Last week PLoS ONE received its first impact factor — a stunning 4.351. This puts the open access journal in the top 25th percentile of ISI’s “Biology” category, a group of journals that sports a median impact factor of just 1.370.
Within minutes after the impact factors for 2009 being released, one could almost hear the sounds of champagne corks popping in San Francisco. Or were they the sounds of competing publishers banging their heads against their office walls in utter amazement? For there seems something very strange about a journal that accepts nearly 70% of all submissions yet achieves such a score, especially with its first assessment.
For anyone considering that PLoS ONE engaged in editorial shenanigans to boost self-citations, there is no evidence of such. Self-cites represent just 8% of the citations used to calculate their impact factor, and removing these self-cites drops their score to just 4.00. We must accept that this is a valid and correct measure of the citation impact of PLoS ONE articles.
So how can a journal that allows 7 out of 10 manuscripts through their gate achieve such a stellar rating?
We need to remember that it costs $1,350 to publish an article in PLoS ONE. And while their article processing charges (APCs) are not as high as competing commercial publishers’, they still exert a barrier to authors. Authors with access to funds (either through their own research grants or through their institution’s open access publishing funds) represent a characteristically different group of authors than the rest of the author population. (I’ll address APC waivers later in this post).
Authors with research funds have already gone through a form of peer-review by their granting agency, which has selected their proposal above all others because it has merit and stands a chance of producing interesting results. And authors with access to publication funds through their institution have passed through the most finest filter of them all — the peer-review that rewarded them with employment at an elite institution in the first place.
Either way, being willing and able to pay $1,350 to pay to publish an article is a signal that there is something unique about PLoS ONE authors, and it shouldn’t be so surprising that articles written by the 70% who were able to pass through the publication review gate are performing so well.
Is a High Impact Factor a Blessing or a Curse?
Normally, publishers would view a high initial impact factor as a blessing. After three hard years, scientists have recognized that PLoS ONE is a source of quality articles that are worth both their attention and citations. More importantly, authors who published early with PLoS ONE did so for reasons other than an impact factor.
For many authors, a journal’s impact factor strongly determines where to submit one’s manuscript. Authors initially skeptical that a journal working on the principle of light peer-review may now consider PLoS ONE a destination for future manuscripts. PLoS ONE should prepare for the deluge.
While a subscription-access publisher may dream of being overwhelmed by manuscript submissions, this blessing may come as a curse for a publisher that has banked on making money from not spending a lot of time and resources rejecting manuscripts.
In financial terms, the purpose of PLoS ONE is to subsidize the cost of publication for their two flagship journals, PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, two highly-selective, high-cost journals that would be unable to continue in their current state without financial subvention. PLoS ONE is able to do this because of low selectivity — rejecting only 3 out of every 10 manuscripts. In order to make their parent organization money, therefore, they need to rely heavily on automation and minimal intervention from the publisher. For PLoS ONE, being a “bulk publishing” journal serves a clear purpose and one that should not be scorned.
Living with an Impact Factor
On the face of it, it would appear that the future of PLoS ONE is rosy: increased submissions leads to increased revenue and more support for flagship journals for which PLoS is chiefly interested in maintaining as highly-selective journals.
This future, however, is based on two assumptions:
- The quality of PLoS ONE submissions remains constant, and
- No more free riders
As mentioned above, the fact that PLoS ONE now has a respectable — even enviable — impact factor will draw a different kind of author who may not have considered this journal in the past. If this different author is like the kind of authors that most conventional journals routinely deal with, PLoS ONE may need to be more discerning of which manuscripts are let through their gate; that is, if they care about their future impact factor. If they do care, then a declining quality of manuscript submissions means that PLoS ONE will need to spend more time and energy reviewing manuscripts only to reject many of them without payment. This will only drive up the cost of running their operation, or alternatively, dig into the surplus they send back to support the operations of PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine.
Secondly, and more importantly for PLoS ONE, their financial model requires that the same proportion of authors will pay article processing fees. But because PLoS has separated editorial decision-making from their business model, they have little sway in keeping payments flowing if authors decide they are either unwilling or unable to pay. From their Author Guidelines page:
Editors and reviewers have no access to payment information, and hence inability to pay will not influence the decision to publish a paper. These policies ensure that the fee is never a barrier to publication.
How many PLoS ONE authors claim financial hardship?
While I cannot find public information on the percentage of waivers or discounts given to authors who express financial hardship, I was told by a PLoS publisher their system works exceptionally well, with only a small percentage asking for — and receiving without question — article processing waivers.
Now there might be a valid reason for not making waiver statistics public. With a “no questions asked” policy, the system essentially works on voluntary payment, which is a very unstable kind of market. If it becomes public that enough authors are unwilling to pay, our moral compass becomes activated and we start to question why we should pay (even a discounted price) when others are given a free ride. The only other option is to keep waiver information secret and give authors the sense that everyone (or nearly everyone) is paying their fair share.
The second assumption — that the ability and willingness of future authors to pay publication charges remains constant — is based on the notion that future authors will be demographically similar now that PLoS ONE has been given an laudable impact factor. Adding proportionately more non-paying and under-paying authors puts PLoS ONE in a similar situation as raising the acceptance bar would — the cost of running their operation will go up. This means either raising the price to those still willing to pay or reducing surplus payments to support PLoS flagship journals. Either solution is gloomy. The darkest outcome is a total market failure, where price sensitivity starts driving authors out of the payment group and into the free group, creating spiraling costs for the remaining and dwindling few.
In sum, PLoS ONE‘s first and astounding 4.35 impact factor should neither be reason to celebrate nor ridicule, for it puts the publisher in a position that may require them to start treating PLoS ONE like other conventional journals.
This may be time to consider launching PLoS TWO.