PLoS ONE: Five Years, Many Milestones
Scientists are eager to apply the awesome power of the Internet revolution to scientific communication, but have been stymied by the conservative nature of scientific publishing. PLoS ONE redefines what a scientific journal should be – eliminating needless barriers between authors and their audience and transforming the published literature from a static series of articles into a dynamic, interconnected, and constantly evolving resource for scientists and the public.
Where Have We Come From?
The journal launched on 20th December 2006 and the occasion was marked by a minor earthquake in the vicinity of our offices. The tremors might have been a first clue to the seismic changes that would soon occur in the publishing landscape.
The journal was formally conceived by the PLoS Founders in May 2005 (although it had been anticipated by them several years earlier in PLoS’s history). At the time, it was named PLoS Reports but, in the months before launch, it was renamed PLoS ONE to reflect the journal’s concept as being the one potential home for all science.
PLoS ONE represented the biggest step to date in PLoS’s attempt to reinvent the prevailing system of science communication that had existed since the 17th century. The idea was simple: to reduce the time it takes to publish papers by providing a single location that would guarantee acceptance to any research that had been conducted and reported adequately (as determined by objective editorial criteria). The ‘impact’ of the paper would then be decided by the readers (after publication), not by editors and reviewers before publication. In doing so, the journal consciously sought to separate the act of deciding whether or not a paper should be published (a decision which clearly needs to be made ‘pre-publication’), from any evaluation of the significance or importance of that article (a determination which is best made ‘post-publication’).
The growth of PLoS ONE exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. In the first full year of publication it published 1,230 articles (making it larger in volume than all but about 100 journals) and, within 4 years, it became the largest peer-reviewed journal in the world. To date, PLoS ONE has published more than 28,700 articles and in 2011 alone it will publish almost 14,000 articles (meaning that approximately 1 in 60 of all articles indexed by PubMed for 2011 will have been published in PLoS ONE).
Although simple, the approach was radical and innovative (as demonstrated by the awards it went on to receive from the ALPSP (pdf) and SPARC). According to Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, since it opened its door to submissions in August 2006, PLoS ONE has become a “game changer” in the publishing industry.
One particular innovation that helped define PLoS ONE has been the provision of ‘Article Level Metrics’ on every published manuscript (something which is actually provided on all PLoS articles). With ALMs, in addition to ‘traditional’ metrics such as citations, authors could now see detailed information about the total views and downloads of their paper, as well as information about blog coverage, social bookmarks and so on. This program was introduced in 2009 at least in part to represent an alternative means of measuring an article’s merits post-publication and it continues to be developed by us and by others.
In addition to wide readership and high citation rates, articles published by PLoS ONE have always generated significant media coverage, for example appearing in The New York Times Science section 6 weeks running and even inspiring a Google Doodle on one occasion. Research on antiviral therapeutics, a possible fourth domain of life, and a group of articles that shares an inventory of species distribution and diversity in key global ocean areas are just a few of the most recent examples of the cutting edge research that has been covered by media outlets from around the world.
To what can we attribute this success? First of all, PLoS ONE came from the Public Library of Science – a well-established, not-for-profit publisher that had already proven itself as a trusted venue for high quality peer-reviewed publications (PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, and the PLoS Community Journals) – clearly PLoS ONE would not have been as successful without the support and brand recognition that those journals provided. Secondly, it seemed that Academics are increasingly realizing that the ‘game’ of submitting to a top journal and working down a ‘rejection ladder’ until a journal accepts the paper is a waste of everyone’s time and resources, and that PLoS ONE circumvents that process. And thirdly, it feels like an idea whose ‘time has come’ – as the movement towards Open Access to all journal content grows, it seems inevitable that a publishing model such as PLoS ONE will emerge as one of the most effective ways to publish scientific content.
Of course, none of the reasons listed above would have mattered at all, were it not for the many thousands of Academic Editors, peer reviewers and staff members who have provided their time and energy for the journal. In particular, the journal would not exist without our authors – a vital stakeholder group who have been supportive since day one. To date, we have published the work of over 100,000 authors and we regularly receive outstanding feedback from them via our Annual Author Surveys.
In the early days, some critics felt that the journal risked becoming a “vanity press”, and that any journal that aimed to publish “anything publishable” would naturally become a venue for poor quality papers. What we saw instead were carefully reviewed papers that only made it into press if they met our objective criteria for sound science and reporting. This came about with virtually no pressure from within – indeed, one might say that the secret to our success is that we have allowed our independent Academic Editors full autonomy to decide what is ‘good enough’ to be published, and they have done so by applying the standards and norms of academia to our unique publication criteria. By combining this approach with a series of strict checks and balances at the point of submission, and a separation of the financial from the editorial aspects of the journal, we have proven to the scientific community that we are serious about our goal of changing the status quo of scientific communication, and that we intend to do so in a high quality, transparent, and ethical manner.
Of course, our success has not gone unnoticed and, in the past year or so, a slew of PLoS ONE ‘clones’ have been launched by other publishers (some of whom had been quite skeptical of the PLoS ONE model in years gone past). Although we welcomed Nature Publishing Group to the party with a somewhat tongue in cheek post (and with a request to improve their copyright license), it is a fact that we genuinely welcome these new entrants. We believe that more PLoS ONE clones are a good thing that will accelerate the move towards full Open Access, and away from the current system whereby articles are reviewed by a chain of journals for the sole purpose of stratifying them according to their perceived ‘impact’. We expect that more clones will launch in the coming years and, provided they employ full ‘CC BY’ copyright licenses, we will continue to encourage them.
Where are we going?
What does the future hold for PLoS ONE? Well, firstly we will continue to develop our systems to accommodate the kind of growth we have seen so far. This includes a root to branch overhaul of our publication platform (which will take some time to realize, but which is already underway); an improved submission and peer review system; and increasing numbers of Academic Editors and reviewers. Secondly, we plan to improve our Article Level Metrics to a point where they will provide genuinely valuable context about individual articles and hopefully be more widely used and understood by decision makers such as tenure committees and funding bodies. Thirdly, we will be developing new and powerful ways to navigate our platform. And finally, we intend to continue experimenting and pushing the boundaries of academic publishing – PLoS ONE has already proven to be be a phenomenon in the Academic Publishing world, but we feel it has tremendous potential to further change the way that scientific research is communicated!
We would like to use the occasion of our 5th birthday to thank everyone who has believed in PLoS ONE and given their time and energy to make it the success that it is today.
This blog post was written by Peter Binfield (Publisher of PLoS ONE & the PLoS Community Journals), Damian Pattinson (Executive Editor of PLoS ONE) and Jackie Thai (Editorial Manager of PLoS ONE), with support from Jennifer Laloup (Publications Manager of PLoS ONE) Nick Ellinwood (Sr. Publications Assistant of PLoS ONE) and Stacy Konkiel (Marketing Associate of PLoS ONE). For further information about PLoS ONE, you can view a video of Pete Binfield presenting information about the journal to the COASP 2011 meeting; read the PLoS Biology Editorial published on 20 Dec 2011; or read this paper (PDF) which was presented at ELPUB 2009.