The Future of Scientific Publishing

Open Access by PLOS

What is the most exciting thing that can happen to a budding scientist? Two weeks ago my very first paper was published! If you happen to be interested in mouse models for metabolic diseases then check it out here.

Actually, what I really want to talk to you about is the journal in which it was published.

When my supervisor first told me that “we’ve been accepted in PLOS ONE”, I immediately started Googling. One of the first things I tried to find was PLOS ONE’s impact factor, which turned out to be an impressive 4.34. Impact factor is found by calculating the number of citations per article for a given time period. You can see the details for yourself on Wikipedia. So this means that PLOS ONE articles were on average sited 4.34 times per article.

As soon as I got over my excitement about the impact factor, I started thinking about why it might be so high. So let’s back up a step, and talk about why PLOS ONE is such an unusual journal.

PLOS = Public Library of Science

PLOS is a non-profit open-access scientific publishing project, which you can read more about here. They publish seven open-access peer-reviewed journals, the largest of which is PLOS ONE. What this means is that the articles are published online, are freely available and can be redistributed under Creative Commons. In general, this means that authors must pay for their work to be published.

On January 6, 2011, Nature announced a new Open Access (OA) publication called Scientific Reports. Nature’s news underscores the growing acceptance of OA, as reflected in recent OA journal launches from other traditional publishers such as the BMJ, Sage, AIP (American Institute of Physics) and APS (American Physical Society). Please spread the word.

The journal PLOS ONE has another interesting feature. Most journals will only publish papers which they deem to be novel and of great interest to the scientific community. In contrast,

“PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership (who are the most qualified to determine what is of interest to them).” (PLOS journal information)

So PLOS ONE will publish anything that is good science, without considering how important or popular it might be. Quite apart from the frustration that all scientists feel when their paper is rejected, I think that this attitude towards publishing is really what science is all about. All sound science should be available for everyone to access so that they can debate its importance and validity themselves. That is what peer-review is all about.

I think that PLOS is a step in the right direction for science publishing and is beautifully aligned with the scientific method. What do you think?

Buck NE, Dashnow H, Pitt JJ, Wood LR, Peters HL (2012) Development of Transgenic Mice Containing an Introduced Stop Codon on the Human Methylmalonyl-CoA Mutase Locus. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44974. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044974

“Open Access”
“Seriously Nature”

12 Responses to “The Future of Scientific Publishing”

  1. Harriet Dashnow says:

    Certainly the issue of sex differences comes up in genetics research. Although sometimes the issue is the opposite. Sometimes research where a gene only has a significant effect in one sex is not published. The perception can be that if the effect is only found in one sex then it may not be a true effect.

    The Ted talk (linked by Gerry, above) talks about how in pharmaceutical trials, studies that show a drug having no significant effect are not published. Even more alarmingly, studies which find unintended side effects (e.g. death) are also not published, particularly if there was no useful effect of the drug. I.e. if a drug increases chance of death, but doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, then the article is not published.

  2. Bethany says:

    I think the ideas of not having a length requirement and not only publishing things that are ‘topical’ are really interesting.
    I went to an interesting talk the other day on biases in neuroscience research exmaining sex differences. In this talk, several issues were raised which seem to relate to this issue. For one, there is a problem with only topical research being published, leading (in the sex differences literature) to a bias towards publication of results which find differences between men and women, and which find differences that are stereotype consistent (e.g. women can’t control their emotions as well as men can).
    Also, when there is a requirement for short articles, it can lead to selective publication of results – e.g. publish the one finding that showed a significant difference, and not the three that didn’t. Obviously there’s a bias towards publication of significant results over null results, this is something that occurs in all sciences. But do people think some similar issues as those raised for sex difference research might apply for genetics?

  3. Harriet Dashnow says:

    Nice talk, Gerry. These changes in publishing could definitely provide an opportunity to increase publication of negative results. It’s a big issue.

  4. Gerry Tonkin hill says:

    Hey Harriet, just watched this Ted talk which I think highlights the importance of journals like this. I think that making it easier to get access to reliable information in any form can help to improve science in many areas. The next step seems to be making it easier for people to callaborate on research however the issue of authorship is always a tricky one.

  5. Harriet Dashnow says:

    What do you think the best indexing strategy is, Andrew?

  6. abakshi says:

    Interesting read!

    I can’t help but think the more scientifically sound repositories we have, the better, as long as there is a good indexing system to go with it.

  7. Harriet Dashnow says:

    That’s a good point, Michael. Interestingly, PLOS ONE does no copy editing and has no restrictions on the length of articles and number of figures. They only require that the article matches their basic formatting requirements. The onus is completely on the author.

    I agree that some badly written, poorly formatted articles are likely to slip through.

    On the other hand, I think that removing many of the formal requirements associated with submitting a paper might actually improve their readability because it gives the author more freedom. It may give the authors more words to explain everything that they need to, and to put in all the figures that they like.

    It would be interesting to do a bit of a science communication study into the readability of PLOS articles to see how this freedom is actually being used.

  8. Michael Horn says:

    I take your point about judgements of importance/popularity being counter to the scientific method, but doesn’t this approach just end up making journals even more unreadable? It seems like having a few informed gatekeepers helps matters a lot. I guess I think it’s good that PLoS exists, but I wouldn’t want to see it become the mainstream approach.

  9. Harriet Dashnow says:

    There’s an argument that PLOS ONE will “publish anything” and so dilute the quality of scientific publishing. I don’t think this is the case. Yes, they will publish papers that other wont, but I think that reflects poorly on the other journals, that they preferentially publish what is popular or topical.

  10. Craig Steven says:

    Is there any push-back from the scientific community for this type of publishing?

  11. Harriet Dashnow says:

    That’s an interesting question. I have a few theories (many of which I heard first in this blog: )

    1. The fact that the papers are freely available and easily searchable means that more people read them so they have a better chance of being cited.
    2. The author has to pay over $1000 to be published, so only already successful scientists will be able to afford this.
    3. The people who published in PLOS in the years before the impact factor was available (it takes 2 years or data collection to get an impact factor) were publishing there because they believed in open access publishing, not because they thought it would be an easy place to get a paper published.

    There may be better reasons. That’s all I can think of. Any ideas?

  12. Jan Koeleman says:

    It’s a very good concept! But do you have any idea why the impact factor might be so high for a journal that publishes so many articles, even though not all of them might be considered ‘of great interest’ by other journals?