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From Academic Editor in Chief to Chair of the Advisory Board: figuring out an official role for me (Jonathan Eisen) at PLoS Biology

Well, three+ years ago now I accepted a role as “Academic Editor in Chief” of PLoS Biology.  I wrote an Editorial about why I was interested in Open Access publishing (see PLoS 2.0) and was excited to be helping out with PLoS in a more formal role.  However, exactly what that role was going to be was unclear.  You see, PLoS Biology is what one could call a “hybrid” journal.  It has full time editors who run the day to day operations of the journal, kind of like what one sees at Nature or Science and some other similar journals.  Generally, we (me and various friends) refer to these full time editors as “Professional Editors.”  This is because PLoS Biology also has editors who are active researchers or educators or both who serve to advise the Professional Editors on decisions about submitted articles.  These editors are referred to as “Academic Editors.”  Thus the concept of a “hybrid” journal with both Professional Editors and Academic Editors working side by side, hand in hand.

When I was recruited to become the “Academic Editor in Chief” I became in a way, the head of the advisors on decisions.  In other words, I was not in charge of anything.  The Professional Editors made the final calls on pretty much everything – day to day operations, front matter, policies, manuscript decisions, etc.  And I was generally fine with this.  After all, I am an Academic.  I am busy.  And there were full time professionals to run the journal.  The #1 complication in this whole arrangement has been that people from the outside have no idea what “Academic Editor in Chief” means.  Sometimes that is good for me (they think I do more than I do).  And sometimes it is bad (when people want to complain about something done by PLoS Biology they frequently write to me, especially if they know me).

I thought it would be useful for everyone out there to give a general outline for how manuscripts are reviewed at PLoS Biology.  Manuscripts and pre-submission inquiries go to the Professional editors.  They “triage” these submissions and reject those that fall outside of the PLoS Biology scope or do not meet some aspect of the PLoS Biology publishing criteria.  For those that make it through this screening, an Academic Editor (AE) is then consulted to work with the professional editors on deciding whether or not the manuscript is suitable to send out for review.  If the decision is “yes” then the AE also works with the staff to come up with a list of potential reviewers.  Once reviews come back, they are sent to the AE and then this person works with the professional editors to make a decision about whether the paper is then accepted, accepted pending revisions, or rejected.  In my experience, most of the time the professional editors go through the reviews and make a recommendation as to what the decision should be and then ask the AE if they agree or disagree.  If the AE disagrees, there is a back and forth about what to do and then a decision is made.  In my experience as an AE, the decisions have always been agreed upon in the end (well, by the Editors, not necessarily by the authors).  But in the grand scheme of things, the Professional Editors are the final decision makers.

So as PLoS Biology is starting a new blog I thought – this would be a great time to explain to everyone what my role is and isn’t.  Well, it is easy to say what my role isn’t.  I am not responsible for decisions on manuscripts unless I am the actual Academic Editor consulted for a paper – and then I would have the same role as any AE (as outlined above).   In other words – though people may want to give me credit or blame for ALL the decisions at PLoS Biology, really, that credit and blame should go to Theo Bloom – the “Chief Editor” (a.k.a. the head of the Professional Editors).

Alas, it is much harder to say what my role has been.  Theo and others at PLoS consult me about various issues and I make suggestions to them (sometimes on solicited topics, much of the time on unsolicited topics of my choosing …).  But I haven’t had actually ANY formal responsibilities.  That is, until now.  In conversations with Mark Patterson (who was head of publishing at PLoS) and Theo Bloom and many others at PLoS Biology we have actually come up with something for me to do.  I am going to become the head of the PLoS Biology Advisory Board.  This Board will be made up of a collection of Academic Editors who have been most deeply involved in the journal.  What will the Advisory Board do?  Well, see Theo Bloom’s answer below …


So what will the Advisory Board do? Theo Bloom explains...

