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Research articles published among PLOS journals 2007-2016 (Data: PLOS).

The world’s largest open access journal got a little smaller in 2016.

Last year, publication output in PLOS ONE dropped by more than six-thousand research papers, from 28,106 in 2015 to 22,054 in 2016–a decline of about 22%. Since its peak in 2013, the journal has shrunk by 30%. Article output in other PLOS journals has remained largely unchanged.

The journal’s shrinkage is attributed to a reduction in manuscript submissions, explained Joerg Heber, PLOS ONE‘s newly instated Editor-in-Chief in a recent blog post celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the journal. Heber provides some commentary around his journal’s publication trend:

Other publishers and journals are working on similar themes, and we applaud this. While these initiatives mean a faster and larger increase in the global number of open articles published and available globally to the scientific community, the submissions to PLOS ONE have decreased, posing the question of our continuing unique value in this market. There will be challenges, but irrespective of our size, PLOS ONE will always play an important role towards PLOS’ broader goal as a nonprofit organization to support and advocate open science.

Competition from Scientific Reports, a journal published by Springer-Nature and modeled after PLOS ONE, appears to be luring authors away with a much higher Impact Factor, faster publication time, and looser data availability policies.

In 2015, PLOS raised article processing charges (APC) for PLOS ONE, leaving the fee to publish in its other six titles untouched. This decision raised some negative reactions from the OA community on how the publisher was treating PLOS ONE as a cash cow to subsidize its more selective journals.

The publisher relies almost entirely on APCs for revenue, leaving it highly vulnerable to shifts in author behavior. In 2013, 92% of all PLOS papers were published in PLOS ONE. In 2016, PLOS ONE‘s overall share dropped to 89%.

According to PLOS’ Financial Overview, the publisher netted about half a million US dollars after expenses in 2015 (see IRS form 990 page 12 line 3), down from nearly $5 Million in 2014 and just over $10 Million in 2013. The marked downturn in publication output is estimated to deprive the publisher of about $9M in total revenue for 2016 as compared with the previous year.

Unlike other large science publishers, PLOS is not a diversified company. It has a single business model based on article processing charges. More importantly, the viability of the entire organization is based on a single journal, PLOS ONE, subsidizing the production costs of its more selective journals. That is a lot of responsibility for one journal — a responsibility not shared by its competitors, many of whom run their open access journals at a deliberate loss to grow market share.

Should PLOS ONE cease to serve as the cash cow for the organization, it will need to adopt a new business strategy.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


4 Thoughts on "PLOS ONE Output Drops Again In 2016"

Do we have any idea of what the total market size is for OA and what the total revenue stream is. Is the market growing or shrinking?

In short, I am wondering if authors are realizing that indeed there is no free lunch and that they are picking up the tab!

This is an interesting example of the perils of being a supply-side information business. I’ve seen demand-side journals experience +/- 20% in submissions, and their revenues don’t have this kind of dramatic swing. But when someone can just move upstream of you and choke off your source of revenues, you’re running a real risk, diversification aside.

Demand-driven businesses face the opposite threat — someone positioning themselves between them and their customer. However, the customer relationship seems more malleable and flexible than the supplier relationship, especially in our market. Customers tolerate, even seek, multiple versions of the same thing (by medium, revision, or source).

Suppliers in a market that doesn’t allow duplicate publication make one choice, and then they are done. This choice is definitive and inflexible, so when you move to second place, there is a steeper drop-off for businesses relying on supply-side revenues.

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