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Wanted: community ideas about the future of PLOS Biology

About a year ago I wrote a blog post here about becoming the chair of the Advisory Board of PLOS Biology (see From Academic Editor in Chief to Chair of the Advisory Board: figuring out an official role for me (Jonathan Eisen) at PLoS Biology).  One of my main tasks since then involved advising PLOS Biology on the need to improve the diversity of Academic Editors and Advisory Board members.  Just to be clear – I do not work at PLOS Biology – I have a role in chairing the recently created and as of yet not heavily used Advisory Board.  So I figured – I would see how the people who run PLOS Biology would respond to advice.  And at least in this instance (the diversity issue) they responded very well.

So – I guess the next step is to get the Advisory Board as a group to start – well – giving advice.  And to see how PLOS Biology responds to said advice.  Over the next two days I will be talking to some of the Advisory Board members about PLOS Biology and what roles the Advisory Board might play.  Now personally I have a lot of ideas about the directions I would like to see PLOS Biology go in the future.  But I am going to hold off on my personal ideas for now since I would like to solicit input from the community to see what ideas others have about the future of PLOS Biology.

So – here are some questions to hopefully start to stimulate a discussion.

  • What do you think PLOS Biology should focus on over the next five years?
  • What would you like to see PLOS Biology do that it is not doing now?
  • What would you like to see PLOS Biology NOT do that it is doing now?
  • What things is PLOS Biology doing now but should be improved upon?
  • What role do you think PLOS Biology could and should play in the “open access” movement?
  • What other questions should we be asking here?

I am hoping that I / we / you can engage the community in a discussion about the future of PLOS Biology … and would very much like any input here or elsewhere on where you think PLOS Biology should go.


  1. Use or have a preprint system? This may already be in place.
    Chemistry and physics including their junction with biology are poorly represented.
    Perhaps there should just be one journal, “PLOS” not many? A simple use of master keywords can then pull out a “PLOS Pathogens”, “Plos Biology”, “PLOS nano” etc., etc. and individuals can tailor their journal to suit their current needs. This has the added advantage that it helps get us away from impact factor stupidity. After all, a major driver reason for dividing up a journal or launching new journals is to massage the impact factor. There could be a “PLOS Selection”, where the editorial board pick out every week what they consider to be the most interesting papers – only their opinion, but this allows the community to engage in random browsing, which is an important way into new ideas and information.
    Rather than reviews (again these are important for massaging impact factors) one could consider a “Thesis site”, where people would put forward their thesis. After all, we should be working on a thesis (or several) throughout our careers. This would need some thought, but it could become a community effort, with active posting, links to PubPeer (a thesis built on a wobbly paper is perhaps not so strong). I guess this might look like a series of mini virtual Gordon Research Conferences, perpetually updated. These might be reviewed on the basis of
    1. Interest they have generated
    2. Level of engagement of the proponents
    3. Any conclusions reached by the authors and the community
    At some point a thesis might be discarded in favour of a new one or on rare occasions, actually accepted.

  2. Absolute number one priority from my perspective: get the APC down. At $2900 it’s uncomfortably close to the median $3000 that legacy publishers charge, it’s way more than PLOS ONE’s $1350 (even though PLOS ONE is subsidising it), and it looks crazy next to the prices of the new generation of OA publishers — £200 in Ubiquity’s journals, $99 at PeerJ, etc.

    The brutal truth is that I’m not even considering PLOS Biology for my own work because of the very high price, and I’m sure the same is true of lots of people whose work is more important and exciting than mine. $2900 is a previous-generation APC.

    And BTW., when I say reduce the APC I don’t mean by increasing PLOS ONE’s subsidies of PLOS Biology. I mean by dramatically cutting costs. I know that’s not a popular message to someone who knows and works with and likes the Professional Editors, but from the outside they look like a layer that doesn’t produce enough value to justify its cost.

  3. Well, certainly I agree with you that the price point needs – desperately – to be lower. However, though I am an AE at PeerJ and love what they are doing – it is not 99$ / paper – it is 99$ per author — and if there are lots of authors — well then — it is more —

  4. Well, we can’t really directly compare PeerJ’s prices with anyone else’s, because as you know it’s not just $99 per author, it’s $99 per author for life. Whether the works out to more or less than $99 total per paper I couldn’t say. I imagine Pete and Jason have modelling that says they’ll take more. I can tell you that I am going to get considerably more publishing for my $99 than one paper. But tossing it all in together, I think $99 is the closest we can come to a PeerJ APC with the data we have today.

  5. LOVE the idea of “PLoS Selections” but would also love to see the editors include a sentence or three about why they think the paper they selected is interesting and should be read by a wider audience. If such a thing came about, I’d subscribe to the email list, too.

  6. It would be nice if OA journals could lead the way in providing incentive for good reviews. A couple rough ideas:
    – lower submission fees for reviewers.
    – publicize great reviews, and help educate junior scientists on how to produce them

  7. I totally agree with @grrlscientist. If you do continue to see value in having a “highly selective” OA journal (and I have some doubts that they are still needed), it would be nice if the editor (and reviewers) who made the decision would explain why the paper is so special; why it deserves publication in PLoS Biol and not in PLoS ONE.

