deals, are looking
    at them even more closely.

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    Hi Stuart and thanks for the contrary view. I agree that from a practical
    perspective there has been little take up of open access but of course as is
    true in most sciences you will get “motherhood and applepie” level support
    when you ask people.

    The reason I think this will shift things is because of the Nature brand
    (more of which in the next post). The most likely reason for me to be wrong,
    particularly in the chemistry area, is the very strong traditional
    attachment to a small number of specific journals. But these are the top
    journals, the JACS, Angewandte, JPhysChem, ChemComm, Advanced Materials etc.

    In a world where there is a funder push towards OA and an institutional push
    towards prestigious publishing venues I think there is a real potential for
    the whole second tier to collapse and that in chemistry this could lead to a
    wholesale flight to Nature Chemistry/Nature Comms/Scientific Reports as a
    self contained trickle down path.

    I have quite a few conversations with chemists about where they publish and
    the conversation three years ago went:

    “…got rejected from JACS again, don’t know why I bother…”
    “Why not send it to PLoS ONE? Clear criteria at least…”
    “No, can’t do that, they don’t have an impact factor.”

    Then when it got an impact factor…

    “No, can’t do that, its all biology isn’t it?”

    If the branding switches, and there’s even a sniff of that Nature brand then
    that automatically adds prestige. Add the fact that volume journals are
    going to statistically have higher impact factors than they “should” given
    the statistical distribution of papers in them (algebraic mean is the wrong
    one to use) and a background of chemists having to shift into more
    biological and medical funding sources as their traditional funders dry up
    and I can easily see the bottom tier of ACS and RSC journals vanishing.

    The point about both ACS and RSC “open access” options is that they aren’t
    (they’re limited free access) and they’re hideously expensive for what
    you’re getting. One of the great things about Scientific Reports now
    alongside PLoS ONE and also BMC and Hindawi is that there is a wider market
    with a bit of diversity but that hopefully we’ll start to see real price
    comparisons.

    So I don’t think the ACS is folding tomorrow, but I really do think that
    both ACS, RSC, Elsevier, and Wiley, who I have no doubt were already looking
    at journals that only make them money because of the big deals, are looking
    at them even more closely.

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    Jodi, thanks for the comments, and looking forward to seeing you in San
    Diego!

    “I wouldn’t say [the argument for Gold OA is] settled — but it’s good to
    see a major publisher promoting Gold open access.”

    Where Nature moves, authors follow. I may be being over optimistic here (it
    would make a change!) but I think this will by default move a lot of authors
    in this direction. I frequently talk to people who say “I got a paper in a
    Nature Journal”, by which they mean a non-Nature branded journal that
    happens to be managed by NPG. The name is extremely powerful.

    “What makes you think [that most scholarly publishing will be in publication
    venues that place no value on a subjective assessment of "importance"]?

    The growth of PLoS ONE, which was against all sorts of sniping and
    deliberate misinformation as well as cultural barriers has been massive. It
    was the world’s biggest journal in 2010 and if growth continues will be
    maybe 2% of all the papers in PubMed this year. There is no obvious tail off
    evident yet in the growth rate.

    Add a Nature (or not quite Nature) branded and very similar model journal
    into this mix and I could see this jumping to 5% in 12-18 monhts. Authors
    are fed up with the run around of the current system but that’s been
    tensioned against a need for publishing in prestige venues. If SciRep ends
    up positioned as prestigious enough then I think there will be a run.
    Combine that with unilateral action from a number of big libraries to cancel
    big deals or enter into multilateral subscription negotiations? The current
    situation is an unstable equilibrium and this is quite a big push.

    Bear in mind that I was already with Dorothea in thinking that the low
    ranking journals were in serious trouble anyway, before this announcement.
    If you assume they are going down the gurgler then a massive take up of this
    is a logical conclusion. If you don’t buy the closure argument then it is
    much less clear although I would still lean towards significant takeup.

    ” As for chemistry–it beats to a different drummer. As long as a large
    proportion of chemistry research is commercial (i.e. in pharmaceuticals) the
    incentives and rationales are different.”

    I agree chemistry is more conservative and my colleagues buy into this
    argument less than bioscientists do. But I’ve never bought the “big
    commercial organizations make chemistry publication different” argument.
    This works for the databases but I don’t see that it works for the
    literature. Pharma would benefit greatly from OA literature, particularly
    given that they depend on SMEs for their incoming new projects. Pfizer may
    be able to afford a good library but your exciting new startup? [Again, this
    is part of the argument against that damn non-commercial licence]

    The majority of relevant chem literature now ends up in patents anyway not
    journal publications. So the 500lb gorilla is the ACS and ChemAbs Service. I
    think this weakens the ACS position, again particularly if you buy Dorothea
    Salo’s prediction that major US chemistry schools can no longer afford ACS
    affiliation. ACS have played a blinder with their dominant position for a
    long time but my feeling is their strategy is about to run out.

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  • Steve Hitchcock

    “From my perspective yesterday’s announcement means that for the sciences, the argument for Gold Open Access as the default publication mechanism has effectively been settled.” Cameron, this is a big claim based on one announcement. Some questions. How quickly could 100% OA be achieved in this way, and at what cost? How can we be sure this will not replace the so-called ‘serials crisis’ with an author crisis? Bear in mind that for this approach to work it has to be driven by publishers, and it will only work for publishers if it continues to grow their profits (because that is why most exist). The reduced approach to peer review may reduce costs, but with what effect on the scholarly record? PLoS ONE may be a successful example, but it is just one example, so how successfully will it be replicated across other fields? Or is this wishful thinking and idealism?

