We’re all familiar with the economic scarcity principle in which the limited supply of a good, coupled with a high demand, results in a mismatch between the usual balance of supply and demand. Think of the luxury Hermès Birkin bag, the almost mythical and obsessive quest for which is wittily described in Wednesday Martin’s anthropological study of the rich wives of the upper-east side, Primates of Park Avenue. Its scarcity made Martin want one more than ever – owning a Birkin is a to be a member of an exclusive club – “Once you’re in, it makes you feel worthy. It gives you identity.”
For those who care about the future of science, it should be of central concern that a not entirely dissimilar set of incentives and rewards drive decisions about where and how to publish. In the early days of digital, we were led to believe that the economics of scarcity would be repealed by the removal of supply constraints in the digital world. But that hasn’t happened: behavior and reward are still driven by demand for prestige which in turn has the potential to undermine good science. This stranglehold is clearly taking much longer to break than many had hoped, but alongside initiatives such as DORA and the TOP guidelines, megajournals represent a viable approach to change.
The first megajournal – PLOS ONE – was founded on the principle that properly executed science deserves publication and that work should be judged on the value of its own contribution, rather than the title of the journal in which it is published. (Full disclosure: I am the CEO of PLOS, publisher of PLOS ONE). For the past decade, new megajournals have continued to launch – some more and some less successfully. Yet they have clearly had relatively small impact on the grip of elite journals and at worst, are derided as dumping grounds for mediocre research.
Does this mean that we have hit “peak megajournal” and that the era of the megajournal will be short-lived? First and foremost, the data contradicts this. The number of megajournals continues to grow (with at least 20 now publishing), and their output continues to grow at a rapid rate, even if we just add together the publications of PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports as the most recently available data shows.
But rather than spending time responding to critiques of the megajournal, I want to focus on the contributions that megajournals are making to improving research communication. And I want to move beyond the issue of access, although the open access (OA) model of course underpins the mission to more easily share discoveries with both peers and the public.
In spite of the incredible progress of modern science across many fields, there are core concerns that an “open” agenda seeks to address. In discussing his recent book The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology: A Manifesto for Reforming the Culture of Scientific Practice, Chris Chambers describes his own science as one that “has now become a contest for short-term prestige and career status, corrupted by biased research practices, bad incentives and occasionally even fraud.” While it may seem pessimistic and even extreme, this growing unease across fields is being taken seriously by key players – especially funders – due to concerns that the current scientific culture is fostering bad practices. While not a panacea, megajournals have demonstrated an ability to make a major contribution to fostering open practices and strong, reproducible science:
- The value of a peer review process that doesn’t rely on subjective assessments of significance. A methodology that is all-too-frequently dismissed as “peer review lite”, the soundness-only methodology for peer review differs in scope rather than rigor. The technical soundness review itself is rigorous and for most megajournals, involves a number of internal and external checks and assessments. Frequently coupled with forms of open review, it helps to disperse and make transparent assessments about what is significant to the scientific community as a whole both before and after publication. While there are heated debates about a perceived move from expert gatekeepers to the wisdom of the crowd, there’s also a strong case to be made for democratizing assessment and challenging reigning disciplinary power structures.
- The importance of outlets for negative studies and replications. The most important part of a study for gaining acceptance into a high-impact journal is all too frequently the results – the one part of the study that should be beyond a scientist’s control. Many scientists have told the tales of pressure to make ambiguous results tell a compelling story, fearing that quality studies that produce negative or less conclusive results are unpublishable. Many megajournals not only accept but encourage replications and null results on a large scale, both of which are critical to moving science forward.
- Moving beyond legacy models. This is not to say that only megajournals innovate – this is clearly not the case. But megajournals have been willing to experiment with models that challenge an entrenched status quo. Think of the variants of open review at PeerJ or Collabra, or PeerJ’s leadership in the preprints space. Or PLOS ONE’s requirement to deposit data alongside a paper to support both assessment and replication. Key here has been scale and thus the ability to drive innovation beyond any individual title. Not only does PLOS ONE have more than 80,000 published data availability statements, but this scale has helped to change attitudes and practice more widely.
- The value of an outlet that is broad enough for an era of “big science”. More and more science crosses boundaries both within the natural sciences and beyond – the biggest problems in our world cannot be solved by any single discipline. Megajournals are broad enough to accommodate that breadth and complexity, and to build networks across disciplines and national boundaries. Collaboration and team science is also another tenet of improving reproducibility: more collaborators bring greater theoretical and disciplinary perspectives.
Of course, such features are not all unique to megajournals but their breadth and openness makes them a critical player in moving towards an expanded research cycle and scientific culture that is collaborative, transparent and accessible.
The future of the megajournal
So what of the future? Given demand, it doesn’t seem that the megajournal is going to disappear any time soon. The range of models, which already incorporate more focused journals (such as BMJ Open), arguably extends to include different models beyond STM such as Open Library for the Humanities, and perhaps even the megajournal-that-isn’t, F1000 Research. Growing diversity and evolution of the model is a strength, but none of this means that there aren’t some real challenges:
- The filtering function has always been a critical one for journals, and many have made the case that this is lost or at best watered down in megajournals. I’ve already made the case that screening hurdles and rejection rates demonstrate one form of filter. In terms of search and browse, PLOS ONE added overlays through PLOS Collections and PLOS Channels, through which content can be fed and curated, and other journals have clear content streams and filters. But as for all journals, there’s more work to be done to efficiently guide users to the research results likely to be of greatest value to them.
- In focusing peer review on soundness, megajournals have also sought to supplement that with forms of post-publication and ongoing community review but as we know, to date crowdsourced review has not taken off. Various forms of altmetrics show how a paper is cited and discussed, but institutionalized reliance on a single, static review of a work’s qualities has inhibited the development of robust mechanisms of assessment that would give users of the literature an accurate and evolving picture of a published work’s reliability and significance throughout its useful lifetime. Simple, easy-to-use tools, perhaps seeded with formal reviewer evaluation, would also help to address the filtering challenge.
- Another key issue is price. One of the many disadvantages of high selectivity is its cost: the 10% of accepted papers also have to cover the cost of the 90% of rejected papers. A megajournal like PLOS ONE still has a 50% rejection rate and thus still bears significant cost for rejected papers, meaning that the hoped-for steady reduction in the cost of publishing has not materialized. Some combination of AI and machine-learning will likely be able to automate initial screening, but that won’t address the other side of this coin: it’s clear from APC pricing at Scientific Reports, PLOS ONE and PeerJ that scientists aren’t shopping around based on price. Which brings us neatly back to where we started, and the perverse incentives to publish in high status outlets.
Clearly, the kind of broad changes in scientific practice and culture that have been called for require action from many stakeholders over many years. But as the numbers show, megajournals are now a key player in the scholarly publishing landscape. While they may struggle to compete with the über-brands at their own game, they can play a significant role in challenging the status quo and facilitating a transition to open, transparent system of research communication.