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Partnership at the heart of PLOS ONE: The Role of Academic Editors

From its inception, PLOS ONE’s mission has been clear: to create an inclusive venue for all rigorous scientific research irrespective of its perceived impact. Moreover, PLOS wanted to create a journal for, and run by, the scientific community. As to who was best placed to make editorial decisions on the scientific validity of submitted work, the answer was unequivocal – practising scientists themselves. With this in mind, PLOS set out to recruit a board of Academic Editors comprising active researchers keen to support PLOS ONE’s mission and radically change how scientific research is judged for publication.

The journal was lucky to have many early supporters. In reflecting on his reasons for becoming an early editorial board member, Mark Isalan said “The idea of accepting papers based purely on their technical quality and not perceived ‘impact’ was a game changer and it was immediately attractive to me at the time.” [1] Many others felt the same and by the time PLOS ONE launched officially in late December 2006, nearly a hundred Academic Editors were on board. Within the first 10 days, 139 papers were published which were handled by 85 Academic Editors from 13 different countries.

In the decade since PLOS ONE broke onto the publishing landscape, the journal’s Editorial Board has grown significantly and manuscripts submitted to PLOS ONE today are handled by one of over 6,000 Academic Editors representing 79 countries. In addition, we have a board of Section Editors made up of over 80 editors with extensive editorial experience and knowledge of PLOS ONE that act as advisors on specific topics or manuscripts. Our board has also grown in terms of expertise; many of our earliest board members represented areas of basic life sciences research, but we have seen Academic Editors from new areas join our board, from clinical research to paleontology to psychology in line with of our inter- and multi-disciplinary scope and vision.


PLOS ONE’s Section Editor and Staff Editors in Cambridge, UK to discuss the journal’s future plans in March 2017

Overseeing the Review Process

The principal role of our Academic Editors is to oversee the peer review process. Typically, this will involve evaluating the manuscript and inviting external peer-reviewers to judge different scientific and methodological aspects of the work, before determining whether the manuscript meets PLOS ONE’s publication criteria. Academic Editors consider whether the conclusions are supported by the data, experiments and analyses are performed to high technical and ethical standards, and the work is described in sufficient and clear detail. This is by no means a small task, and in 2016 over 5,000 Academic or Guest Editors oversaw the peer review process for more than 50,000 submitted manuscripts, inviting over 70,000 reviewers in the process [2].

To support the work of the Academic Editors, staff editors also assess every submission to PLOS ONE for adherence to our policies and criteria. During this assessment staff editors will raise specific queries or questions to Academic Editors for their input and guidance. In some cases, staff editors may make an early decision that a manuscript does not meet our criteria, for example if a submission is not primary scientific research. However, the majority of editorial decisions are made by Academic Editors who have full autonomy to make decisions based on their expertise. In recognition of this, and for transparency, each published paper also bears the name of the Academic Editor that oversaw the peer review process.

An example of the meta-data associated with every PLOS ONE article highlighting the Academic Editor who handled the manuscript

A Partnership with trusted Advisors

Overseeing the peer review process and the acceptance of sound research is just one role Academic Editors play in the success of PLOS ONE. Scientific research never stands still for very long, and as representatives of their scientific communities Academic Editors are best placed to partner with PLOS ONE staff editors to inform new directions and new needs from their own fields.

For example, editorial board members may highlight the need for new policies specific to their own field to complement PLOS ONE’s strong policies and reporting requirements in other areas [3]. Working in partnership we can create policies that are both progressive and/or meet community needs. A clear example of this is our Paleontology and Archaeology policy, proposed by former PLOS ONE Section Editor and vertebrate paleontologist, Andrew Farke. Writing in his blog post announcing the new policy in 2012, Dr. Farke said “The field of paleontology, by its very nature, presents some special situations in ethics. Although the fossil subjects are long-dead, rendering matters of patient consent or laboratory animal care non-existent, other complicated concerns ranging from legalities to reproducibility must be taken into account.” [4] In consultation with other Academic Editors, Dr. Farke helped build a policy specific to his community and their needs, promoting the reproducibility of the research by requesting permanent deposition of fossils and archaeological specimens in public repositories, reporting locality information, and declaring that permits for excavation/export were obtained or were legally allowable.

With the help of Academic Editors, PLOS ONE staff editors can also react to concerns about specific trends within the scientific literature. In 2014, staff editors with help from editorial board members developed a checklist in addition to the PRISMA checklist, to improve the reporting the genetic-association meta-analyses [5]. This was in direct response to concerns raised by some members of our editorial board as well as researchers in their fields about the quality of this specific sub-type of meta-analysis, including, amongst others, the risk of publication bias, redundancy with other published meta-analyses and failure to include available GWAS (genome-wide association studies). Using the checklist, staff editors can better assess these manuscripts and reject manuscripts without adequate justification or rationale during early checks or consult with Academic Editors who can better assess whether the reporting is sufficient and the analysis is  rigorous.

Academic Editors can also play an important role in curating content. With more than 180,000 published articles, browsing and exploring the PLOS ONE corpus to catch up on the latest research in a specific field of interest can seem a little daunting. Luckily, PLOS has several venues for both staff editors and editorial board members to collate articles of interest to a specific audience. PLOS Collections, such as the Ecological Impacts of Climate Change collection curated by Section Editor Ben Bond-Lamberty, is just one example of this. In addition, Dr. Bond-Lamberty is also involved in helping run the PLOS Ecology Community blog site and Twitter channel alongside the Community Editors.  The newly launched PLOS Channels, has also seen PLOS ONE editorial board members helping to create a home for their communities by curating content beyond articles published at PLOS, including relevant research published in other venues or public media articles. PLOS ONE editorial board member Madhu Pai oversees one of the first channels, on tuberculosis research.


Looking to the next 10 years and beyond

As we reflect on the past ten years, it is clear that our dedicated board have been vital in changing the publishing landscape. We thank everyone who has played, and continues to play, this important role at PLOS ONE. It is only natural that, with the passage of time, we have seen editors step down from their roles to focus on new endeavours or commitments, and in doing so they pass on the baton to new Academic Editors. We look forward to welcoming new practising scientists to our board in the coming decade as we continue with our mission to be an inclusive venue for all scientific communities.  As we expand into new communities we are also welcoming new staff editors from a variety of academic backgrounds to better support and partner with our editorial board.  We hope that the next 10 years will see even more initiatives spearheaded by our editorial board and a continuation of a successful partnership that continues to challenge the status quo when it comes to disseminating the results of the scientific research.



Featured Image: Alan Levine from Flickr under CC-BY 2.0 License


Want to know more?

Why not read some interviews with our Academic Editors from our Meet the Editors series or look at one of our 10th Anniversary Video, “Community Voices”, which features some of our PLOS ONE Academic Editors alongside PLOS ONE authors.

We are always keen to hear from experienced academics who have an interest in Open Access to help us drive the journal in the next few years, if you are interest in knowing more please contact

Or perhaps find out about our other community-led blog posts or follow them on Twitter:

Or find out more about our channels:

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