Good News for Open Access, Bad News for PLoS?

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?

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10 Responses to Good News for Open Access, Bad News for PLoS?

  1. Michael McCarthy says:

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks for that post. But how old can this news really be when the post is dated one year into the future?
    Cheers,
    Mick (mickresearch.wordpress.com)

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Well, there you go, It’ll be really old then. In fact, by then I might have egg all over my face after PLoS buy out Elsevier.
    (the date was an attempt to stop getting screwed by our software. I just got screwed in a different way this time)

  3. Tom Webb says:

    Bob – very interesting stuff, kind of gets to the heart of some of the OA debate which I feel is not often actually about access, but rather about the philosophy and ethics of publishing. Some people are so wedded to the ideals of PLoS (which itself has a pretty aggressive, and to my mind not entirely savoury, business strategy) that I suspect they would rather a good result for PLoS, than for OA in general. I know quite a few people working for the traditional publishers, and they tend not to be stupid (nor evil, either!), so I imagine their plans to exploit the feeder model are rather well advanced.

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Bob – I must admit when I read that Scholarly Kitchen piece last year it came across as another bit of PLoS-bashing, but with an interesting point at its heart.
    The list of mega-journals in biology includes a couple of big commercial publishers (Elsevier’s FEBS Open Bio and Nature’s Scientific Reports) but also Company of Biologists’ Biology Open and the Royal Society’s Open Biology, plus the Wellcome/HHMI/MPG eLife. I dont see evidence of smaller publisehrs being squeezed out by the big commercial publishers.
    Whether all of those titles can be successful is another question. I think researchers are becoming more sensitive about where they send their papers, and are likely to continue sending a proportion of manuscripts to PLoS ONE.

  5. Bob O'Hara says:

    Frank – If the small publishers are going to be squeezed out by what I’ve described above, it’ll take a few years.
    I think the publishers who will lose out are the ones with one or two small journals, e.g. the Finnish Zoological and Botanical Publishing Board who publish Annales Zoologici Fennici. They mainly attract papers of local interest, but their best papers are more likely to be sent to a mega-journal (especially as that would count as an international publication in assessments).
    I was wondering about what would happen to the Royal Society’s journals under this model. I think they’re too high impact to feed into a mega-journal: they tend to feed into the mid-range journals. So they sit a bit outside this system (NPG has enough mid-range journals in its stable that you could probably go all the way from Nature to the mega-journal at the bottom).
    Lots more to chew on, so I guess we just have to wait and see what happens.

  6. Mike Fowler says:

    I’m not sure how bad it will be for PLoS – it rather depends on how long people will be fixated with IFs. And how expensive the competitors are. Elsevier charge way more than PLoS One for some of their OA alternatives.
    I also have questions about the rigour of peer review for the ‘in-house’ OA drop down mechanism, having reviewed and highlighted major flaws in a paper, only to see it being immediately accepted for publication in the ‘OA’ version.
    Will researchers really be willing to pay more to publish in journals without an IF? It may only delay the decline of PLoS One – or reinforce its position, with people sending their better work there, introducing a new stratification of OA respectability.
    However, there is still considerable misunderstanding about what IFs mean, how they come about and the journals’ role in maintaining them. I recently received a knock-back letter from a respectable ecology journal, with the statement

    I recommend a journal that does not judge a paper’s potential impact, such as PLoS One.

    PLoS One has a higher IF than this particular ecological journal. Which rather suggests that this journal is actively selecting papers based on perceived impact that do worse than those published without consideration of their impact. Oh dear.

  7. Bob O'Hara says:

    TBH, I think IFs are a diversion here – perceived journal quality (at least perceived journal quality) is what’s important for most scientists. We know that IFs are poor indicators of quality (well, most of us).
    If Elsevier are going to introduce a mega-journal, I’m sure they’ll charge a rate comparable with PLoS ONE, but they’ll charge more for other journals – just like PLoS does.

  8. Graham Steel says:

    As PLoS said in 2011 (or was it 2013??):-
    Welcome, Nature. Seriously.
    http://blogs.plos.org/plos/2011/01/welcome-nature-seriously-2/

  9. Joseph Kraus says:

    The thing is, people will know that PublisherX2ndtierBigOA Journal holds articles that had been originally rejected from a Publisher’s 1st tier journal. For articles that are in PLoS One, the readers won’t have that preconceived notion; the authors know that, so they will continue to support the PLoS model.

  10. Mike Fowler says:

    Perhaps the most important lesson from this is that if the PLoS journals are forced out of business by the competition from other OA options, the Public Library of Science will surely have achieved one of its main ambitions.
    Making science available to the public.