After years of slowly tightening its editorial policy, papers contributed by National Academy of Science (NAS) members appear to be performing more like other submissions.
PNAS currently allows authors to submit through two tracks: Direct, in which papers are subject to the normal rigors of single-blind peer review, and Contributed, in which a NAS member may secure their own reviews and submit them alongside their paper. A third track (Communicated, in which authors submit manuscripts through a NAS member) was abolished in 2010. While Direct submission is the normal route for most scientific journals, it is relatively new for PNAS, which adopted it in 1995. Today, direct submission account for nearly 80% of all published PNAS papers.
Providing NAS members certain publication privileges is a controversial topic. While some argue that highly-esteemed scientists should have mechanisms to publish their work quickly (especially unconventional papers), others believe that such privileges come with the risk of abuse. NAS members may use the Contributed track to sidetrack adequate peer review or use it as a dumping ground for papers that cannot be published elsewhere. Reporting for Nature, Peter Aldhous revealed that while the majority of NAS members used the Contributed track rarely, there was a small group of members who used the track very frequently.
A 2009 citation study of PNAS papers by submission track reported that Contributed papers received 10% fewer citations, on average, compared to Direct submissions. The top 10% of Contributed papers, however, outperformed the top 10% of Direct submissions, suggesting that the Contributed track may facilitate the submission of time-sensitive groundbreaking work. The analysis, however, was limited to papers published mid-2004 through mid-2005, leading one to wonder whether the effect was still in play. Over the years, PNAS has enacted successive editorial policies to place limits, restrictions, and other qualifications on the publication privileges of NAS members. PNAS hired me last year to study the performance of papers by submission track and gave me permission to report the findings.
In each year of publication between 1997 through 2014, Contributed papers consistently underperformed against Direct submissions, receiving 9% fewer citations, on average, controlling for the paper’s topic and publication date. The effect was greatest for Social Sciences papers (12% fewer citations). Nonetheless, the effect has attenuated over the past decade, from 13.6% fewer citations in 2005 to just 2.2% fewer citations in 2014 (see Figure below).
Moreover, the top 10% of Contributed papers outperformed the top 10% of Direct submission, but at the bottom end, Contributed papers were more likely to remain uncited after their first two years of publication. Consistent with our main findings, both of these effects have also been attenuating over the past decade and were not detectable in the last five years of publication. In a related study of academy-track publishing in mBio for fellows of the American Academy of Microbiology I recently reported that there was no discernible performance difference between submission tracks.
Both of these studies suffer the limitation of being unable to completely disambiguate author effects from submission track effects. While we know that all Contributed papers were authored by at least one NAS member, we do not know the author status of Direct submissions. Some NAS members may be leery of what signal the Contributed track conveys to readers (the submission track is listed on the front page of each article), and avoid the stigma by submitting all manuscripts through the Direct track. Other NAS members may select the submission track based on the paper.
Whatever the cause(s) that created a performance difference between the Contributed and Direct track, it appears to have largely disappeared, likely the result of tightening editorial policies.
A full description of the citation analysis, “Comparing the Citation Performance of PNAS Papers by Submission Track” is available from the bioRxiv.