Business Models, Experimentation, Peer Review

Bulk Publishing Keeps PLoS Afloat

PLoS ONE

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In an expository news piece released in last week’s issue of the journal Nature, Declan Butler describes how the Public Library of Science is attempting to stay afloat by using lower-cost, “bulk publishing” with PLoS One to offset mounting costs of publishing PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine.

The story has an element of shadenfreude to it, as those interviewed appear to take some pleasure out of saying publicly I told you so, considering PLoS’s history of overconfidence in their financial model.

PLoS trumpeted its business model as being better than everyone else’s, as being ‘the one’

The blogosphere has reacted somewhat negatively to the Nature report, calling it a “hatchet job” and explaining Nature’s approach in terms of competition and jealousy.

From the report, is clear that even with significant philanthropy, PLoS is unable to publish only high-quality, low acceptance journals. A model where one expends massive amounts of resources on manuscripts which are ultimately rejected does not scale well with a producer-pays model. PLoS has done what Joe Esposito described in his article Open Access 2.0 — adopted a successful low-cost, highly automated publishing model for the bulk of its articles.

Manuscript submitted to PLoS One undergo light peer-review meaning that reviewers screen for serious methodological flaws, not the importance of the result. It is a bit puzzling that enough authors would be willing to pay $1,250 to publish in a generic, high-acceptance journal when the same amount of money would pay for open access in a journal such as PNAS or a high-prestige specialist journal offering an author-choice model.

And this is where the economics of traditional publishing need to be rethought. There is certainly some brand coat-tailing going on with the high-quality PLoS brand built from their flagship journals being conferred to PLoS One. In addition, authors of rejected manuscripts from PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine (those that don’t include serious methodological flaws) are encouraged to resubmit to PLoS One. With the risk of completely missing the point on a blog that is followed by veteran publishers, let me speculate on how this makes economic sense:

  1. Most manuscripts submitted to PLoS Biology or PLoS Medicine, like manuscripts submitted to all top-tiered journals, are undoubtedly of exceptional quality.
  2. An editor has already invested time in vetting that manuscript – time that would be essentially wasted if the manuscript was simply rejected.
  3. The author has already expressed the intention and willingness to pay author processing charges and publish in a fully open access journal.
  4. PLoS could guarantee a faster publication with light peer-review (now half-completed) than sending the author away to seek an outlet with another journal.
  5. As a result, it doesn’t seem like a hard sell to an author that a rejected manuscript be published in PloS One. This may explain the success of the journal.

Now back to my earlier question about whether an author is getting equal value paying PLoS One $1,250 as they would seeking another outlet, especially when PLoS is using PLoS One to subsidize its flagship journals. What this subsidy means is that PLoS One authors are paying too much, and PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine authors are paying too little.

In an efficient market where authors are sensitized to the true costs of publishing and where competition leads to commensurate value for each dollar spent, this does not sound like an efficient market for publishing.

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About Phil Davis

I am an independent researcher and publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of readership and citation data. I am a former postdoctoral researcher in science communication and former science librarian. http://phil-davis.org/

Discussion

19 thoughts on “Bulk Publishing Keeps PLoS Afloat

  1. It is a bit puzzling that enough authors would be willing to pay $1,250 to publish in a generic, high-acceptance journal when the same amount of money would pay for open access in a journal such as PNAS or a high-prestige specialist journal offering an author-choice model.

    I think one would have to be living in a cave to actually find this puzzling. Many individuals have stated very clearly that as the producers of the research and papers, they prefer to support PLoS (or Open Access in general). Everyone wants this new model to work because it is ethically superior to the traditional subscription based model.

    This probably would not be as much of an issue had the publishing industry generally not been so agressively pirate-like in their business activities over the last decade.

    In fact, I find it absolutely disgusting that PLoS is being so critically examined on the basis of the for profit business models. What, did all the former Reaganites disappear from government and reappear in the halls of the major publishing houses?

    I find it interesting that you chose PNAS as your example, which charges authors 70 bucks $70 per printed page subscription-based publication, as well as other fees. A six page paper with three color graphics could cost a little over $1,000.00. Longer articles can easily cost far more than PLoS one. And, the reputation of PLoS one is probably developing to be roughly in line with PNAS. But PLoS ONE is Open Access..

    Which, I ask you, is the better model?

    (PNAS makes a few things, seemingly randomly, open access. Close, but no cigar. In fact, not close.)

    In addition, there are deep differences in practice (and law) between the copyright arrangements of PLoS and other true Open access outlets and PNAS/Nature, and the other subscription based journals.

    Face it. The time has come for the pirates to step aside. So. Just step aside, please.

    Posted by Greg Laden | Jul 7, 2008, 9:57 pm
  2. The largest “cost” by far to authors is the time it takes to do the research, the time it takes to write the paper, the time it takes to edit the paper, the time it takes to jump through the hoops of editing and peer review.

    How much labor does $1250 represent? How much labor should a scientist be willing to put in to save $1250 in publication fees?

    Is that labor better spent doing more research, or jumping through more hoops going through the editing process at another journal?

    Posted by daedalus2u | Jul 8, 2008, 8:39 am
  3. And another thing!

    In an efficient market where authors are sensitized to the true costs of publishing and where competition leads to commensurate value for each dollar spent, this does not sound like an efficient market for publishing.

    I for one do not think it is a good idea to expect or demand, rely on or seek, an “efficient market for publishing” via market forces, as you describe. The market you speak of is based on cost of various operations. These should not be determining the nature of publication any more than pure microeconomics should determine the direction and nature of research.

    Efficiency is good in the sense that avoiding waste is bad. But market driven does not = good. That is a terribly destructive and offensive fallacy.

    Posted by Greg Laden | Jul 8, 2008, 11:41 am

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