Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Only Nature could turn the success of PLoS One into a model of failure

Now, mind, you I like Nature as a publishing unit. They publish some very fine journals. Now, most of them are not Open Access, so I choose not to publish there if I can avoid it. But I still like them. And many of the editors and reporters there are excellent - smart, creative, insightful and such. But Nature the publisher can also be completely inane when it comes to writing about Open Access and PLoS. In a new article by Declan Butler, Nature takes another crack at the PLoS "publishing model"

The problem with PLoS now is ... wait for this ... the success of PLoS One. PLoS One it turns out is publishing a lot of papers (including one by me, today). And bringing in a decent amount of money to PLoS apparently (note for full disclosure - I am involved in PLoS Biology as "Academic Editor in Chief" and PLoS Computational Biology as an Academic Editor ... although I should note I am not involved in financial discussions at PLoS in any way).

So why is the success of PLoS One a problem? Well, because it allows Nature to do the old good cop bad cop routine and to write, again, about the "failings" of the PLoS publication model. Now, mind you, the article does not quote a single source for what the PLoS publication model is. But they do say it has failed. From what I can tell here is the logic of the failure argument:
  1. Nature believes PLoS' model for success revolved solely around PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine and some of the other other PLoS journals being self sustaining after a few years.
  2. Analysis of some financial information suggests that PLoS Biology and Medicine currently are not breaking even
  3. PLoS One is apparently wildly successful and thus is brining in some money to PLoS.
  4. PLoS One publishes a lot of papers (they discuss this a bit and imply that this is a bad thing because some of the papers must be bad. Note - they do not back this up with any evidence. Silly for me to ask a science journal to use evidence)
  5. Therefore, the entire PLoS Publication model is a failure.
The problems with this logic are, well, large. Here are some:
  1. Does Nature really think that there ever was a single "model" for how PLoS should be evaluated?
  2. If so, where is the documentation of what this model actually was?
  3. Even if there was a PLoS model and even if it turns out to be not exactly what PLoS is doing now, what is the big deal? If you were a stockholder of any company and they told you "we are never going to change our business model no matter what happens in the world around us" I would recommend you not buy their stock. It is simply farcical to expect any entity to stick to a single simple model forever.
  4. Does not Nature supplement some of their bigger journals with their higher volume other journals?
  5. Most companies these days use high profile entities such as PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine to attract attention to other portions of their company in order to help bring in money. Is this somehow not allowed by PLoS? Doesn't Nature do the same thing?
  6. If you look at the figure Nature shows of PLoS $$$, it shows income rising in 2007 and expenses going down. How did that get turned into a bad thing?
So - I still do like Nature publishing because much of the time it has high quality stuff. It even has high quality stuff commenting/criticizing the Open Access movement and pointing out some of the challenges with it. But this article by Butler is not an impressive piece of work. I really wanted to give him an award but could not think of what to give.

See also (thanks to Bora for pointing out a bunch of these links)


  1. It's funny how Nature singles out PLoS, Nature rarely publishes criticism of BioMedCentral (as a business) in the same way, unless I'm missing something.

  2. As I have said many times, PLoS is by no means perfect. But Nature's reporting on PLoS sometimes baffles me. As for whether they single out PLoS - probably not specifically. PLoS Biology is a competitor in some ways for Nature, at least more so than BMC journals. So they are going after their competition (note - I have no interest in PLoS Biology competing with Nature. PLoS Biology is different, in all sorts of good ways.)

  3. What kills me is this idea that PLoS "should" be making money by now. It was established as a flagship not a cash cow -- they started with deliberately deep pockets so that they didn't have to race to financial independence. It's one goal, and they're closing in on it, but it was never the only or the most important thing that PLoS set out to accomplish.

  4. Well, given how generally successful PLoS has been in terms of quality of publishing, scientific impact, public perception, promoting open access, etc, I guess some bozo at Nature has decided to keep focusing on using PLoS as a test of a single model of publishing. It seems more and more inane every time I think about it.

  5. That was some unjustifiable silly article from Mr. Butler of France!

    Are you planning for a response article?

  6. Anonymous - Do you mean is PLoS Biology planning a response? I do not know of one but it seems silly - almost like responding to a flame posting.

  7. It is also annoying that they have a dig at journals such PLoS Genetics as just being there to "subsidize its top-tier titles". I would view the 'second tier' PLoS journals as being a real part of the academic success of PLoS. I think that PLoS Genetics (and from what I hear PLoS Comp. Bio.) is a great journal, that at least in population and evolutionary genetics generally has very good standards. Also the articles put out by PLoS Genetics etc are pretty well put together so I don't think they are suffering from the 'non-professional' editorial.

    The comment about the publications charges is also annoying, the charges for colour figures etc in other journals can quickly go past those of PLoS (and those can't be wavered and non-colour figures suck) plus many authors now opt to pay for 'open access' at other journals. I'm guessing that the current publication charge of PLoS Biology is actually pretty competitive, and certainly there is a lot of good will towards plos.

