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Worth a Thousand Words

A study by David Rand and Thomas Pfeiffer of Harvard University published in PLoS ONE yesterday reveals how scientific journals’ different publication and review policies can affect the number of citations of published papers. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) offers three different publication tracks to authors:

  • In Track II, the most common track, authors submit a manuscript directly to the journal, which is assigned to an editor and peer reviewed (the authors are blinded to the identities of the editor and reviewers).
  • Track I allows members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to “Communicate” up to two papers per year on behalf of other authors; the NAS member finds at least two additional reviews and then submits the paper and reviews to the PNAS editorial board for approval (the authors are blinded to the identities of the reviewers but not the editor).
  • Track III allows NAS members to “Contribute” as many of their own papers as they like, having first secured two reviews from external referees, which are also submitted to the editorial board (there is no blind peer review in this track).

This image forms Figure 1 of PLoS ONE article e8092; any reuse should cite the authors and journal

Rand and Pfeiffer looked at 2,695 papers published between June 2004 and April 2005 and compared the number of 2006 and 2009 citations for papers from each of the tracks. This week’s featured image, Figure 1 from the paper, shows that papers from Track III, the Contributed papers, had significantly fewer citations than papers submitted via the other two tracks. When they considered the citation counts of the bottom 10% of papers in each track, the researchers found that the bottom 10% of Contributed papers were cited much less often than in the other two tracks (as shown in Figure 2).

Among the top 10% of papers, however, the pattern is reversed with the top Contributed papers receiving significantly more citations than papers from Track II, the Direct submissions, as shown in Figure 3, suggesting that while on average, Contributed papers receive lower citation rates than the other two tracks, there is a much higher variance among papers in Track III.

The authors discuss in the paper potential reasons for the observed differences—NAS members can Communicate or Contribute papers on topics outside their area of expertise, for example, and can “soften” the peer review process through their choice of referees. The anonymity of referees and editors varies among the tracks and may also be a factor.

Rand and Pfeiffer conclude, “This analysis demonstrates that different editorial procedures are associated with different levels of impact, even within the same prominent journal, and raises interesting questions about the most appropriate metrics for judging an editorial policy’s success,” and suggest that further research on this topic is needed in order to determine whether authors choose to submit certain papers to particular tracks—to speed up the publication of stronger papers and to increase the chance of acceptance of weaker papers, for example—and the effect of press releasing a paper on its citation count.

You can find other related papers by browsing the Science Policy section of the PLoS ONE website. To receive notifications when new PLoS ONE articles are published, why not sign up for our eTOCs or one of our RSS feeds.

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