    Ideally this would be accomplished by some form of moderated, open peer review – elife is setting new standards in this respect.

  8. I am with you on all your points … except one … I think we also need to ask “Do we want to have a highly selective OA journal?” … and I am not sure of the answer to be honest. There is no doubt that many people like this … but I really worry that having a highly selective OA journal is simply a way of supporting a system – creating a selective filter in publishing to give an imprint of quality – that has issues. Would it be better to publish all papers that are technically sound and then to apply filters AFTER they are published?

  9. I don’t think that selectivity and quantity are mutually exclusive. There’s really no reason why there can’t be both, especially with the number of great articles that you can find across all biology-oriented journals. In terms of advocating/promoting OA in a long-term sense, the number of articles in PLoS Biology has to increase. PLoS ONE, which presumably has a different academic mission, would otherwise reduce readership/submissions of the other PLoS journals by sheer size.

  10. Personally, the biggest problem I see with PLoS Biology is the current scope. My understanding (or hope?) of the PLoS Biology niche was a general science open access journal that came with a good impact factor. It seems to me that PLoS Bio has instead turned into Cell 2.0 and is too focused on “mechanistic” studies. I’d really like PLoS Biology to turn into the ‘Nature of open access’…not the Cell of open access.

  11. If I understand correctly, the biggest reason why PLOS Biology is so expensive compared to PLOS One is the layer of professional editors. Do we need that layer? A lot of the Twitter discussion now groups PLOS Biology with Cell/Nature/Science (CNS). I know why PLOS Biology was started and I do not think PLOS could have succeeded in transforming the publishing industry without it. It certainly pains me when PLOS Biology is grouped with other glam journals and is said to be very much “part of the problem” now. But the sad truth is that at this point it is part of the problem in terms of the damaging impact factor game. We do have PLOS One now. The publishing industry has been transformed by PLOS. Now is the time to transition away from the traditional “is your paper good enough?” approach. The journal was started to undermine CNS and to kick the publishing industry into a new direction; it is time for it to innovate again and make science publishing better.

    I am not advocating for retiring PLOS Biology at this point – it is too early. Until scientists stop caring about the impact factor, we do need PLOS Biology, but that does not mean that we need the professional editors. StackExchange does not have a board triaging good and bad advice. Scientists should be able to triage PLOS papers into the right journal post-publication. This is not trivial to implement and there are lots of things to consider, but with all of the pitfalls of this approach, it seems infinitely better than the current system.

    I also do not agree with the justification of the higher publishing prices with “we do many other good things at PLOS Biology.” That starts to sound like professional societies defending the subscription model of their journals. The question isn’t whether PLOS Biology is still better than CNS and whether it delivers more value. The question is how to make publishing better and how to improve science and scientists’ lives.

  12. I think PLoS should work with professional societies and communities to cultivate hubs for post-publication peer review and discussion. PLoS could facilitate the infrastructure for more specialized organizations to create “portals” in which people could review, discuss, and rate papers that come out in PLoS. The infrastructure isn’t tough – something like Haldane’s Seive more tightly integrated with the article itself, its metrics, and the PLoS/PubPeer comment systems. The bigger challenge would be to get societies to value the high-voted papers on these hubs as much as those published in selective, specialized journals.

  13. How about a new section or group of papers from the iGEM groups of undergraduates? This might provide some outreach into a new generation of potential scientists, educate about open access journals and provide an avenue for publication of projects.

  14. I have expressed my opinion about the need for filters before. I think the current system of tiered journals, as broken as it is, serves as a filter on where to direct our attention as readers. You don’t need to do away with the tiered system to develop a parallel way of filtering. Keep the PLOS “tiers” as they are while at the same time developing something else to replace it. Nothing more than what PLOS One promised it would do. Something like a community portal where the best of PLOS (or best of open access) can be highlighted based on impact metrics and selection from some type of editorial board. Recruit from a broader pool of postdocs if needed. As a pre-condition to be part of the board force members to vote regularly on a set of “rising” articles from the metrics data. These highlights could come along with “side” material written by volunteer community experts etc. You can count me as volunteer to help grow such a “portal”.

    This is not a suggestion for PLOS Biology. Don’t do away with the PLOS current tiers before you set up an alternative filtering system. I don’t think it will be good for the brand and as a consequence it will not be good for open access.

  15. I would love to see PLoS Biology introducing author anonymity. I dont see any reason why reviewers should know who the authors are as much as the authors dont know who the reviewers are! The quality of the manuscript is what matters and it would be really great if editors withhold information about the author and just pass on the manuscript to the reviewers so that they can judge it purely based on its merit and not based on competing interests, competetion or any other prejudices. I will be really glad to hear Jonathan Eisen’s opinion on this and why this has not been implemented so far.

  16. I think this is a potentially very good idea. However, I am not sure how well it works in practice. Going to have to look into it more. Any pointers to studies of this would be appreciated.

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