After ten years of publishing, PLOS ONE is no longer the largest journal in the world.
That title is now held by Scientific Reports (Springer Nature), which published a total of 6,214 research articles in the first quarter of 2017, compared to 5,541 articles in PLOS ONE.
This should not come as a surprise to those following the scientific publications market. Indeed, I made this prediction last August. Output in PLOS ONE has been dropping since its peak in 2013.
The journal’s shrinkage is attributed, in part, to a reduction in manuscript submissions, explained Joerg Heber, PLOS ONE‘s newly instated Editor-in-Chief in a blog post celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the journal. In an interview with Retraction Watch, Heber also noted that the journal has lowered its acceptance rate:
Part of the reduced output is explained by a lower acceptance rate, which now stands at around 50%. This is lower than in the past, but we have not altered our editorial bar and remain fully committed to our mission of publishing all solid research independent of impact.
Heber further speculates that part of the drop in submissions might be explained by competing journals that are based on the same editorial model, meaning, journals like Scientific Reports.
Scientific Reports and PLOS ONE are remarkably similar. Yet, Scientific Reports has a much higher Impact Factor (5.228 vs. 3.057), shorter publication delay, and more lenient data availability policies — characteristics that may be drawing potential authors from PLOS ONE.
While most editors would view a decline in submissions and output as unwelcome news, Heber is upbeat about the broader meaning of PLOS ONE‘s decline.
This overall is great news for the research community as it means more Open Access research being published without barriers based on subjective criteria of relevance.
Is this great news? From a mission standpoint, it is perhaps the clearest sign of the enormous impact that PLOS ONE has had on the marketplace and the success of the megajournal model.
From a business standpoint, however, ceding this market to a commercial competitor harms PLOS’ future prospects. Unlike most large publishers, PLOS relies almost entirely on article processing charges (APCs) for revenue, leaving it highly vulnerable to shifts in author behavior. Net revenue at the not-for-profit has been falling in recent years, from over $10 Million in 2013, to nearly $5M in 2014, to just $0.5M in 2015. The decline in PLOS ONE output is expected to deprive the publisher of an additional $9M in revenue for 2016. Since revenue from PLOS ONE serves to support six other PLOS journals, a decline in APCs puts these titles at existential risk.
This speaks to the current state of the open access movement. The battle has, in many ways, been won, but the end result—the co-opting of OA by commercial publishers—looks very different from original expectations. If PLOS ONE’s marketshare continues to erode, it may prove difficult for them to continue to offer the bold experimentation that has driven so much progress.