What I missed on my holiday or Why I like refereeing for PLoS ONE
I was away last week having a holiday and managed to miss the whole Declan Butler/PLoS/Blogosphere dustup. Looked like fun. I don’t want to add to the noise as I think there was a lot of knee jerk reactions and significantly more heat than light. For anyone coming here without having heard about this I will point at the original article, Bora’s summary of reactions, and Timo Hannay’s reply at Nature. What I wanted to add to the discussion was a point that I haven’t seen in my quick skimming of the whole debate (which is certainly not complete so if I missed this then please drop in a comment).
No-one as far as I can see has really twigged as to just how disruptive PLoS ONE really is. In this I agree with Timo, in that I think publishers, from BMC, to Elsevier, ACS and Nature Publishing Group itself, should be very worried about the impact that it will have and think very hard about what it means for their future business models. Where we disagree, I think, is that I find this very exciting and think that it shows the way towards a scientific publishing industry that will look very different from todays’. Diffentiating on quality prior to publication was always difficult, and certainly expensive. The question for the future is whether we are prepared to pay for it, and are we getting value for money?
The criticism levelled at PLoS ONE is that it uses a ‘light touch’ refereeing process with the only criterion for publication being that a paper is methodologically sound. This, it is implied leads to a ‘low quality journal’ or perhaps rather a journal with a large number of relatively uncited articles. However there are very strong positives to this ‘light touch’ approach. It is fast. And it is cheap. The issue here is business models and the business model of PLoS ONE is highly disruptive. And financially successful. To me this is the big news. People are flocking to PLoS ONE because it is a quick and straightforward way of getting interesting (but perhaps not career making) results out there.
From an author’s perspective PLoS ONE cuts out the crap in getting papers published. The traditional approach (send to Nature/Science/Cell, get rejected, send to Nature/Science/Cell baby journal, get rejected, send to top tier specific journal, get rejected, end up eventually going to a journal that no-one subscribes to) takes time and effort and by the time you win someone else has usually published it anyway. It also costs the authors money in staff time to re-format, rejig, appease referees, re-jig again to appease a different set of referees. I haven’t done the sums but worst case scenario this could probably cost as much as a PLoS ONE publication charge. Save time, save money, still get indexed in PubMed. It starts to sound good, especially for all that material that you are not quite sure where to pitch.
But what about that stuff that is really hard hitting? That you know is important. Here you now have an interesting choice. You can send to Nature/Science/Cell/PLoS Biology and if you get past the initial editorial review stage and get to referees then you are probably looking at around six to nine months before publication. You will be in a high profile journal, can generate good publicity, have great paper on your CV. Alternatively you can send to PLoS ONE and have it on the web and in PubMed in perhaps two to four weeks. If the paper is as strong as you believe then you will still get your hundreds of citations, still have a great paper, still get good publicity. It probably doesn’t look quite so good on the traditional CV, but try putting the number of citations for each paper on your CV – that puts it in perspective. And it will be out a lot faster, you will be ahead of the game and you can apply for your next grant with ‘paper published and already cited three times’ not ‘paper submitted’ (read ‘about to be rejected’, there is an art in submitting papers just before the grant deadline). This makes for an interesting choice and one which cuts directly across the usual high impact/low impact criterion. It puts speed and convenience on the table as market differentiators in a way they haven’t been before.
As a referee PLoS ONE has a lot of appeal as well. You are being asked a very specific question. I recently refereed one paper for PLoS ONE at the same time as one for another (fairly low impact) journal. The PLoS ONE paper was a very simple case, the methodological detail was exemplary; easy to read, clear, and detailed. You get the impression the authors took care over it, possibly because they knew that was what it would be judged on (it is of course entirely possible that this group just writes good papers). The other paper was a distinct case of salami slicing – but I was left with trying to figure out whether it had been cut too thin for this specific journal. This is not just a difficult judgement to make. It is a highly subjective and probably meaningless one. The data was still useful and publishable, just probably not in that specific journal. Which one do you think took me longer? And which one left me with a warm feeling?
What about the reader? There is a lot of interesting stuff in PLoS ONE. There is also a lot of dross. But why should that matter? I don’t look at the dross; I often don’t even know that it exists. I can’t remember the last time I actually looked at a a journal table of contents. It doesn’t matter to me whether a paper is in Nature, Science, PLoS ONE, or Journal of the society for some highly specific thing in some rather small place. If it is searchable, and I have access to it then that’s all I need. If it is not both of these then for me it simply does not exist. And I don’t judge the value or reliability of an article based on where it is, I judge the article on what it contains. PLoS ONE actually wins here because its hard focus on being ‘methodologically sound’ tends to lead referees and editors (as well as authors) to focus on this aspect.
To me the truly radical thing about PLoS ONE is that is has redefined the nature of peer review and that people have bought into this model. The idea of dropping any assessment of ‘importance’ as a criterion for publication had very serious and very real risks for PLoS. It was entirely possible that the costs wouldn’t be usefully reduced. It was more than possible that authors simply wouldn’t submit to such a journal. PLoS ONE has successfully used a difference in its peer review process as the core of its appeal to its customers. The top tier journals have effectively done this for years at one end of the market. The success of PLoS ONE shows that it can be done in other market segments. What is more it suggests it can be done across existing market segments. That radical shift in the way scientific publishing works that we keep talking about? It’s starting to happen.