First, let me make a bold admission–the kind that works perfectly for a tweet: “I was wrong.”
In a previous post, I claimed that a precipitous February drop in PLOS ONE article output was the result of a decline in their last Impact Factor. Authors (even those supportive of open access publishing) are sensitive to journal Impact Factors, so a drop in PLOS ONE‘s Impact Factor (from 4.092 to 3.730), reported last June would eventually show up as a drop in publication output 5-6 months later as manuscripts slowly move through their publication process.
My argument was built upon the economic concept of a leading indicator, the idea that future performance is often preceded by early changes in key metrics. As PLOS ONE has already shown that its authors were highly sensitive to its Impact Factor, flooding the journal with submissions shortly after they received their first substantial Impact Factor, I predicted that authors would begin to abandon the journal when that indicator started to turn south.
It looks like I was wrong … but not totally incorrect.
Publication output is still declining in PLOS ONE, but not as fast as one would expect if a single leading indicator were the cause. Publication output hit a high of 3,039 research articles in December 2013. In May 2014, it had dropped to 2,276, a 25% reduction.
While this decline is substantial, it is not as abrupt as what would be expected if their publication flow were predicted entirely by their Impact Factor. A directional shift in publication output signals that there are other structural changes in the marketplace that may be involved, such as:
- A decline in U.S.-based funding in science and medicine
- A U.S. government shut down in October 2013
- Competition from other open access journals in biomedicine
- Global changes in national funding in R&D, particularly in Southeast Asia
Readers can comment on other structural changes within and outside of the academy that may reveal themselves in a decline of publication in PLOS ONE. I don’t think anyone can dispute that the drop in publication output in 2014 is merely a statistical blip.
For those who have spent the time doing the calculation, PLOS ONE‘s 2013 Impact Factor (scheduled to be reported mid-June in Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Report) is expected to drop again, some predicting as low as 3.1. A further drop in PLOS ONE‘s citation performance may simply accelerate its fall. And without a PLOS ONE editor in chief, there is little that can be done to correct its course. If PLOS ONE were a ship, it is one without a captain, left for the currents to determine its fate.
PLOS ONE creates huge surpluses for PLOS that can be used to subvent its other open access titles, in-house innovation, as well as an advocacy program. Even if PLOS granted a sizable number of article fee waivers, that 25% drop in 2014 publication represents about $1 million less revenue in the first quarter alone. If this trend continues, supporting other PLOS activities may become more difficult.
As one director of a non-profit described to me recently, when you’re swimming in money, it is easy to justify new programs and services. You’re a hero and can do no wrong. No director wants to be in charge when that pool of money starts drying up.