As an Open-Access Megajournal Cedes Some Ground, a Movement Gathers Steam (CHE)

JANUARY 13, 2016

The world’s largest scientific journal, the open-access giant PLOS ONE, is feeling some pullback. Last year the free site published 10 percent fewer papers than it did two years ago. Its impact factor — a measure that uses citations to track its influence — has been on a five-year slide.

Rather than signaling a failure of the open-access movement, however, the declines are looking like the byproduct of a broader victory in a hard-fought campaign. More and more, major publishers are creating their own open-access journals, with articles freely available to anyone. And in many other cases they’re offering hybrid models that let authors pay for open access. An increasingly common version of author-paid open access is the “megajournal,” copying the PLOS ONE innovation of publishing a large volume of papers online across various disciplines.

In short, PLOS ONE — now consistently publishing around 30,000 articles a year — has attracted much more company in its mission to build huge stocks of freely available scientific research. “Since PLOS ONE’s tremendous success, everyone and their grandmother has created a megajournal,” said David J. Solomon, an emeritus professor of medicine at Michigan State University who studies open-access economics.

After years of traditional journals battling the open-access movement, said another analyst, Jevin D. West, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Washington, “look at all the major publishers — they’re all playing now.”

There’s Scientific Reports, published by Nature, which has grown from about 200 articles in 2011 to 11,000 last year; BMJ’s BMJ Open, which increased during that period from about 100 to 1,000; and the American Institute of Physics’ AIP Advances, which jumped from about 250 to more than 500. And more are coming. Just in the past year, the publishing giant Elsevier introduced Heliyon, and the American Chemical Society announced ACS Omega,both open-access multidisciplinary megajournals.

Amid all that, PLOS ONE, the genre’s originator and overwhelming heavyweight, went from just under 7,000 articles published in 2010 to nearly 32,000 in 2013 before settling down to about 28,000 last year.

PLOS, the Public Library of Science, was founded in 2001 by a group of academic advocates of open access — the idea that universities would save money, and science would progress more quickly, if researchers and their funders paid journals in advance to review and publish their articles rather than pay later for subscriptions. PLOS ONE, its now-flagship journal, was created in 2006 with the additional idea of accepting submissions based only on their scientific quality, without regard to medical field, and without any attempt to predict whether an article would eventually prove important.

Officials with the library say the end of PLOS ONE’s rapid growth is not indicative of an underlying problem. Instead, it is due largely to the increased competition in open-access publishing and the finite supply of scientist-authors, especially at a time of tighter research budgets, said Elizabeth Marincola, chief executive officer of PLOS. “This was a very predictable evolution in the nature of PLOS ONE’s growth, and other megajournals experience the same thing,” Ms. Marincola said. “The number of papers being published by pre-existing OA publishers are softening simply because there are more OA choices.”

[full article here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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