On June 1st, 2011, Peter Binfield, then publisher of PLOS ONE, made a bold and shocking prediction at the Society of Scholarly Publishing annual meeting:
I believe we have entered the era of the OA mega journal,” adding, “Some basic modeling predicts that in 2016, almost 50% of the STM literature could be published in approximately 100 mega journals…Content will rapidly concentrate into a small number of very large titles. Filtering based solely on Journal name will disappear and will be replaced with new metrics. The content currently being published in the universe of 25,000 journals will presumably start to dry up.
If you were not present for that pre-meeting workshop, you likely heard it repeated throughout the conference. The open access (OA) megajournal was taking over STM publishing and Binfield had data to prove it. PLOS ONE, which had received its first 2010 Impact Factor (4.351) the previous summer, was exploding with new submissions. In a few weeks, the journal would receive its second Impact Factor (4.411), a confirmation that its model was both wildly successful and dangerously competitive. PLOS had discovered the future of STM publishing and others had better get on board or get out of the way.
Only, to quote Yogi Berra, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” After reaching peak publication in 2013 (at 31,509 research papers), PLOS ONE output has been in steady decline. In 2017, the journal was 35% smaller than it was in 2013. At the same time, its Impact Factor — a key consideration for submitting authors — has been falling monotonically each year and now sits at 2.806.
Meanwhile, its closest competitor, Scientific Reports, overtook PLOS ONE as the world’s largest scientific journal in 2017, suggesting that these journals are competing with each other for a limited number of manuscripts. And, while there are other megajournals in this market, none are truly mega, and some, like Nature Communications, are built on a traditional editorial model that take novelty and scientific importance into consideration.
In 2012, Peter Binfield left PLOS to found PeerJ, which has a similar subject scope, editorial structure, and now, business model as PLOS ONE. Output in PeerJ has been growing modestly, but is still very small compared to PLOS ONE (PLOS ONE publishes approximately the same number of papers per month as PeerJ does in an entire year). BMJ Open, a similar OA megajournal covering medicine, is also very small by comparison.
The massive consolidation of STM publishing into a small number of very large titles, as Binfield predicted, did not come to pass. Taken together the OA megajournal market accounts for about 3% of STM output, far from the 50% he claimed.
If anything, OA publishing has created an explosion of titles, most of which seem to be competing for a small slice of a fixed pie. PLOS ONE created a commodity model where indicators like Impact Factor, speed to publication, and price compete for a finite manuscript market. In their two-part study of OA megajournals, Simon Wakeling and others acknowledged that the market is largely constrained by the academic reward system:
Embeddedness of journal prestige and reputation in academic practices means there is likely a limit to open access megajournal (OAMJ) growth.
Five years ago, proponents for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) made similar predictions for the future of higher education. MOOCs were going to completely disrupt the traditional classroom, open new access opportunities for those unable to physically attend college, and, more relevantly, consolidate higher education into the hands a few elite centers that created and delivered online content.
In his piece, “MOOC Trends in 2016, MOOCs No Longer Massive” Dhawal Shah writes that the initial MOOC experience, one that was modeled on a classroom where students interacted with others in realtime, pivoted to a passive Netflix on-demand model, where students learn at their own pace and focus on completing online tests and assignments. This is the digital equivalent to the correspondence course. The MOOC has not gone away, Shah argues, it has simply discovered an unexploited niche business model:
MOOC providers have found success in monetization by packaging these courses into a credential and tying it into real-world outcomes like career advancement.
The same could be said about the OA megajournal — a model that many initially believed would radically consolidate the STM journal market, but eventually found a niche publishing technically sound papers.