I had an argument with my colleague in the tea-room the other day. Gratifyingly, I learned he had been reading my blogposts on the subject of open access, but it soon became clear he did not entirely share my enthusiasm for the topic. Specifically, he criticised open access journals such as PLoS ONE both for their lack of sub-editorial services and for creating a home for poor quality science.
This got my goat, not least because I had made my first submission to PLoS ONE just the day before. We spent some time arguing back and forth and my colleague was kind enough agree to let me lay out the dispute in a blog post. I want to do so because, despite the evident variety of opinion within the blogosphere, it can be easy for the like-minded to coalesce into groups where positions are not so rigorously tested. So please see what you think of my case (since amplified by further reading) and feel free to take issue.
The first charge sticks only partially. There is no copy-editing of articles in PLoS ONE — this is one of the factors that keeps the OA charge to $1350 — but it is nevertheless the case that the articles accepted by the journal are formatted and certainly look like the real thing. Here is an example, selected at random. It may well be that authors miss corrections that a sub-editor would catch but authors can mitigate the worst offences simply by asking co-workers unfamiliar with the paper to proof-read for them. My colleague was prepared to pay a couple of thousand dollars in page charges for formatting and copy-editing (not including open access fee). Perhaps I am a cheap-skate but to me this seems ridiculously expensive.
(As I side-issue I think one of the important advantages of open access is that, by moving all the charges to authors, the real cost of organising and disseminating the scientific literature becomes visible. Authors at universities rarely see or care about library subscription charges, but the transparency of the OA model provides useful downward pressure on the costs of publishing. Let’s not forget that most of those costs are met from public or charitable purses.)
The more serious accusation, of opening the sluice-gates to a torrent of sub-standard science, bears closer consideration because of the unusual threshold for publication that PLoS ONE operates. Unlike most journals, they do not consider the importance of a paper’s findings when judging whether to accept it:
“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).”
My colleague was troubled by this statement, seeing it as a licence to pollute the literature with low-grade science. There may be a modicum of truth in this view. I suspect it is widely shared, stirred up in part by reports of the reprehensible practices of other OA publishers such as Bentham Science, but I still want to take issue.
First, the publication of mediocre science is by no means the exclusive domain of open access journals. There is an awful lot of it out there, as anyone involved in peer review will know. The scale of the problem is terrifying: half of the 50 million scientific papers estimated to have been published since 1665 were published in the last 25 years. Worse still, the fraction of the literature that is not cited within five years of publication has increased from 55 to 59% in the past 20 years. The incredible growth of the scientific literature, much of it deservedly unread alas, is due partly to the rise in the population of working scientists but probably also, as others have argued, to the excessively competitive nature of science and to increased demands to quantify output.
It’s hard to see that open access journals are at the root of this problem, though they are certainly part of the ecosystem. But even if they are adding to ongoing difficulties within science — issues that need to be addressed separately — I would contend that this a price worth paying for increasing the accessibility of the scientific literature.
Second, it would be quite wrong to assume that PLoS ONE will publish anything. In fact the journal rejects about 30%* of submissions (according to Cameron Neylon), half of which end up being published elsewhere. So, although PLoS ONE is not judging work on ‘impact’ and although the journal editors and reviewers have to manage high volumes of submissions and are not in a position to apply the rigour that submissions to Nature or Science would be subjected to, the criterion that manuscripts have to report work that is ‘technically sound’ still appears to be providing a useful filter, at least on average: the Impact Factor for PLoS ONE is a respectable 4.4.
That filter might yet be enhanced as a result of changing attitudes to scientific publishing. The Elsevier boycott has focused much-needed attention on both the issue of open access and the very high profit-margins of commercial publishers. Journals from the PLoS stable — and other open access publishers — may come to be seen as more legitimate recipients of the freely-given efforts of editors and reviewers. Any increase in the pool of talent for these roles is likely to sharpen the peer review process at PLoS ONE.
In any case readers provide their own filters. These days, few would browse the tables of contents of all the journals likely to interest them; no-one has the time to scan that much material and in any case the tools for automatic sifting (e.g. via PubMed searches) work far better. An informed reader can quickly assess search results to see if a paper’s findings are a sufficient buttress for the conclusions trumpeted in the abstract. If not, one quickly moves on.
All of this is not to argue that journals like PLoS ONE represent the entire future of academic publishing. Bob O’Hara has sounded a cautionary note about the future financial viability of the PLoS operation, arguing that once traditional publishers jump on the band-wagon, PLoS will find it harder to tout for business. I don’t buy that since I think PLoS has helped to establish an ethos that chimes well with publicly-minded scientists.
But these are certainly interesting, if argumentative, times.