The study Phil Davis covered above — published in PLoSONE — reminded me of what I think is a sad story, one that hasn’t been told outside of private discussions, at least as far as I know. It’s the story of an opportunity sacrificed at the altar of open access, of a radicalism blunted into tradition, of audacity channeled down the path of least resistance.
It’s the story of the Public Library of Science.
The Public Library of Science had an opportunity a few years ago, which it now seems destined to squander completely. When PLoS first appeared on most publishers’ radar screens, we held our collective breath — here was a well-funded, radical, energized group coming into scholarly publishing right as the digital age was showing its full promise. It seemed possible that PLoS might be the group to reimagine scholarly communication — from peer-review to publication practices to form and function. Advocates claimed that their aspirations extended beyond merely creating an alternative economic model for publishing.
Fiery rhetoric, impatient academic leadership, the kind of arrogance possibly concealing a grand idea — all were present at PLoS’ inception. It was an entrance ripe with portent and peril. Traditional publishers were a bit nervous and certainly watchful.
Then, very quickly, PLoS underwhelmed — it went old school, publishing a good traditional journal initially and then worrying about traditional publisher concerns like marketing, impact factor, author relations, and, of course, the bottom line. PLoS fell so quickly into the traditional journal traps, from getting a provisional impact factor in order to attract better papers to shipping free print copies during its introductory period to dealing with staff turmoil, it soon looked less radical than many traditional publishers did at the time.
Within a few years, PLoS had become just another publisher.
Throughout, PLoS has been fundamentally invested in the open access movement, so its concerns about the bottom line — which emerged as grant funding started to taper off — caused it to begin building business models streaming from what’s possible using the author-pays model. And there are only so many things you can do around an author-pays model, just as there’s only so much you can do with a reader-pays model.
One of the easiest ways to maximize revenues with an author-pays model is to publish as many papers as possible. This is the path of least resistance for author-pays publishing. And thus, starting in late 2006, PLoSONE became their financial salvation, a salvation achieved via bulk publishing.
Now, because of its reliance on PLoSONE and revenues from bulk publishing, PLoS is teetering on the edge of becoming viewed as a low-quality, high-volume publisher — a far cry from the promise the initiative once held.
The study critiqued above talks about “bias” in publishing stemming from the pressures to be published (“publish or perish”), and potentially how scientists, institutions, and others encourage this bias for “positive” results (the author of the paper in question uses quote marks as a “weak” rhetorical technique, I should point out).
But is there a larger problem in scholarly publishing, a bigger “bias” toward alleviating the “publish or perish” pressures? And does PLoS, through PLoSONE, feed into this?
Does scholarly publishing itself need a path of least resistance?
Scientific publishing is a domain separated from others by things like peer-review, editorial selection, quality controls of various kinds, disclosures, and a strong preference for signal over noise. In this realm, it’s reasonable to assert that one of the biggest problems the “publish or perish” culture has created is a predatory set of high-volume, author-pays journals that provide venues for weak studies with trumped up positive findings.
Ultimately, these “journals” trade off the trust other journals and the journal culture itself have created.
I’m not anti-PLoS or anti-open access. Both can work, and other publishers have appropriated bulk-publishing, author-pays techniques as open access has shifted funding sources toward author-pays. However, author-pays and open access journals need to be high-quality, which usually means low-volume. So, yes, I am anti-noise and pro-signal, anti-chaff and pro-wheat, anti-pollution and pro-filtration.
Noise, chaff, and pollution in science should be controlled upstream by scholarly publishers. Journals are well-positioned to make a difference here, but the way PLoSONE and similar publishers are bulk-processing manuscripts into journal dress could possibly devalue the journal form at its roots.
If being published in a journal no longer immediately carries the imprimatur of having cleared a high bar of scrutiny, then the form itself is at risk. Journals could become merely directories of research reports. And publishers who are truly setting standards should take notice of the risk the drift toward directories poses.
Does the “publish or perish” pressure in academia create a penchant for positive results? Not any more than the penchant for interesting science drives the search for positive results. Positive results are inherently more interesting and worth writing up than flawed hypotheses or badly run experiments. Positive results reflect good science that people can build upon.
