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.