Publication output in the world’s largest scientific journal, PLOS ONE, has fallen nearly 25% since peak output in December 2013 and doesn’t appear to be recovering.
In November 2014, PLOS ONE published 2302 research articles, similar to monthly output reached two years ago. The rise and fall of PLOS ONE‘s output curve raises a few concerns about the future success of this journal and to its parent organization as well.
The Public Library of Science depends upon PLOS ONE to generate a significant stream of revenue that is used to subvent its flagship journals and keep their article processing charges (APCs) artificially low. To give you a sense of scale, in 2014, PLOS ONE published more than ten-times the number of articles published in all other PLOS journals combined. Without substantial revenue flow from PLOS ONE, these journals would either need to raise their APCs significantly or radically cut the editorial services they provide.
PLOS ONE’s massive growth over the last few years generated record revenue, according to PLOS’ financial statement. For 2013, the publisher reported that gross revenue grew by 31% to $50.8 million (up from $38.8 million in 2012). At the same time, PLOS’s expenses grew by 35% to $37 million (up from $27.4 million).
Much of that additional expense can be explained by the incremental costs of handling, processing and publishing each manuscript. As Kent Anderson details in his extensive list, publishers do lots of things, and lots of things translates into lots of expenses.
Unlike commercial ventures, non-profit organizations are constrained with what they can do with surplus cash and still retain their non-profit tax-exempt status. PLOS has no stockholders who insist on being rewarded with quarterly dividends. PLOS was started with foundation grants, not venture capital from investors, who wait eagerly to cash-in on the spoils of scientific publishing. In 2013, PLOS did what other non-profit publishers in their situation would do with a lot of extra cash–they invested in their organization. According to their financial report, PLOS invested by building infrastructure, hiring more staff and increasing the size of their US and UK offices.
While these investments sound wise, we need to remember that all of this infrastructure is based on a stream of APCs that now appears to be in flux. A new computer system may take many years to plan, build, implement, and refine. Hiring new editors and staff can be done more quickly, but people still need to be trained and may only become efficient after they have worked in the organization for a couple of years. If there is room available, a publisher could rent additional floor space but often this expansion is built on a multi-year leasing agreement with the building owner. Building infrastructure is a long-term, multi-year committment.
Prior to the downturn in 2014, one could look at the PLOS ONE publication graph and believe that growth could go on forever. One could be optimistic and plan for a future of continued growth, new staff, new software, and new office space. Since the vast majority of revenue for this publisher is tied to APCs, a downturn in publication rates makes all of these investments look more like gambles than sure bets. It’s hard to plan for the future when your revenue stream starts resembling the stock market. In comparison, a publisher dependent upon subscription revenue may plan on a 2-3% annual revenue decline and still be able to plan with much more confidence than a publisher that is dependent upon APCs.
A return to a revenue stream like 2013 looks more unlikely precisely because of the massive growth in PLOS ONE in previous years. PLOS ONE‘s 2014 Impact Factor will be calculated by summing citations made in 2014 to articles published in 2012 and 2013. As this journal was undergoing rapid growth throughout this period, the 2013 cohort is much larger than the 2012 cohort (31,498 articles compared to 23,447). As articles in their second year of publication (the 2013 cohort) tend to receive fewer citations than articles in their third year (the 2012 cohort), journals that are growing quickly tend to receive a suppressed Impact Factor.
If citation rates in 2014 are similar to those in 2013, we can expect PLOS ONE‘s next Impact Factor to remain around 3.5 and continue to be suppressed until 2016.
Given that PLOS ONE authors are sensitive to journal Impact Factor, much like other authors, submission rates are not predicted to return to pre-2014 levels. We may have witnessed the end of peak PLOS.
Based on the graph, the effect of PLOS’ data sharing policy, implemented in March 2014 does not seem to be driving authors away en masse. However, the policy does not appear to be enforced by the publisher, at least at this time. If the policies were implemented as a requirement–with publication withheld until compliance, as the reviewer form clearly states– it may also have an impact on the the journal submission preference of PLOS authors.
PLOS ONE was designed to be expandable and expandable it became. Based on the APC model, the publisher generated record income; however, it appears that that this revenue stream has quickly changed directions and is now in decline. The non-profit nature of PLOS presents significant challenges on how to plan for a future with a revenue model that may be more variable than expected. A change in research funding levels, competition from higher profile open access journals, as well as from those offering lower-priced alternatives, may make it difficult for the publisher to rely on PLOS ONE to support its other endeavors.