Jonathan outlines the process well. Why do we do things this way? As a team with decades of combined experience in several different journal models, the team who launched PLoS Biology in 2003 felt, and I agree , that professional editors bring certain strengths to the job and academics bring others. For example, professional editors can drive greater speed of decision making; it is, after all, our only and full-time job, and we share office space with the excellent administrative team for the journal. We also show no fear or favour: our next job (or grant) is not dependent on pleasing one author or another. And we can ensure consistency across fields by working together as a small team. But we readily admit that this small team cannot possibly provide the depth of insight in multiple fields that academic editors can: they know their field, its frontiers and its people (including rising young stars) much better than we can. So, we feel that a partnership brings huge benefits to the authors we’re here to serve. We have over 100 academics in different fields on our editorial board and yet we still often get papers that none of them feels comfortable handling – but we’re never more than one referral away from someone who knows the field well. And some members of our board are called on much more than others. We cannot dictate who submits what to the journal, so some board members are called on only a handful of times per year while others hear from us every month.

So, our decision to build an advisory board reflects at least two major aspects of the way we work with academic editors: that some editorial board members work with us frequently, and that some of them also weigh in more substantially on editorial issues and matters of journal policy and practice, not just on individual papers in their field.  Appointing such committed academic editors to the advisory board is also our way of acknowledging the time and work they invest in PLoS Biology. Our advisory board members, chaired by Jonathan, will be our first port of call as we continue numerous discussions about peer review, plagiarism, data handling, publication ethics and how we develop PLoS Biology. In Jonathan’s formal role as chair of this group, and informal one as evangelist for PLoS and PLoS Biology, he will have a more manageably sized group to consult first with new ideas.

The editorial team of PLoS Biology look forward to working with Jonathan and the new Advisory Board over the coming months.

  1. If the advisory group also deals with ‘publication ethics’ and ‘journal policy’, may I suggest a topic for discussion that I’ve pestered Pete Binfield with for years: what is the justification of PLoS Biology’s existence (and in fact of all the other PLoS journals) in the days of PLoS *One*? You have the brand name, journal rank is coming out to be detrimental to science and the other journals (as of my last information) are losing money. Also, by how much am I, as a PLoS One author, subsidizing the other journals? Theo once told me something on the order of just US$20, but can I take that as an official number? I probably won’t worry about a figure like that, but if it’s more, I might feel inclined to reduce the APC I’m willing to pay for P1 by that amount. After all, why should I pay to have other people publish in PLoS Biology?

    So, why does PLoS Biology even still exist and why should I pay (how much?) for its existence?

  2. This is certainly an interesting topic for the advisory board to discuss and I’m sure Jonathan will want to lead that discussion. In the meantime, I’d like to give my own perspective. I certainly share the implicit hope that in future research will increasingly be judged on its own merits and not according to the journal in which it is published – hence our ongoing development of article-level metrics, among other approaches. I say ‘our’ development, because the PLoS journals have always worked as a collective ecosystem in which different functions are performed by different journals and many developments and innovations are shared by all the journals. While PLoS ONE is exemplary for rapid and efficient publication of research articles irrespective of subject area or perceived impact, PLoS Computational Biology (as just one example) helps to promote the standards and direction of development of its young field, while PLoS Biology just this week published a couple of articles, an editorial and related podcast on sustainability issues ahead of the Rio+20 conference and PLoS Medicine has just launched a campaign against ‘big food’ companies. All of this is simply to say that the journals perform different functions and aim to meet different needs of the communities they serve, and as they evolve in future we will aim to ensure this remains the case.

  3. An excellent question Bjorn. In my opinion PLoS One should not subsidize the other PLoS journals as the continued success of PLoS One may depend in part on efforts to decrease author charges.

    As for whether PLoS Biology should continue I personally think that in an ideal world PLoS would have one place to publish research articles (e.g., PLoS One) and then any other PLoS Journals would be about either “selecting” PLoS One papers of relevance to highlight (e.g., PLoS Biology could select the best of the best) or about front matter material like reviews, commentaries, etc.

    But though I may have an idealistic view of the future of scientific publishing, right now there is still some use in having a highly selective PLoS Journal. Some people indeed like this and are willing to pay the publication fee if their paper gets accepted. But I agree there should be a competition of sorts here — and PLoS One authors should not subsidize PLoS Bio …

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