PLoS ONE has been one of the signal experiments in scientific publishing since it came into the journals market in late 2006. By promising authors three distinct advantages — unfettered access for readers, a higher likelihood of acceptance, and faster times to publication — PLoS ONE rapidly gained traction as a place for authors to publish their works more quickly and with less hassle.
Speed has become a dimension of publishing competitiveness over the past decade. Search Google for “journal fast publication,” and you get a long list of publishers — most newer, but some traditional — competing on shorter publication times. PLoS ONE shows up 5th on the list, behind BioMed Central, Springer’s Fast Track publishing (an approach to reducing time from acceptance to publication to less than 20 days), BE Press, and Copernicus Publishing. Fifth position is a high ranking in the Google, given that the other listings are for publishers, while PLoS ONE’s is for a single title.
Before the move to online publication, even contemplating a faster publication cycle seemed doomed — there were low expectations among authors; printing and mailing added major barriers; and the pace of publishing was slow to the point of being almost languid. But soon after journals moved online, various practices — online-first, pre-publication versions, and general improvements in speed thanks to email instead of FedEx — became possible.
Some journals have made their speed a source of competitive differentiation and pride, becoming known on the market for rapid publication. PLoS ONE is one of these, and boasts about its speed without qualification:
Results published FAST
PLoS ONE couples efficient and objective peer review with a streamlined electronic production workflow.
This claim is asserted elsewhere, with promises of “Fast publication times” and the like.
But is PLoS ONE delivering?
Sample data comparing speed between 2006 and 2011 suggest that PLoS ONE is slowing down significantly. Taking 10 articles published at the end of September 2011 and their times between submission and acceptance, acceptance to publication, and then overall (submission to publication), then comparing these to 10 articles published at the end of 2006, the data indicate a significant slowdown in every aspect of PLoS ONE’s process:
- Average times from submission to acceptance increased from 58 days to 161 days
- Average times from acceptance to publication increased less, from 36 days to 52 days
- Overall, times from submission to publication increased from 94 days to 213 days, or from 3+ months on average to 7+ months on average
- The maximum time to publication increased as well, from 141 days in 2006 to 330 days in 2011
- The fastest time to publication in 2006 was 18 days, while in 2011 it was 42 days
- The maximum time to publication increased 234% between 2006 and 2011, while the minimum time to publication increased by 163%
Judging the increases in the standard deviation in each little data set, the main problem seems to be that the reviewer pool isn’t able to keep up with the volume of submissions, and may not be growing as quickly as the rate of submission. The standard deviation of the time between submission and acceptance has increased nearly three-fold between the 2006 articles and the 2011 articles sampled.
Another 10 articles sampled from 2010 show that the slowness is on the same line the two points of 2006 and 2011 suggests, with the time between submission and acceptance contributing the most consistent data, while time in the production system shows some deflections — what I take as signs of efforts to speed things back up once papers got into production. This makes sense, as production people are trained to manage variance, and they work in a more controlled and controllable environment. Nonetheless, the slowness is creeping in even there.
These data put PLoS ONE on track to be about average for speed compared to many other journals, including their competitors in the open access space.
Just to make sure there wasn’t a “summer doldrums” effect in here somewhere (after all, the sample data came from articles published in late September), I looked at 10 more articles published in late June 2011. There may be a little effect around summertime schedules, as the average time from submission to acceptance in the June sample set was 127 days (compared to 161 days in the September sample). However, time from acceptance to publication was actually higher in the June sample set (58 days compared to 52 days), and the overall time between submission and publication in the June sample set was 185 days, so about 6 months.
A complete study of article submission, acceptance, and publication dates would be quite interesting, especially if it covered all the years of PLoS ONE’s publication. Based on these admittedly sketchy data, I’ll bet such a study would show a gradual northeast slope to the overall data as times in all three bins slowly creep upward over time.
It’s also worth noting that many journals no longer publish submission and acceptance dates along with their manuscripts. By doing this, PLoS ONE should be commended for backing up its claims about speed with information users can access to see for themselves.
It isn’t unusual for the review process to become a source of delay — most journals struggle with coordinating peer-review, keeping things moving along, and adding reviewers to keep up with the supply of papers — but PLoS ONE is growing so fast that the effect is probably especially pronounced. And when a process expands before the most devoted adherents to it to a slightly less engaged group as seems inevitable when a journal grows, delays creep in.
One way many journals have dealt with this is to create a fast-track option at some point, a way for selected papers to move more quickly through peer-review while those without the need for speed come along at a more normal pace. This lets the editors compete for top papers more effectively. But the fast-track aspect that has emerged at many top-tier journals may not exist at PLoS ONE, possibly because they’ve promised that everything would be fast.
As PLoS ONE has grown, it’s not surprising that the review process has slowed while the production system is also bogged down trying to cope with the throughput.
After five years of impressive growth, PLoS ONE’s publication times are looking a bit more average. And while they’re faster than some journals’ publication times, the trend isn’t headed in the right direction, at least if these admittedly limited data are representative. The trend is toward months of waiting for authors — toward becoming more like the journals PLoS intended to compete against.