Nature's Article on the Public Library of Science: A "Hatchet-Job"?

On July 2nd, Nature published "PLoS Stays Afloat with Bulk Publishing," which asserts in its first sentence that PLoS is "relying on bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize its handful of high-quality flagship journals."

Needless to say, there was swift reaction to the article. Bora Zivkovic, PLoS ONE Online Community Manager, called it a "hatchet-job article" and gathered comments about the article from the blogosphere in his "On the Nature of PLoS. . . ." posting. At the article itself (which is restricted access), readers, PLoS editors, and Nature staff have made a number of comments.

The article makes several main points: (1) 2007 expenditures of $6.68 million were significantly greater than the $2.86 million revenue for that year; (2) PLoS has "four lower-cost journals that are run by volunteer academic editorial teams rather than in-house staff" with author fees ($2,100) nearly as high as for PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine ($2,750); (3) half of PLoS' revenue in 2007 is estimated to have come from PLoS One, which the article says has "a system of 'light' peer-review" because "referees only check for serious methodological flaws, and not the importance of the result"; (4) PLoS One publishes a relatively high volume of papers (1,230 articles in 2007), and it has a relatively low author fee ($1,250; the current fee is $1300); and (5) PLoS has been sustained by $17.3 million in grants since 2002. The article does include several quotes from Peter Jerram, Chief Executive Officer of PLoS, including one in which he says that it is "is on track to be self-sustaining within two years."

In toto, the Nature article seems to suggest that PLoS has intentionally developed an open access journal publishing system that subsidizes a few selective high-quality journals by publishing many more papers in low-quality journals and that relies so heavily on grants it is unclear whether it will collapse without them. Since it contributes so much to the bottom line and publishes so many papers, PLoS One is the poster child for this strategy.

PLoS describes the PLoS One editorial procedures in PLoS ONE Guidelines for Authors. It notes that:

The peer review of each article concentrates on objective and technical concerns to determine whether the research has been sufficiently well conceived, well executed, and well described to justify inclusion in the scientific record. Then, after publication, all papers are opened up for interactive discussions and assessment in which the whole scientific community can be involved.

Unlike many journals which attempt to use the peer review process to determine whether or not an article reaches the level of 'importance' required by a given journal, PLoS ONE uses peer review to determine whether a paper is technically sound and worthy of inclusion in the published scientific record. Once the work is published in PLoS ONE, the broader community is then able to discuss and evaluate the significance of the article.

What the Nature article misses is that the scholarly evaluation of PLoS ONE articles does not end with the initial screening review for compliance with the stated Criteria for Publication. Rather, it begins there. PLoS ONE is using a radically different model of peer review than traditional journals. Whether it is a success or failure is not primarily determined by how many articles it publishes, but by the effectiveness of its post-publication review system in assessing the value of those papers.

If PLoS can reduce costs in what the article terms its "second-tier community journals" by using larger academic editorial staffs, there does not appear to be anything intrinsically wrong with that. To the contrary. The issue is not the editorial strategy, rather it's whether the author fees are unjustifiably high in relation to journal costs and whether the excess profit is being siphoned off to support other publications. Although comparative author fee data is given in the article, there is not enough economic evidence presented in the article to make any informed judgment on the matter.

Regarding grant support, I presume that Jerram understands the issue better than outsiders, and, if he believes that PLos can become self-sustaining in a few years, then there is no reason to doubt it, barring unforeseen circumstances.