Publication output in the largest open access journal, PLOS ONE, plummeted precipitously in the first month of 2015, declining from 2176 research articles in December 2014 to just 676 articles in January 2015.
The Official PLOS Blog announced this forthcoming slowdown last month. The publisher is undertaking some changes to their workflow and are now working with a new composition vendor. In the end, PLOS hopes these changes will increase the speed, efficiency, and quality of publication.
PLOS’ Article-Level Metrics (ALM) reports allowed me to measure just how long it takes PLOS ONE articles to be published. Analyzing 2,000 research articles published in December 2014, it took a median of 30 days from acceptance to online publication (Interquartile Range [IRQ, 25% to 75%]: 26 to 37 days). While I can only speak anecdotally based on my own experience as an author and the claims many journals make on their website, this seemed rather long.
What surprised me more was the period from article submission to acceptance, which took a median of 123 days (just over 4 months, IRQ: 90 to 164 days). Remember, this is a journal that does not base acceptance on significance or novelty. Reviewers should not be requiring authors to return to the lab for confirmatory experiments, supplementary data, or demand major revisions. While the changes PLOS ONE proposed are intended to shorten the acceptance-to-publication period, it will have no affect on the period from submission-t0-acceptance.
For a journal like PLOS ONE, even small production improvements are desirable if they shorten the publication process or reduce the interventions of humans. PLOS ONE is working toward automation and efficiency–goals that are just as equally valuable to mega-publishers like Elsevier as they are for mega-journals. For a non-profit organization that is sitting on a huge cash surplus, spending on automation in the short-term can help to keep article processing fees low in the long-term.
For a journal that publishes articles on a continuous basis, there may never be a good time to overhaul its production systems. Scheduling this overhaul at the beginning (rather than the end) of the year will have consequences to the journal’s citation standing, however.
For many academic journals, peak citation rates take place beyond the Impact Factor window, meaning after the average article has passed its third calendar year of publication. As a result, articles published early in the year tend to outperform articles published near the end of the year. To improve their Impact Factors, some editors deliberately move articles scheduled for the December issue into the January issue–this technique is often referred to as “front loading.” While this technique can work for many journals, it needs to be balanced by authors’ desire to publish quickly and has implications for funding, promotion and tenure. Front loading also works against the publishers’ need for a steady editorial and publication workflow.
How much does publication date matter when it comes to future citation? For many of the journals I study, bumping article publication forward by a month reduces citation events during the Impact Factor window by about 3%. This is not a big effect but, like interest, it is compounded monthly. In real terms, a January article receiving 10 citations in calendar years two and three is expected to receive just 7 if published in December.
For a small journal, bumping a few articles from one issue to the next is not going to be felt in future citation performance. For a mega-journal like PLOS ONE, shifting thousands of articles later in the calendar year is going to have a very measurable downward effect on its Impact Factor. Fortunately, this effect will not be detected until the journal receives its 2016 Impact Factor (in June 2017). Had this slowdown been planned to take place at the end of 2014, with publication shifted to the beginning of 2015, PLOS ONE would likely perform better in both 2015 and 2016.
I have no doubt that the production changes at PLOS are both necessary and desirable, and, as explained on their blog, “the end result will be gains in speed, efficiency, and quality that will be worth the delays during this transition.” I do wonder if the management understood how the timing of these changes will affect the future measured performance of their journals.