By some measures, 2016 was a somewhat rocky year for PLOS ONE — it issued some high-profile retractions, and published fewer papers, in part due to a decline in submissions. Still, the first multidisciplinary open-access journal — which accepts all submissions that meet technical and ethical standards, regardless of the results — publishes more than 20,000 papers per year, juggling thousands of editors and reviewers. So what does the future hold for this “large and complex” journal? We spoke with its new editor, Joerg Heber, who assumed the role in November.
Retraction Watch: What are your primary goals for the journal, and how do you plan to achieve them?
Joerg Heber: First of all, I am extremely honored to be the Editor-in-Chief of PLOS ONE. It is a wonderful journal in the service of the academic community. Our aim at PLOS ONE is to be an open, inclusive, efficient, sustainable journal that is rooted deeply in the scientific community. We like to be the journal of choice for all quality science.
PLOS ONE is a large and complex journal, so we are constantly striving to ensure that publishing in PLOS ONE is a smooth process that provides a great service to all our authors and readers, and we are presently working on improving our internal workflows. We also need to focus on providing a strong support for our editorial board. Finally, we also need to raise awareness globally of the quality content published in the journal.
Beyond such operational improvements, we need to continue pushing the envelope in editorial policies and in publishing more broadly. For example, once implemented at PLOS ONE, our new submissions system Aperta will enable us to consider further innovations in peer review. In the meantime, we will continue working with our Academic Editorial Board and the broader community to implement new editorial policies where needed or strengthen our policies in other areas, for example in data sharing as well as the various aspects of reproducibility of research.
RW: What do you think is PLOS ONE’s role in the family of PLOS journals? In the larger scientific publishing ecosystem?
JH: At PLOS, we are a tight-knit community of journals, and we closely work together on joint projects. We publish Collections of papers together and jointly contribute to our latest innovation – Channels, which are content streams curated by experts that pull together research in a given discipline. This enables us to highlight subject-specific content across all our journals. Furthermore, the other journals in the PLOS family provide us with in-house expertise in their subject areas and with important links to the research communities that they represent.
PLOS ONE was established to serve a need for the scientific community: a multidisciplinary Open Access journal that does not judge work based on perceived impact, thereby enabling fast publication that does not require a journey of manuscripts through various journals. Within PLOS, this means papers that might fit into more than one of our journals often find a home at PLOS ONE, as do replication studies or negative results.
Within the larger scientific publishing ecosystem, at PLOS ONE we have often driven important innovations, and will continue to do so. We have demonstrated that Open Access publishing across the sciences and independent of the subjective publication criteria of impact can be successful. We have driven progress in sharing of research data upon publication. Since 2014, more than 60,000 papers have been published under our data sharing policy. Going forward, we aim to continue this tradition of innovation. With around 6,000 Academic Editors, 68,000 reviewers in 2016 alone and more than 850,000 authors so far, we are a product of the research community, and are dedicated to serving the publishing needs of scientists. For example, we enthusiastically support preprints, and based on our editorial model we see PLOS ONE as an ideal venue to promote preprints in all research areas.
RW: PLOS ONE’s output declined by 22% between 2015 and 2016, apparently due to fewer submissions. Is this concerning to you at all? If so, what are your plans to address it?
JH: The decline in published output is correct. In the same period, submissions have dropped a little less in comparison, close to 9%. Part of the reduced output is explained by a lower acceptance rate, which now stands at around 50%. This is lower than in the past, but we have not altered our editorial bar and remain fully committed to our mission of publishing all solid research independent of impact. However, we also are uncompromising in upholding our editorial standards.
Furthermore, part of the drop in submissions might be explained by other journals that have recently launched and that follow our editorial model. This overall is great news for the research community as it means more Open Access research being published without barriers based on subjective criteria of relevance.
PLOS ONE remains financially sustainable, and I look forward to its successful future. We believe that publishing at PLOS ONE continues to have its advantages and benefits: we are part of a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes open science as part of the broader scientific community. In addition, we are working towards improving our service to authors, to ensure that we can provide a timely turnaround for all our submissions. We also need to make sure that we are perceived as an attractive publishing venue for authors from all the diverse research areas that we cover – natural sciences, engineering, medical research, as well as the related social sciences and humanities. Our Channels program will be able to support growth in specific communities. By providing a strong author service across all disciplines we can operate in a sustainable way.
RW: Some academics have suggested PLOS ONE has a higher than average correction rate. Do you know why that is? And are you making any changes to address it? For instance, I’ve seen a recent correction for a mistake introduced during typesetting. Would you consider allowing authors to see page proofs so they can fix any introduced problems, as some have requested?
JH: I cannot comment on correction rates at other publishers, but we are committed to following up all issues with papers that we have published. We do this actively whenever there are valid reasons to issue a correction, and are not the only publisher correcting errors introduced during typesetting. Nevertheless, by working with our authors on manuscripts prior to their acceptance we have considerably reduced our correction rate, and have issued only about half as many corrections in 2016 as in 2014. We are not in principle opposed to considering page proofs, but there are different aspects to balance, such as the speed of publication, time and efforts required, and the additional costs involved.
RW: PLOS ONE has faced some heavy criticism recently for publishing papers that readers quickly realized were problematic – for instance, it published a paper that cited “The Creator,” and a paper that was retracted for 10 problems (and contained a typo in the title). In these cases, readers lamented that the problems weren’t addressed during peer review. Have you made any changes to the review process to prevent similar issues?
We obviously take every retraction seriously, and in each case we look back at the publication process to inform our internal workflows and adjust them where necessary. We have a process in place where all submissions are thoroughly screened by in-house editors for compliance with our editorial policies and standards. Publishing more than 20,000 manuscripts a year means that despite all our best efforts and successes in the screening of problematic papers prior to publication, it probably is inevitable that on rare occasions papers make it through peer review that in retrospect should not have. Peer review will never be a perfect system, and we need to acknowledge that. Peer review continues once an article is published and we are committed to follow up on all problematic cases emerging after publication, and will correct the scientific record where needed. We have always encouraged post-publication peer review and welcome responses to our published articles.
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