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The Ride of Your Life: ONE to the Power of 10

This blog post is co-authored by PLOS ONE Managing Editor Iratxe Puebla and PLOS Advocacy Director Catriona MacCallum

PLOS ONE is turning 10 today. Back in 2005 when conversations about PLOS ONE really got going, the publishing landscape looked very different from what it does now.  Open Access (OA) publications were a tiny fraction of publication output, the only quantitative metric available to assess a newly published piece of scientific work was the impact factor and the editorial process was still largely reliant on a subjective evaluation of whether the scope or ‘interest level’ of a manuscript matched the requirements of the specific journal or editor in place at that time.

By the end of 2005, PLOS had launched PLOS Biology, PLOS Medicine and the first Community Journals to demonstrate that Open Access was compatible with the most selective traditional journals and to dispel the myth that OA journals weren’t peer reviewed. It worked, and the PLOS brand was born.

But the founders’ aspiration was ultimately about changing the very notion of ‘quality’ in science.

During the planning stages of PLOS ONE, its working title was PLoS Reports. As we prepared for its launch, the PLOS founders  – Harold Varmus, Pat Brown and Mike Eisen – concluded that ‘Reports’  captured neither the purpose nor the spirit of what we were trying to do. It had always been their intention to provide a publishing venue that was inclusive – a scientific home for everyone.

In particular, PLOS ONE would celebrate success and ‘failure’ equally, by providing a home for the crucially important yet neglected negative, null and inconclusive research that makes up so much of science, as well as papers that represented a major advance or touched a chord with the public.  And it would be a place for all scientists, regardless of discipline, including those engaged in interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research, early career scientists and interested stakeholders who found it hard to access science, such as policy makers, patient advocates and citizen scientists. ‘ONE’ truly was – and is – for everyone.

PLOS ONE is a place for, and run by, the community. While some saw the idea as crazy, many others understood the principles that would be driving the journal and wanted to be part of it, by joining its editorial board or taking the gamble of submitting their research.

That it took off with such speed surprised everyone except the founders. Before its launch, Pat Brown modeled its trajectory of growth. The figure below shows his prediction for the first four years compared with the observed growth in published articles. And the rest, of course, is history.

PLOS ONE projected vs actual growth

PLOS ONE was the recipient of the ALPSP award for innovation in publishing in 2009 and of the SPARC Innovator award in 2011. In between, in 2010, PLOS ONE became the largest journal in the world. The rate of this unprecedented growth has been a challenge and we are very grateful to those who led the journal in the past – in particular Chris Surridge, Pete Binfield and more recently Damian Pattinson – and helped drive that roller coaster.

The ride continued. In 2014, PLOS ONE published its 100,000th article, just seven years after its launch, and it has now published more than 165,000 articles. At time of writing, there are nearly 6,000 Academic Editors overseeing the review process, helped in 2016 by more than 66,900 reviewers. We also have 20 staff editors and more than 25 publication managers and assistants employed by PLOS supporting these academics in their crucial role.

Yes, there have been bumps on the way but navigating the challenges successfully at scale is one of PLOS ONE’s strengths. The journal consistently applies rigorous checks on all submissions, has developed multiple policies in different biomedical fields and implemented data sharing requirements, all of this in collaboration with dedicated teams of academic experts advising us on appropriate standards and field-specific requirements. And yes, we may not always get things right the first time but we are privileged to have a community that will engage with us when change is needed and help us best serve researchers and our mission.

Ultimately the real success of PLOS ONE lies with the huge number of volunteers that invest their time and expertise to ensure that it keeps to its mission of publishing sound science (see our criteria for publication). PLOS ONE could not be where it is today without the communities that it serves and is supported by: our Academic Editors who evaluate submissions, manage the peer review process and advise us on policies and processes; the peer reviewers who evaluate research submitted to the journal; readers who comment and provide insights on published papers and of course the authors who submit their work and provide invaluable feedback. The journal has also progressed thanks to the dedicated PLOS teams who, since 2005, have enthusiastically embraced PLOS ONE’s ethos and worked to support authors, editors and reviewers, juggled multiple platforms and processes, and developed and implemented policies that have reached well beyond the journal and helped secure our mission to transform scholarly communication.

Fast forward to 2016 and we can see distinctly how some areas of the publishing landscape have evolved. Indeed, the first incarnation of PLOS was as a preprint server – ‘eBioMed’ – but this project was rejected because the PLOS founders knew that, as practicing scientists in biomedicine, the culture of evaluation, grant applications and career progression was so enmeshed with journal title and rank that such a venture was doomed to fail, despite its success in the physics community. That the biomedical community is now on the verge of its own preprint revolution shows that this culture is beginning to shift.

PLOS ONE – and PLOS – is achieving what it set out to do in changing both the landscape of publishing and the perception of what science needs to be in a global, digital, networked world of scholarly communication. Open Access continues to grow every year, funders and governments all over the world now have Open Science initiatives (e.g. in the EU), readers and stakeholders have a range of tools available beyond the impact factor (e.g. via Crossref Event Data, based on PLOS’ open source software Lagotto, even though some would secretly like the journal to have a higher impact factor, despite the well-known flaws in this metric and the perverse incentives it creates by focusing on the journal rather than the article). Importantly, many journals have adopted an editorial model strictly based on an evaluation of quality and rigor. Indeed, the rise of other ‘megajournals’ (a term coined by Pete Binfield) was a competitive move we seriously welcomed. (Simon Wakeling and colleagues provide a very nice analysis of a comparison of megajournals in a recent article in PLOS ONE).

PLOS ONE’s new Editor-in-Chief Joerg Heber discusses the future more in his post commemorating PLOS ONE’s 10th anniversary.  But can anyone predict what the next 10 years will hold? The publishing landscape – and especially the culture of evaluation – has not changed as fast as we would have liked. Having said that, it now feels as though we are on the threshold of a deep shift in the way science is communicated – the pieces are beginning to come together. PLOS ONE will continue to be part of that and we don’t promise it won’t be bumpy. But we hope that the sheer excitement of what is happening – and what science can potentially achieve – will tempt you to join the ride.

We will be celebrating this milestone with a number of initiatives – including Collections, blog posts, a T-shirt competition and much more – and we look forward to engaging with all of you in 2017.

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