A problem at PLoS ONE

August 14, 2012

As you know, Dear Reader, I have been pondering the role of the open access journal PLoS ONE of late. In particular, pondering whether my subfield of science should use this journal more and, obviously, whether I should use it for any of my various publishing purposes. This pondering includes paying attention to peoples’ experiences with the journal, in both online and real life settings.

On the Twitts today, @Bashir_Course9 indicates that he’s had a little problem in the course of a submission to PLoS ONE.

6 wks after submitting to @Plosone have yet to even be assigned an editor. I guess technically amazing the review process hasn’t started.

You may assume, Dear Reader, that I would not be posting about this if it were the first time I had heard of such a thing.

What I have come to appreciate about the PLoS ONE Academic Editor* system is that it is opt-in. In other real** journals, there is a shorter list of Associate Editors, they have reasonably well defined areas of coverage and the assignment process is more directed. I mean sure, one can always beg off on workload but there are certain expectations.

The upshot of this is that with PLoS ONE submissions there can be a bottle neck / slow down in the assignment of a submitted manuscript. Much slower than I’ve experienced at my usual venues.

Six weeks is a ridiculous amount of time for a paper to be bouncing around without assignment to an editor and a decision to send out for review or reject it outright. I don’t know what the problem is with any specific paper. I have heard of at least one case where it is clear that there are some administrative/procedural problems in which nobody on the administrative side so much as notices a paper is languishing in limbo. This latter issue motivates me to advise PLoS ONE submitters to stay in contact with the head office if anything seems funny. Like the status bar reading “editor invited” for more than a week. Send an email.

I do not know what happens when the administrative staff has trouble finding an Academic Editor to take the paper. As I noted before, coverage can be spotty in some subfields of science, e.g., mine. It’s the Field of Dreams/Catch22 problem being played out. The authors won’t come until they build it (a stable of AEs in each subfield) and AEs won’t volunteer unless it is seen to be a worthwhile effort for their subfield. Since the AE assignment is opt-in, you furthermore have to have someone in your subfield that is at least interested in taking the paper for review.

Is the inability to find an AE the PLoS ONE equivalent of a desk reject? Maybe. Is there ever anything that actually gets returned to the authors as rejected because PLoS ONE can’t find an AE to take it? This I don’t know. Perhaps one of my readers knows more.

Since this post is a bit critical, let me end on the upnote. Just so long as you stay on top of the journal staff and make sure they are actively trying to find an AE for your manuscript, the addition of a week or three to the process (relative to journals where the assignment is nearly automatic) is no big deal. If we assume the most obvious merits of PLoS ONE are valid (acceptance on quality, no rejection based on importance, impact and other more-subjective reasons) then one has to assume one is saving on a round of getting rejected from one journal and having to resubmit to another. Also a gain in terms of not getting demands for more experiments (again, in design if not 100% in practice). In this context, a few weeks delay in AE assignment still leaves you ahead of the game with PLos ONE.

There is one more benefit of the opt-in system which is that you are going to be slightly more likely to get an AE that has at least some interest in the topic. And you will minimize the chances*** of an AE who is resentful of having to manage the review for a manuscript she finds uninteresting, boring or crappy to begin with. That seems like a pretty good plus to me.

The ultimate takeaway message for me right now is that it is essential to understand this bottleneck at PLoS ONE that doesn’t exist at many other journals. Minimizing the bad effects requires a little more active attention on the part of the submitting author to make sure assignment doesn’t fall into a blind hole.
*roughly the function of an Associate Editor at most journals. These people select and invite reviewers and make the primary decision on publication acceptance. They are peers, this list is here.

**staffed by working scientists volunteering their time (or nominally paid) as editors.

***I may be naively projecting here. I don’t see where I’d want to waste my time managing the review of a manuscript that bored the crap out of me based on the Abstract or Title alone. I guess there may be some people who look forward to putting in that work just to rip a paper apart and eviscerate the authors’ egos. That isn’t me though.

As the Impact Factor discussion has been percolating along (Stephen Curry, Björn Brembs, YHN) it has touched briefly on the core valuation of a scientific paper: Citations!

Coincidentally, a couple of twitter remarks today also reinforced the idea that what we are all really after is other people who cite our work.

More people should cite my papers.

