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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:
- Most manuscripts submitted to PLoS Biology or PLoS Medicine, like manuscripts submitted to all top-tiered journals, are undoubtedly of exceptional quality.
- An editor has already invested time in vetting that manuscript – time that would be essentially wasted if the manuscript was simply rejected.
- The author has already expressed the intention and willingness to pay author processing charges and publish in a fully open access journal.
- 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.
- 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.