PLOS ONE has faced a decline in submissions – why? New editor speaks

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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13 thoughts on “PLOS ONE has faced a decline in submissions – why? New editor speaks”

  1. Since I reviewed a manuscript for PlosOne that was accepted despite my very negative review, I can’t take this journal serious anymore. Excuses that the number of papers is too high to prevent “problematic” (what a euphemism) papers from being published are nonsensical. As many other open access journals, the submissions pay for the journal, and that is not a good incentive.

    1. What about the there reviewers and the editor, do they get a say or is it simply up to you? Not sure where you publish but all society journals I’ve published in have publication charges as well.

  2. 68000 Reviewers do their volunteer job!! Concern remains there on their 6000 academic editors and editorial board members. I have always commented here about this. I stopped reviewing and publishing for them since 2010!!

    1. I stopped as well. I work in the mathematical sciences, and the criterion (or lack thereof) “that [PLoS ONE] does not judge work based on perceived impact” is entirely inapplicable to the mathematical sciences. Authors submit for publication what would be considered “homework problems” in a mathematical science course. The mathematical sciences community largely agrees this is not what constitutes as a peer-reviewed publication. Yet, PLoS ONE is happy to accept these papers because they are merely “correct”, sometimes even simply tautologically correct. Of course, the open access fees bring in a significant income to the enterprise, …

      1. A few percentage of papers in ANY journals contribute to the impact of the journal. So, pointing fingers at a particular journal is a biased opinion.

        Who decides what is homework work in a Math course?

        PLOS ONE publishes good papers as any other Q1 journal does. Traditional journals do not like it but the journal success is undeniable.

  3. Same here. I have first stopped submitting to Plos one, then reviewing for Plos one, and now reading Plos one papers.

  4. I’ve seen plenty fo very good work published in PlosOne, so I don’t have a problem with the journal itself. I will say however that their user interface for both reviewers and authors is extraordinarily difficult to use. When possible I try to avoid it just for the sheer frustration of interacting with them.

  5. It starts with lapsing leadership, editors incompetence, leads to sloppy reviews and editorial indecision and finally to a nosedive of the journal’s standing in scientific community. I published in PLoS ONE many times, but recently it was nothing but disappointment.

  6. Another factor for declining submissions is likely the lack of a proof stage at PLoS ONE. Meaning that articles that successfully navigated peer-review appear in final typeset form before the authors get a chance to check them for errors. In one example period in 2015, over one-quarter of corrections we attributed to errors introduced during typesetting, i.e., are beyond the authors’ control.

    I would not publish there for this reason, despite my enthusiasm for open access in general.

  7. Not providing page proofs to authors should be reason enough to discourage submissions to PLoS ONE and to have readers take the journal less seriously. With a publication charge of $1495, I can’t see any reason not to change their policy ASAP!

  8. Perhaps Joerg Heber will take time to read this post about PLoS One and respond to some comments?   Phil Davis at Scholarly Kitchen argued that the decline in PLoS One’s fortunes was because Scientific Reports was eating their lunch. Scientific Reports is nearly identical to PLoS One in many regards, but has a typically lax transparency/data availability policy for authors whereas PLoS has stuck it’s neck out calling for transparency. Also, Scientific Reports, has a higher Impact Factor, which it gets from riding the wave of the downward cascade down from its higher brow brethren (Nature > Nature Communications > Scientific Reports). The latter is highly attractive to authors, especially Chinese authors who are heavily represented in Scientific Reports. Dr. Heber, what do you think of these arguments by Phil Davis? Is PLoS’s stance on transparency hurting it?  Do authors only value transparency in others?

    Maybe also weigh in on how PLoS One manages it editors? With 25,000 to 30,000 articles handled per year by 6000 academic editors, that works out to 4 or 5 articles a year per editor on the average. That seems a bit light compared to that of a traditional AE, and PLoS One editors might not get a lot of experience?  How many editors does a senior section editor oversee? Is that where the training is expected? As an outsider, it seems utterly unwieldy. How about changing the default 10-day review window to something like 21-days that allows time to read, track down/read some related work, check some analyses, write it up?

    PLoS has done some great things, but it seems like they are in a challenging place keeping it going with what seems to be a fickle author community, willing to quickly drop it in favor of a copycat with a higher IF and doesn’t require authors to show their data.

    Davis, P., 2016, Scientific Reports On Track To Become Largest Journal In The World (August 23, 2016): Scholarly Kitchen, at

    1. PLoS One’s 10 day review window is a thing of the past. I have had a paper in the revise and resubmit review stage since September (it is now November). It took 6 months to get from submission to revise and resubmit. I’m not one of the fickle authors you refer to here, but I’m also not at all surprised that others are submitting their work elsewhere.

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