Nature has published a news item by Declan Butler on the finances of one of its competitors: the open-access PLoS journals, using language that puts the organisation and its journals, especially PLoS ONE, in a negative light.
The fact that PLoS does not meet its costs exclusively from the author publication fees, as Nature focuses on, is interesting, especially from the point of view of an organization like Nature Publishing Group, whose purpose is to make a profit. But,
- the purpose of PLoS is not to make a profit. The purpose is to create an outlet for original science that everyone in the world can read. This is worthwhile even if it can only happen at a “loss” subsidized by research foundations, charities, and governments.
- Even if one does insist on looking only at the “bottom line”, the analysis of Nature has a serious flaw. Open-access if it were corporate would be called a “growth industry” and the PLoS journals are young and have a high market share. We can be very confident in the upward growth trajectory as very recently, NIH, Harvard and other leading organisations have begun taking various steps to ensure that research they fund or produce is available open-access. But at this early stage, criticizing PLoS journals for not making ends meet is like asking the CEO of a new solar power company why he’s in business, when in 2008 oil is cheaper. There are reasons besides price to support solar power, and it may well be self-sustaining in future. Indeed, the open-access mandates will inevitably increase revenue, probably rapidly.
- PLoS ONE is characterized by the Nature report as a low-quality bulk publisher. It is true that PLoS ONE will publish practically any science as long as its methodology is proper and its conclusions reasonable based on the evidence. I think this is a good thing, because I believe the world needs outlets like this where science can get out rapidly, with commenting and rating tools that PLoS ONE has, so that post-publication scrutiny will continue, as part of a more transparent way to vet and evaluate science. But that’s a longer discussion.
I’d like to direct readers directly to the article I’m criticizing, but unfortunately many can’t read it since Nature is not open access!
Butler, D. (2008). PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing. Nature, 454(7200), 11-11. DOI: 10.1038/454011a
Conflict of interest alert: I am a member of both the editorial board and also the advisory board of PLoS ONE. For the views of more disinterested parties, see these other bloggers’ posts: