Well, actually this is old news, which I only noticed because of a link from the Improbable Research blog. The shorter version is that the success of PLoS could mean PLoS’s demise, because the need to adapt massively to benefit from the consequences of their success.
The linked article isn’t really news – it’s from June last year. In it, the author (Phil Davis) points out that publishers have noticed the success of PLoS ONE, and that it’s publishing the papers that they are rejecting:
In this light, the massive growth in publication output from PLoS ONE may be interpreted not as a sign of success, but as a market that has been established to profit on failure.
Which seems reasonable, and the failures perhaps say more about the sociology of science than about the science PLoS ONE publishes.
Davis’ point is that PLoS have shown that this mega-journal model works, and that other publishers have noticed. So they are bringing out their own versions, and if another journal in their stable rejects a paper, they ask if it’s suitable for one of these OA mega-journals. If these succeed, then OA will be the winner.
But OA advocates and PLoS might not be so happy. The traditional publishing houses (Wiley, Springer, Elsevier and the like) all have a stable of middle-ranking journals which can act as feeders for the OA mega-journal. This gives them an advantage – they can use the reviews they already have, and the author doesn’t need to reformat the manuscript, just say “yes”, pay the (about) same charge and get the acceptance sooner. So the publishers can reduce costs (and even engage in predatory pricing, if they so wish).
Now, this leaves PLoS in a sticky situation. Their other journals are too high ranking, so they can’t feed the PLoS ONE monster effectively. The standard OA advocate’s response to this has been to say that impact factors are a bad thing, and we only need one mega-journal. But this is at odds with the way science works as a society – getting your papers in good journals is a large part of showing how good you are. I haven’t seen any viable alternative (article level metrics aren’t the way to go, because they take time to accumulate, so newly minted PhDs have a disadvantage: Nature, in press will always be more impressive than PLoS ONE, in press). So, I think PLoS will have to change their model, to move it towards the traditional model, with mid-ranked journals publishing in specific areas (e.g. ecology, and evolutionary biology).
And it’s even worse for the OA advocate. The recent brouhaha over the Elsevier boycott was mainly about the business practices of Elsevier as about open access. The OA movement has a lot of antipathy towards traditional publishers. But look at what is happening with the mega-journals. The traditional publishers are joining in, and (as I’ve argued above) are better placed to exploit this trend. So, the effect might be to push out smaller non-commercial publishers, who can’t leverage their rejections into an OA journal. This model actually favours the big publishers.
So, I think this could be bad news for the OA advocacy community, who will see the traditional publishers adapt (remember that the other organisation pushing OA, BMC, were bought out by Springer once they started making a profit). But I think it will be good news for scientists. The mega-journal model will make it easier to publish, and one of the benefits of the author pays model is that we see the publication prices, so the market is more open. Overall this should reduce the profits of the publishers, and put more money back into science (sorry, librarians, you’ll lose out).
If all of this comes to pass (and of course I might be wildly wrong), how will the PLoS community react? They could find OA being successful (and PLoS was set up to demonstrate this), but PLoS itself could collapse. Will they see themselves as winners or losers?