The scholarly journal is a form of publishing valued for being tradition-bound rather than path-breaking. The Philosophical Transactions of the 1665, which saw the very launch of this genre in England, is not all that far removed from the Philosophical Transactions A and B today (volumes 370 and 367 respectively). Certainly, in the early years, editor Oldenburg may have handled peer review with less formality, the references in an article may have amounted to referring to a letter from a friend, and the cover may have immodestly referred to its content as that of the ingenious. Yet for all of that, the journal of today is much like that of three centuries earlier. It was beginning to seem as if the introduction of a completely new publishing medium was going to have little enough impact on the scholarly journal.
In light of that seeming constancy, the recent emergence of the “mega-journal” is worth watching. It may represent the first major digital-era transformation of the journal. It is, in effect, the journal unbound. But not completely, by any means. Although Nature offers Scientific Reports and in the social sciences there’s SAGE Open, let’s consider the primary instance of the mega-journal. PLoS ONE is published by the Public Library of Science. Everyday. It published ten articles over the two days. One had only been submitted two months earlier, while others took no longer than six or seven months to reach publication. PLoS ONE’s total for the year will be upwards of 14,000 articles. It does suggest a new model is at work.
Who would subscribe to such a massive output? Who would imagine keeping up? No one. It has no subscribers. What would be the price for such a massive journal? Zero. The articles are open access. The journal is financed by article processing fees of $1,350 which are typically paid by the authors’ grants, which is feasible in the life sciences, which is as narrowly as this non-journal defines its scope (Scientific Reports is the same price, while SAGE Open has an introductory price of $395 better suited, one might say, to the social sciences; I’ll save my comments on open access fees for another time).
Peer review is still a very important part of this journal’s service, with one very important distinction. While holding that PLoS ONE will “rigorously peer review” all submissions; it will publish all papers that are judged “technically sound” by reviewers and editors, rather than sifting through submissions in search of the most original, significant, timely studies. The editorial principle is that “judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership,” as their website explains.
The journal’s support for post-publication judgment is part it of its innovation. Instead of gearing the journal’s content to score well in the Journal Citation Reports of the ISI Web of Science, PLoS ONE offers a plenitude of measures of readership response. These include “citation metrics, usage statistics, blogosphere coverage, social bookmarks, community rating and expert assessment.” This shift from placing a great deal of weight on a journal’s Impact Factor to allowing each article to be readily assessed in its uptake and impact, as one reads it, brings a great leveling of the field of play for authors.
Take “The Development of Open Access Journal Publishing from 1993 to 2009” by Mikael Laakso, Patrik Welling, Helena Bukvova, Linus Nyman, Bo-Christer Björk, and Turid Hedlund published by PLoS ONE on June 13th 2011. At less than a year old, it has very respectable metrics on many fronts, from the Web of Science to Facebook (fig.1). Click on More and one discovers that there have been 68 blog mentions, judging by Google Blog Search, with the results ready at hand.
Figure 1. Example of article-level metrics and social networking options for PLoS ONE
This may seem small enough, with the addition of a few links to the articles web page. But it stands as a powerful reminder that research is operating in a larger, more lively and dynamic world of information. It expands research’s reach through social networks that blur the line between the academic and the rest of life. Combining open access with a means of tracking how this knowledge circulates suggests a new place for research in public life. Although perhaps, it is no more than a return to the early days of the Philosophical Transactions, when this pamphlet-like work would have been a reasonably priced periodical sitting on a bookseller’s table outside the shop or available for browsing in a coffee house.
The metrics provide by PLoS ONE are also at least part of the answer to the very challenge of working amid the production of so much information. Journals have traditionally spent much energy filtering out much of the literature (measured by high rejection rates), so that readers wouldn’t have to. The mega-journal says, no to such filtering. Research today is so wide and varied that such highly discriminatory selectivity may often be a disservice to researchers. We are just as keen to search among the many, as browse the select few. And we are not alone in that quest. We are helped by the use made of the literature by those who share our particular interests.
Now, not everything about this crowd-sourcing approaching is working all that well. PLoS ONE’s sophisticated commenting system, with which comments can be made at the sentence level, provides an example of a not-yet, if-ever feature of post-publication judgment. Even among the most-viewed articles, annotation is hardly used, with perhaps one or two minor comments made. There is room, then, for us to still discover the value of such commenting in advancing a field.
With its combination of traditional pre-publication review, which remains a powerful force for improving a researchers’ work, and this post-publication tracking among both academic and public circles, the mega-journal appears to be both reinventing and unbinding the journal for the digital era. The promise it holds for extending the circulation of knowledge makes it one to watch in the years ahead.