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    Hi Steve, yes appreciate its a big claim, and as I note in my reply to Jody
    a lot hangs on whether you accept the analysis that small, low ranking
    journals were already in serious trouble or not.

    How quickly? I’d guess a big shift occurring over 5-10 years but it wouldn’t
    necessarily be to 100% OA, just to a significant majority. It’s likely to be
    asymptotically approached with the top tier hanging on while they loudly
    declaim how much additional value they are adding and move gradually through
    mixed models.

    I would actually welcome an “author crisis”. In fact, we already have one,
    it is the authors that are causing the crisis by refusing to act
    collectively and with the wider community’s interest. We see it as a
    “serials crisis” because the authors don’t have to worry about, are
    generally not even aware of the cost implications of the decisions they are
    making in a subscription based world (see also:
    http://cameronneylon.net/blog/in-defence-of-author-pays-business-models/ )

    If those costs are directly visible to the author and the choice between
    e.g. ACS Open Choice, PLoS, and NPG becomes one where cost, and value for
    money, come into play then I think that is the greatest hope for really
    bringing costs down. Yes it has to work for publishers but if we can
    re-create a functioning market where people actually make choices where cost
    is a factor then the buyer can get back in control.

    As for the success of PLoS ONE I don’t see any problem with replicating it
    across the sciences, given the right technical infrastructure and the right
    team. Others have described problems with PLoS ONE for Computer Science and
    Mathematics for instance (Daniel Lemire has written on this) but these are
    issues of detail not of the overall system. Whether it could (or should)
    move into the humanities is a different story. I think it may be the case
    that repositories make more sense for the humanities but I don’t really know
    enough about the culture to make more than an informed guess.

    Also none of this should take away from the importance of IRs as a route to
    providing better access to research records. I just don’t believe the major
    benefit will be through access to finalised scientific literature. There’s
    actually a lot more interesting and possibly important stuff to tackle.

  • Steve Hitchcock

    Cameron, Thanks for your response. Like you, I wish to see IRs used to build complete, accessible and sustainable research records, but I wonder about the motivations and prospects for this if IRs do not include open access to the author versions of ‘finalised scientific literature’. These papers currently accrue most value in the scholarly communication system.

    There are choices to be made between costs and value. We are in a better position to judge and subscribe to publishing value-added if we have open access to the author-produced version, which will always be the no (additional)-cost version. Without that you have no influence over how much a publisher can charge, whether for subscription or publication fees. Whatever ‘choice’ can be introduced, how will that change publisher price control compared with now? Already many OA author fees are covered by funders, institutional subscriptions and maybe COPE, so what is the onus on authors to select OA publication venue based on price?

    Librarians may be less happy to confront authors to explain there are insufficient funds to publish: that would be the author crisis. This would affect those authors more directly than the ‘serials crisis’, telling them the library does not subscribe to a journal they wish to read.

    You claim that ‘low ranking journals’ may be in trouble, but this is a sector which by its nature is always in flux. What is new in your analysis? It’s possible that the current economic circumstances will force change, but do we have evidence for the effect on journals yet, and what sort of evidence are we looking for?

    On your principal point about the impact of NPG Scientific Reports, its new broadly-based OA venture, we shall have to defer judgement. Experience in other areas suggests that an organisation’s reputation and impact is not always easy to transfer, and in this case, unlike PLoS, NPG is not a dedicated open access publisher – that may make a difference – although I am aware of its OA position statement on this point.

  • Dorothea Salo

    Just to be clear, I didn’t say anything about “major” US chemistry schools. I think it’s actually the smaller ones that will dump ACS. The big ones will cling to it wailing as long as they possibly can.

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    My bad, I should have gone back and checked your wording. Another thing I
    think would be interesting would be a price war for accreditation between
    ACS and RSC but that’s probably too much to hope for :-)

  • Ebrown

    I’m not sure we’ll see a lot of competition between RSC and ACS in a lot of schools in the US. ACS is clearly the dominant society for the majority of institutions. As an example, we have a chem faculty about about 15-18, with 2 faculty members from the UK (I think one is still a UK citizen), and we don’t have access online to the RSC journal archive. We have all of the ACS content. I’m still not sure how journal prices and models will affect ACS accreditation/endorsement of programs in the long run. I still think the majority of chemists want to have formally accredited programs, but the policy creation may fall to the older faculty who know less about newer publishing models.

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    That’s quite interesting in terms of subscription. The converse would be
    unthinkable. I can’t imagine a chemistry school that takes itself seriously
    not having access to ACS journals. By the same token a lot of what I think
    is interesting work is in RSC journals. There have long been complaints tho
    that US chemists don’t look at any work done outside the US.

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  • http://www.funmurphys.com/blog/?p=1171 Carl Drews

    The Non-Commercial restriction is a huge mistake. Every researcher sees a useful figure, considers including it, notices the Non-Commercial restriction, and hesitates. Is my usage non-commercial or not? Will money ever change hands? Is this journal commercial because it’s not free? Maybe I have to consult my Legal department.

    Nobody wants to get sued.

    So the researcher looks around to see what other articles are out there. Articles that don’t have the Non-Commercial license. Find one of those and use it instead. Yeah, that’s it.

    I strongly agree with abandoning the Importance/Significance criteria. Scientific studies carry great weight – they influence votes and economies and people’s lives. If somebody reproduces an earlier study, and has $1350 to pay for publishing the follow-up research – let them do it! Independent confirmation of important and crucial results has good scientific value.

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