A recent naturenews piece by a Declan Butler takes a hard hitting look at the business practices of the Public Library of Science (PLoS). PLoS, as most scientists are aware by now is one of the more obvious examples of the open-access-publishing thing. The Nature empire of science publishing, of course, is an even more obvious standard bearer for the pay-access publishing model.
Since they are in science however, we can expect Nature to be totally objective and to eschew blatantly self-serving editorials and news focus pieces that gratuitously bash the competition. Can't we?
Yeah right. Butler opens with:
Public Library of Science (PLoS), the poster child of the open-access publishing movement, is following an haute couture model of science publishing -- relying on bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize its handful of high-quality flagship journals.
Hmm, nice tone-setting boyo! Well perhaps I am misinterpreting what appears to be a petty, yellow-journalistic screed. Let's go on, shall we?
But its financial future is looking brighter thanks to a cash cow in the form of PLoS One, an online database that PLoS launched in December 2006. PLoS One uses a system of 'light' peer-review to publish any article considered methodologically sound. In its first full year of operation in 2007, PLoS One published 1,230 articles, which would have generated an estimated $1.54 million in author fees, around half of PLoS's total income that year. By comparison, the 321 articles published in PLoS Biology in 2007 brought in less than half this amount.
From the outset, the company consciously decided to subsidize its top-tier titles by publishing second-tier community journals with high acceptance rates that would be cheaper to produce.
PNAS? And gee, does anyone think of Nature Publishing Group's pay-access competitor Elsevier here? Have you seen their bloody stable of dump journals and below 1 IF sub-sub-sub-sub-specialty journals? In short, the model was set (and in spades) by a fee-access publisher long before PLoS hit the scene.
it has launched four lower-cost journals that are run by volunteer academic editorial teams rather than in-house staff.
He says that like it's a bad thing. Geez d00d, do you understand that one of the biggest knocks on the GlamourMagz is the fact that the editorial decisions aren't being made by respected senior (active, working) scientists? Instead of a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears punks who opted for publishing jobs because they were barely hacking it as postdocs, never mind barely making it as junior faculty? sheesh.
Butler then goes plodding on through a series of analyses that basically break down to "PLoS isn't quite as successful as their initial starry-eyed predictions". Ooooh. Gee. Big hit there! Sounds kinda like any startup business that talks really, really big to get their investors excited, draw attention and attract customers. And then goes on to be viable and successful, albeit maybe not so successful as the initial predictions. So what?
Then there's this:
Papers submitted to PLoS One are sent to a member of its editorial board of around 500 researchers, who may opt to review it themselves or send it to their choice of referee. But referees only check for serious methodological flaws, and not the importance of the result.
HA! What are we up to with the GlamourMagz? A retraction/correction/erratum every other issue? How's Nature doing with making sure that error bars are actually described and appropriate statistics provided (no really, I haven't checked lately; the old answer was ..NOT!)? And how is Nature doing with longitudinal analyses demonstrating that their selection criteria do a good job of identifying "importance of the result" based on the whole population of published articles and their longevity instead of trumpeting the highly skewed Impact Factor / citation numbers? (No really, somebody point me to those analyses. Surely they exist and I've simply missed them).
Anyway, nice analysis of the competition Nature. Not self-serving and nasty spirited in the least.
Update: Additional and more thoughtful comment on the matter from Jonathan Eisen, Frontal Blogotomy, Greg Laden and Razib.
Update2: More from Mike Dunford, Bill Hooker and Mr. Online Community Manager for PLoS-ONE himself.