I totally agree. More people should cite my papers. Often.


was a bit discouraged when a few papers were pub’ed recently that conceivably could have cited mine

Yep. I’ve had that feeling on occasion and it stings. Especially early in the career when you have relatively few publications to your name, it can feel like you haven’t really arrived yet until people are citing your work.

Before we get too far into this discussion, let us all pause and remember that all of the specifics of citation numbers, citation speed and citation practices are going to be very subfield dependent. Sometimes our best discussions are enhanced by dissecting these differences but let’s try not to act like nobody recognizes this, even though I’m going to do so for the balance of the post….

So, why might you not be getting cited and what can you do about it? (in no particular order)

1) Time. I dealt with this in a prior post on gaming the impact factor by having a lengthy pre-publication queue. The fact of the matter is that it takes a long time for a study that is primarily motivated by your paper to reach publication. As in, several years of time. So be patient.

2) Time (b). As pointed out by Odyssey, sometimes a paper that just appeared reached final draft status 1, 2 or more years ago and the authors have been fighting the publication process ever since. Sure, occasionally they’ll slip in a few new references when revising for yet the umpteenth time but this is limited.

3) Your paper doesn’t hit the sweet spot. Speaking for myself, my citation practices lean this way for any given point I’m trying to make. The first, best and most recent. Rationale’s vary and I would assume most of us can agree that the best, most comprehensive, most elegant and all around most scientifically awesome study is the primary citation. Opinions might vary on primacy but there is a profound sub-current that we must respect the first person to publish something. The most-recent is a nebulous concept because it is a moving target and might have little to do with scientific quality. But all else equal, the more recent citations should give the reader access to the front of the citation thread for the whole body of work. These three concerns are not etched in stone but they inform my citation practices substantially.

4) Journal identity. I don’t need to belabor this but suffice it to say some people cite based on the journal identity. This includes Impact Factor, citing papers on the journal to which one is submitting, citing journals thought important to the field, etc. If you didn’t happen to publish there but someone else did, you might be passed over.

5) Your paper actually sucks. Look, if you continually fail to get cited when you think you should have been mentioned, maybe your paper(s) just sucks. It is worth considering this. Not to contribute to Imposter Syndrome but if the field is telling you to up your game…up your game.

6) The other authors think your paper sucks (but it doesn’t). Water off a duck’s back, my friends. We all have our opinions about what makes for a good paper. What is interesting and what is not. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. Keep publishing.

7) Nobody knows you, your lab, etc. I know I talk about how anyone can find any paper in PubMed but we all need to remember this is a social business. Scientists cite people they know well, people they’ve just been chatting with at a poster session and people who have just visited for Departmental seminar. Your work is going to be cited more by people for whom you/it/your lab are most salient. Obviously, you can do something about this factor…get more visible!

8) Shenanigans (a): Sometimes the findings in your paper are, shall we say, inconvenient to the story the authors wish to tell about their data. Either they find it hard to fit it in (even though it is obvious to you) or they realize it compromises the story they wish to advance. Obviously this spans the spectrum from essentially benign to active misrepresentation. Can you really tell which it is? Worth getting angsty about? Rarely…..

9) Shenanigans (b): Sometimes people are motivated to screw you or your lab in some way. They may feel in competition with you and, nothing personal but they don’t want to extend any more credit to you than they have to. It happens, it is real. If you cite someone, then the person reading your paper might cite them. If you don’t, hey, maybe that person will miss it. Over time, this all contributes to reputation. Other times, you may be on the butt end of disagreements that took place years before. Maybe two people trained in a lab together 30 years ago and still hate each other. Maybe someone scooped someone back in the 80s. Maybe they perceived that a recent paper from your laboratory should have cited them and this is payback time.

10) Nobody knows you, your lab, etc II, electric boogaloo. Cite your own papers. Liberally. The natural way papers come to the attention of the right people is by pulling the threads. Read one paper and then collect all the cited works of interest. Read them and collect the works cited in that paper. Repeat. This is the essence of graduate school if you ask me. And it is a staple behavior of any decent scientist. You pull the threads. So consequently, you need to include all the thread-ends in as many of your own papers as possible. If you don’t, why should anyone else? Who else is most motivated to cite your work? Who is most likely to be working on related studies? And if you can’t find a place for a citation….