By Andrew Tredennick
and I immediately felt defeated. Had I chosen poorly when deciding to submit to PLoS ONE? Or, are those people that view PLoS ONE as “career suicide” just old-school professors who, for some weird reason, think papers don’t get reviewed at PLoS ONE? And, does that even matter, since I’ll need those same old-school professors to want to hire me in a couple years? Needless to say, my motivation for finishing the revisions waned.
Fortunately there seem to be others out there that I deeply respect, like Ethan White (who, full disclosure, was the academic editor for my paper at PLoS), that are moving through the academic ranks and have a different view. These people value science for science, and not where it happens to be published,
So, given these contrasting views and the potential risk of publishing in PLoS ONE, why did I do it? The answer is actually relatively simple. I thought it would be the best venue for my paper. The best place to get it read by the people I wanted to read it. I’ll talk about that more in a moment, but first let me go through the paper’s submission history for a little background as to what led me to PLoS ONE. And while I’m at it, I want to (again!) dispel the amazingly apocryphal notion that papers are either not peer-reviewed at PLoS, or not peer-reviewed rigorously (see here for brief discussion).
Paper is done! Let’s send it into oblivion for a couple months…
My paper is about general models of allometric scaling (how organism properties and processes, like metabolism) change with size, and how we should view these in really variable ecosystems like savannas. I think allometric scaling is pretty cool because it is one of the few things in ecology that appears to be somewhat universal across diverse taxa. As such, several general models have been developed (often based on physical first principles and assumptions regarding natural selection) that make testable predictions for how organisms (trees in my case) should vary with size. As you can probably guess, when we actually go out and measure allometric relationships (like the relationship between tree diameter and height or biomass) they don’t exactly match the ‘ideal’ predictions. This was the case with my data, but I had a point to make: just because a model prediction doesn’t fall within the observed 95% confidence interval does not mean the theory is wrong, per se. Instead, it is more likely the theory is incomplete, and necessarily so since it is attempting to be general. I think this becomes even more evident if the deviations we observe from predictions all trend in a certain direction that conforms with our understanding of the “pressures” within an ecosystem (like frequent fire).
I had system-specific data (all from savannas), but a pretty general case I was arguing that I thought would be important to discuss as a whole discipline. So, I submitted the paper to Ecology. And waited. For over three months. Until the decision finally came from the editor: rejected. Absolutely rejected. No major reviews and then resubmit. It was pretty clear they did not want my paper. And that’s ok because I got good, critical reviews (some based on technical issues, others on more philosophical issues) that eventually made the paper better. But, I then had to decide where to submit next.
Let’s go with PLoS ONE
After taking care of the technical issues brought up in the Ecology reviews, my co-authors and I started discussing where to submit next. I still had a general case I wanted to argue, but it seemed that getting into a general (and thus top-tier) ecology journal was not going to happen*. We started thinking about the next tier of ecology journals (things like Functional Ecology), but none seemed to provide the right fit. For example, another journal we tossed around was the American Journal of Botany which is a fine journal (impact factor = 2.6) with a good readership, but I was concerned a lot of ecologists wouldn’t find my paper there. Even though it would have been a great fit content-wise, I wanted a more diverse audience.
Plus there was another consideration: I needed to start getting some first-author publications out the door, fast. This paper was kind of a side project, so I didn’t want to keep getting bogged down with it and waiting 3-4 months for decisions. Likewise, since the conclusions I draw in the paper are kind of controversial in the philosophical sense of the way people view science and generality, there was always the chance a couple of reviewers or the editor would see things differently and decide on a reject. I started thinking about PLoS ONE.
I personally like PLoS ONE. And while it may get a bad (sometimes deserving) wrap as a place to publish uninteresting science (since “perceived impact” is not considered during the review stage), I find many papers to be quite good. The one thing I really don’t understand is why PLoS ONE gets a reputation for publishing uninteresting science while lower-tier journals get a pass on such criticism. Not everything we publish is going to be earth-shattering, so we need lower-tier journals to push us along and collect important details. But, if PLoS ONE is going to be criticized for publishing “uninteresting”, “unimpactful” science, then the same criticism could be leveled against a lot of journals — the very same journals some consider “real” while considering PLoS ONE “fake”. I am not arguing for that. I am just arguing for a more nuanced view of what PLoS ONE is and how it can serve the scientific community. And for those that do think PLoS ONE only publishes science no one cares about, check out this article in Ideas in Ecology and Evolution.
I should also mention that although I am not the biggest open access advocate, I am very supportive of open science in general. So I made part of decision based on that. I had even thought to myself while the paper was first in review at Ecology, if this doesn’t get accepted I am going to submit to an open access journal. But, I am not one of those people that necessarily dislikes (or will never submit to) all journals that are not open access. Whether that is good or bad…well, that’s in the eye of the beholder I suppose.
In the end, we decided to submit to PLoS ONE (without me having to twist the arms of coauthors at all!), because I thought the paper would be seen by the widest viewership and might get more reads by ecologists in general (as opposed to just plant ecologists, or just savanna ecologists). The review process was great. We had a subject editor within a week and by the next week it was sent out to reviewers. PLoS tries for a review time (that is, in the hands of reviewers) of 10 days** and our time fell within the margin of error, I think. All told, from submission to first decision was about a month. And the decision was…major revisions.
No, our paper was not simply accepted at PLoS ONE (in fact, PLoS ONE only has about a 30%
acceptance rejection rate). The reviews were tough, critical, and insightful. It was obvious there was no free pass at PLoS and my response letter took over ten pages to address the three reviewer’s concerns. This was not peer-review light, as some (who have not submitted a paper to PLoS I presume) call it***.
In the end, I am very happy with our decision to publish in PLoS ONE. The review process was smooth and fast, and the editorial staff is very helpful during the production phase (they added in text for me, etc.). The question is still open as to whether it is the right venue for my paper, but since March 6 it has received 409 unique views. So, even though papers can be harder to find in PLoS since they publish so many papers in so many fields without a traditional table of contents, it appears some people are finding their way to the paper.
The coda to all this is a reality check. I will probably not publish in PLoS ONE again for quite some time. There is still too much negative bias against the journal and against people that have “too many” PLoS ONE papers on their CV. My next couple papers are lined up for more traditional venues like The American Naturalist and Ecological Applications. Plus, for better or worse, I’m going to be honest, I still have a (some people would call shameful) desire to see my name on a Science or Nature paper. Perhaps this is for my own ego or maybe it is just the way most of us have been academically “raised.” Regardless, even though I personally like PLoS ONE and read a lot of ecology papers they publish, you won’t being seeing my name in there again any time soon. I’m just not brave enough.
*In part, I think this because we just didn’t have enough data (we never do!). I am fully confident in the conclusions I draw from our data, but I can also totally understand why a top-tier journal would want to see more.
**10 days!! That’s way better than 30-60 days in the reviewer’s hands.
***Though, perhaps many consider “peer-review light” to be reviews that don’t think about potential impact. Which I do not. I consider that a journal specific consideration, not a general attribute of peer review.