More troubling is that “publish or perish” pressures have created publishing businesses ready to exploit academics and authors.
The PLoSONE study Phil covered, which shoves a sloppy hypothesis into a forced positive finding, proves its point in its own perverse way. And it also proves that the journal publishing ecosystem is far too susceptible to noise pollution thanks to a combination of “publish or perish” pressures, predatory, high-volume publishers, and the ability of new entrants to conflate their practices with those of more rigorous, reader-focused journals and publishers.
Traditional reader-pays journals derive their revenues from the trust their readers place in them. If these journals lose this trust, they lose subscriptions, authors stop submitting their best papers, and a vicious cycle can begin. Reader-pays publishers and editors worry constantly about this. It’s a backstop to their actions and choices. Advertisers pay more to be in these venues of trust, reinforcing the need to preserve the power of the venue through the creation of advertising/editorial firewalls and the like.
Author-pays journals make money when authors publish. Some, like PLoSONE and Bentham Science, work to get as many papers as possible published in order to bolster their bottom lines. As of this writing, the PLoSONE site lists 122 articles published in the past week. At $1,350 per article, that’s ~$165,000 last week in publication charges, equating to ~$8.5 million per year. This doesn’t factor in the institutional charges that can offset some of these.
Clearly, there’s a lot of money on the table, and PLoSONE is getting that money by publishing 5,400+ articles per year. According to Wikipedia, PLoSONE publishes 70% of all submissions. That’s not a tight filter.
There seems to be a conflict of interest with author-pays at the journal level, at the business model level. The author-pays publisher’s interest isn’t in the readers or the results, but in the number of papers processed and published. Shouldn’t there be disclosure of author-pays as a conflict of interest element? That is, a statement like, “The authors paid the publisher $1,350 upon acceptance of this manuscript”?
What would readers think of such a statement?
In the PLoS family of journals, two other articles appeared in April dealing with publication “bias” — one in biology and the other in medicine. In a normal journal family, you might think that the editors coordinated the publication events and are somehow slightly obsessed with the topic. But given that authors paid to be published in these journals, perhaps the editors aren’t obsessed with the topic. Maybe this is where papers about this ill-defined and paranoid topic end up.
With business interests focused on fees from authors, it’s hard to know why things are in high-volume, author-pays journals. And that’s a problem.
PLoSONE believes that it’s “innovative” post-publication peer-review approach alleviates some of the obligations of publishing a scholarly journal. This innovation is essentially a form of commenting. But as a just-released report on peer-review’s role in academia states in discussing PLoSONE:
While submitted papers undergo a form of internal pre-publication peer-review, all “technically sound” papers are published. (A scan of articles suggests that reader comments are, in fact, rare.) We suspect that most competitive scholars will continue to submit their most important work to more prestigious, traditionally peer-reviewed outlets.
Luckily, other outlets like ArsTechnica covered these studies, including the one Phil discussed above, and provided reader-friendly critiques. As John Timmer writes in ArsTechnica:
[W]e could propose an alternate hypothesis: researchers in competitive environments are better at presenting their results in a way that’s likely to get them published. The data presented here is consistent with that hypothesis as well. . . . The authors themselves raise some significant questions about their interpretations without even going into some of the basic issues with the data—the corresponding author may not always reside at the site where much of the work was performed, and a US state is generally not a fine-grained measure of a research environment.
But should material like this have gotten this far? Is PLoSONE just a directory service for science, with paid listings?
Editors at a reader-focused journal would have very likely forced the authors of these papers to confront some of the problems ArsTechnica and ScienceBlogs found with them, or the paper would have been rejected as part of the 80-95% of papers rejected by these journals. Instead, it found its way into a journal that gets paid when it publishes, and therefore has a 70% acceptance rate.
In its early days, PLoS had an opportunity to break free from the herd. Instead, it joined the herd. That’s poignant enough. Now, it’s potentially carrying a business model with PLoSONE which could make people doubt the quality or safety of the herd, including PLoS and stretching beyond, even if many members are in fine shape.
Credibility isn’t just a problem for PLoS or PLoSONE. Credibility is a problem for journals everywhere.
Wouldn’t PLoS, and scholarly journals in general, be better off without author-pays, high-volume publishing practices?