three cheers for PLOS ONE!

Disclaimer: I’ve been a long time advocate for journals like PLoS One and I have an article that’s working its way through that journal, which I will shamelessly self-promote at a later time.

Last week, John Bohannon announced a hoax. He intentionally wrote an obviously flawed article on cancer research and submitted it to a bunch of open access journals. About two thirds of the journals accepted the paper. I’m glad these folks exposed such chicanery. Once you’ve been in academia for a few years, you quickly learn that there’s a lot of publishers who have no scruples. The sting even caught journals managed by “legitimate” vendors such as Elsevier.  Bring the sunlight.

Interestingly, one of the journals that did not fall for the hoax was the much maligned PLOS ONE (e.g., Andrew Gelman recently called it a “crap journal“).  From Bohannon’s article:

The rejections tell a story of their own. Some open-access journals that have been criticized for poor quality control provided the most rigorous peer review of all. For example, the flagship journal of the Public Library of Science, PLOS ONE, was the only journal that called attention to the paper’s potential ethical problems, such as its lack of documentation about the treatment of animals used to generate cells for the experiment. The journal meticulously checked with the fictional authors that this and other prerequisites of a proper scientific study were met before sending it out for review. PLOS ONE rejected the paper 2 weeks later on the basis of its scientific quality.

Good for them. This  speaks well of the PLOS ONE model. Normally, journals employ two criteria – technical competence (“is this study correctly carried out?”) and impact (“how important do we think this study is?”). PLoS sticks with the first criteria while rejecting the second. It’s an experiment that asks: “What happens when a journal publishes technically correct articles, but lets the scientific community – not the editors – decide what is important?”

Now we have part of the answer. A forum that drops editorial taste can still retain scientific integrity. By meticulously sticking to scientific procedure, bad science is likely to be weeded. And you’d be surprised how much gets weeded. Even though PLOS ONE is not competitive in any normal sense of the word, it still rejects over 30% of all submissions. In other words, almost one in three articles does not meet even the most basic standards of scientific competence.

Well managed open access journals like PLOS ONE will never replace traditional journals because we really do want juries to pick out winners. But having a platform where scientists can “let the people decide” is a good thing.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 8, 2013 at 12:01 am

11 Responses

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  1. I was wondering how the open access crowd around here was going to respond to Bohannon’s devastating take-down. I have my answer.



    October 8, 2013 at 12:59 pm

  2. I wish Bohannon had included print journals. And chosen Open Access journals randomly, rather than (partly) from a list of questionable OA journals and publishers.

    I also think it’s amusing that Bohannon takes journals to task for failing to ask about the ethics of animal treatment in the fictitious study when there’s no indication that Bohannon went through an IRB himself for what is a deception study on human subjects.

    If this study had been written up and submitted to Science as a regular paper, it shouldn’t have passed peer review. Ironic, that.



    October 8, 2013 at 2:58 pm

  3. After reading Bohannon’s Hoax, I’m curious just how much money the editorial team at SS (Soc. Sci.) will leave on the table? Will this help us further quantify the difference between economists and economic sociologists?



    October 8, 2013 at 3:31 pm

  4. Rich, I am not sure what is so devastating about it. All professors know there are garbage publishers. They accept anything, charge authors, and then charge libraries tons of money for low quality work.They’ve existed for decades. Nothing new about the open access flavor of this.

    We should be glad that someone calls them out from time to time. But it doesn’t imply that *all* open access is bad. My prediction is that open access publishing will be accepted part of the academy in a few years.



    October 8, 2013 at 7:28 pm

  5. According to my colleague* Michael Eisen in Molecular & Cell Biology, the problem is not with open-access publishing, it’s really with the profit AND publicity motives for publishers. Eisen denigrates the peer-review process for academic journals, focusing on the venerable journal Science. Check out this recent blog post:

    * Okay, I’ve never actually met him, but he is on the Berkeley faculty — it’s a large school, after all!


    Heather A. Haveman

    October 9, 2013 at 12:08 am

  6. Heather: thanks for linking to that Eisen post. Well said.



    October 9, 2013 at 12:59 am

  7. @TR: “Will this help us further quantify the difference between economists and economic sociologists?” You can’t price it…cause it is priceless, but if Sorenson asks you to direct your SS page fees to his account at the Tamilnadu Mercantile Bank, you’ll know all you need to know.



    October 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm

  8. TR,

    Read FAQ item #2 of Sociological Science’s “Submission and Publication Fees” page. The gist of it is that 100% of revenues go to expenses and the editors take no compensation.



    October 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm

  9. Thanks TR. I didn’t actually understand TR’s question. SocSci is nonprofit. Our motives are strictly irrational.



    October 9, 2013 at 5:13 pm

  10. @gabrielrossman: So they are leaving a ton of money on the table? Or is this one of those long-con, build for the IPO payday things? How much will Elsevier pay to cash them out per user when the time comes? But seriously, three cheers for strict irrationality!



    October 9, 2013 at 6:17 pm

  11. did anyone see this today? Didn’t read it closely but it looks like a review of the problem of unreliability in peer-reviewed work



    October 22, 2013 at 4:21 am

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