  8. Completely agree Graham. PLoS Genetics is one of the first places I look for articles and it is where I am hoping to get some of my top work published. Same for PLos Comp Bio. I think including them in this article should be considered a badge of honor.

  9. Yes, I meant a response by and in PLoS. It was not very professional from Nature to let such a bothering article get published.

  10. A nice counterpoint to Butler's implied suggestion that PLoS ONE is vanity publishing of material that no one else would publish (apologies to Declan if that wasn't what he was implying) is six pages earlier in the Research Highlights section. Three of the ten papers highlighted are from "low" quality PLoS Journals.

    One from PLoS Genetics:

    An Evolutionarily Conserved Sexual Signature in the Primate Brain. PLoS Genet 4(6): e1000100.

    and two from PLoS ONE:

    Climate Extremes Promote Fatal Co-Infections during Canine Distemper Epidemics in African Lions. PLoS ONE 3(6): e2545.


    A Comparison of Wood Density between Classical Cremonese and Modern Violins. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2554.

    It made me smile!

  11. (disclaimer: I work for Nature. Not speaking on the company or Declan's behalf, though)

    I didn't think it was particuarly negative. The message I took away was that the top tier PLoS journals have had to increase fees substantially but that PLoS One is doing well both financially and academically. That's a fair assessment, surely? The original business model didn't work out as planned. That's OK. The rest of the piece points out that everybody is happy with the quality of the research in One and that revenue from there is growing.

    Why the focus on PLoS? Because if PLoS can crack high impact OA publishing then Nature, Science etc. can follow, hence all the in-depth scrutiny of PLoS's business models. I seem to remember Declan's original article suggested quite strongly that the author fees of the time were too low to support a high impact journal... ;)

    Having said all that I think Bill has a point about the article not addressing the fact that financial independence isn't necessarily PLoS's primary goal in the short term. Also, presumably, a certain amount of experimentation is inevitable - that's the problem with being a pioneer.

  12. Excellent excellent point Chris. But maybe the people writing Research Highlights just are not part of the program.

    Stew. I read and reread the article to make sure my initial impression of it being really negative, was correct and I think the tone and word choice and stle are all negative in many ways. See Plausible Accuracy for more detail on the negative tone.

    That being said, I agree with you and Bill that the article not addressing what PLoS' real goals might be is a bigger problem than the tone.

  13. The article was quite interesting and encourages me to publish more often in Plos one (two of our manuscripts have gone there) and plos genetics (we just had one accepted yesterday) and plos pathogens (one published last year) to help financially support Plos.

    The way I see it, the more I publish in plos one, the more likely plos biology will be able to publish our hottest papers (one is under it second revision now).

    What i dont like about Plos is the name. PLoS is a lot of work to type.

  14. I think plos or PLOS or any variant will work.

  15. Especially as access to libraries becomes more limited, I find myself wondering why I publish so much in the traditional journals as opposed to open access.

    The subscription barrier erected by publishers such as Elsevier ($31.50 a pop for each article) is becoming more irksome.

    Last year, we published our first article in PLoS One, and are now preparing our second paper for this journal. We hope to increasingly support the 'open access' movement.

  16. Butler's article does entirely miss the point of what the PLoS model is about - not making money for the publisher, but providing a high quality, open access, publishing environment for the scientific community. Besides, the whole idea of Nature publishing 'analysis' of other publisher's models just stinks.

    I do think Nature should be very careful about drawing attention to the author-pays side of publishing, because from the financial perspective of scientific authors PLoS is streets ahead. It costs just as much for us to publish in Nature journals thanks to so called 'color figure charges' - talk about backwards, what kind of magazine doesn't take into account the expense of printing colour images, in 2008??!! - but the publication is not immediately available to everyone,
    their editorial constraints and limited word counts are a joke for most decent scientific studies,
    and my recent experiences with Nature suggest that they are pretty slow, taking 6 months to get from submission to publication (with no revisions).

  17. Of course, the news story appeared in the news section of Nature, which is completely separate from the "back half" editorial section, and even more independent of the publishers who make the decisions about policy and what to charge for what. So it's not accurate to lump them all together here or on any of the other tens of blog entries about this, unfortunately.
    And it's not true that "some bozo at Nature has decided to keep focusing on using PLoS..." -- reporters make the decision to write a story on something, and news editors (not science editors) approve it. Those are the only people that made any decision to write and publish this story.

  18. Well, I probably should not have used the term bozo ... buy by "some bozo at Nature" I meant, some reporter at Nature ... and if you look at the intro to my post and to my comments elsewhere I do not lump all of Nature into one pile ... far from it. But I do think this piece was lame.

  19. In the corporate world, you have to write who your competitors are in your FEC filings. But you report your own finances and disclose your own risks, not somebody else's...

  20. Ooops, it is SEC, not FEC.


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