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Duel of the mega-journals

Dispute between PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports points to changes in the scientific publications market

These are exciting times for mega-journals, scientific journals that publish a high number of articles in open access format on the Internet. In September 2016, leadership of that periodicals niche changed hands for the first time when Scientific Reports, launched by the Springer Nature group in 2011, published a total of 1,940 papers within a mere 30 days. The journal sailed past PLOS ONE, a respected publication introduced in 2006 by the not-for-profit Public Library of Science (PLOS), which published 1,746 articles in that same month. In August 2016, PLOS ONE had managed to stay ahead, but by a margin of only 40 articles.

Both publications disseminate papers on a broad spectrum of subjects that include the sciences, engineering, and mathematics, although PLOS ONE puts out a bigger group of articles in the fields of life sciences, while the new leader emphasizes the natural sciences. The rise of Scientific Reports is explained by a number of factors. One of its competitive advantages is its impact factor, an indicator of the repercussions of the scientific production it publishes. Currently, its index is 5.2. This means that the articles published in Scientific Reports in 2013 and 2014 received, on average, 5.2 citations in other papers in 2015. The index seems modest when compared with other periodicals in the group—Nature has an impact of 38.1. But the truth is that 5.2 is a strong showing for a journal that is found only on the Internet, publishes a huge volume of articles, and does not require authors to introduce new findings in their manuscripts—the data only needs to be solid.

PLOS ONE, on the other hand, has seen its impact factor decline over time—today the index is 3, compared with 4.4 in 2010. Biologist Véronique Kiermer, executive editor for PLOS journals, says the significance of the impact factor should not be overemphasized in a category of journals that publishes articles on varied fields, each with a particular tradition as regards citations, and is less restrictive than traditional periodicals. PLOS ONE even accepts papers on research studies that have reached negative, or perhaps inconclusive results. “That type of article would naturally receive only a few citations,” wrote Kiermer in the PLOS blog in July 2016. However, she defends the publication of that kind of paper as a way to forestall publication of partial or biased research results. PLOS ONE reached its zenith in 2013, when it published 31,509 articles. In 2015, the annual total was 28,105.

Another point in the duel between the journals has to do with the ability to publish articles quickly, a feature highly prized by authors who rely on the mega-journals. A recent study by American bibliometrics expert Phil Davis compared the length of time that elapses between acceptance and publication for the two periodicals after analyzing a group of 100 articles from each of them. The processing of an article at Scientific Reports, including all the stages in the peer review process, took 99 days, compared with 132 days at PLOS ONE. After an article is accepted, PLOS ONE publishes more rapidly: within an average of 19 days, compared with 27 days for its competitor. But, adding the two intervals together gives Scientific Reports a 25-day advantage. A 2013 study by researchers in Finland showed that for traditional scientific journals, the publication process may take from 9 to 18 months, depending on the field of knowledge.

Raw data
Another difference with the journal produced by the Springer Nature group is related to the demands made of authors. While PLOS ONE requires researchers to make the raw data on their research projects available in open repositories for consultation by other researchers, its competitor in the Nature group merely recommends that kind of transparency.

Mega-journals represent a completely new concept in the universe of scientific publications in the last 10 years. They emerged with a business model that differed from that of traditional periodicals, being dedicated to the dissemination of scientific information on the Internet. They are available in open access, meaning that anyone who is interested can read articles on the web without paying for the privilege. Remuneration does not come from subscriptions or the sale of advertising space, but solely from fees paid by the authors of the articles. Each paper, after being submitted to peer review and accepted for publication, costs a certain sum. An important factor in that model is the low rate of article rejection. PLOS ONE, for example, publishes from 65% to 70% of the manuscripts it receives. Scientific Reports is more selective: it publishes about 55% of the papers submitted to it.

PLOS ONE dominated the mega-journal universe for 10 years. Employing a high-level corps of reviewers, it challenged the idea that online digital media are not suitable for distribution of quality scientific content, even though it accepts articles without regard to the extent to which findings reported are new. This has helped PLOS ONE build up prestige. “Brazilian researchers from different fields felt encouraged to publish in PLOS ONE because that journal is respected by those who assess the various graduate study programs,” says Abel Packer, coordinator of the electronic library SciELO Brasil. He was referring to the Qualis system, a feature of the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes), which gives significant weight to papers published in that periodical in fields such as biotechnology and engineering. “The same has not yet been observed as regards Scientific Reports, which is a much newer journal.” At PLOS ONE, Brazilian authors are responsible for 1.77% of articles registered, according to the Science Citation Index Expanded, associated with the Web of Science database. In Scientific Reports, Brazil is responsible for only 0.6% of registered articles.

The mega-journal model was hailed as a more democratic alternative to traditional periodicals, since it can publish an enormous volume of research, leaving to the broader scientific community the mission to identify what is relevant within that universe, a task that with traditional journals is entrusted to a select group of reviewers. This view of mega-journals as a tool for popularizing scientific information now shares space with another evaluation, the observation that they have become a highly profitable niche market for publishers. For both PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports, the fee for processing an article (the article processing charge – APC) is $1,495, equivalent to slightly more than R$5,000.00. Interestingly, a journal’s sales grow in the same proportion as it publishes more articles. “Multiplying that fee by the number of articles, you can conclude that the monthly revenue of a mega-journal exceeds $2.5 million. It’s a tremendously lucrative business,” says Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of the SciELO Brasil electronic library.

Instead of competing with conventional titles, mega-journals have begun to form symbiotic relationships with the most selective journals, observes Stephen Pinfield, a professor at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. He heads a research project that is investigating the past trajectory and future prospects for mega-journals, a study to be completed in 2017. Maintaining a mega-journal can help a publisher finance the operation of publications that lend it much more prestige than money. That is true in the case of PLOS ONE, whose profitability helps support publications of the same group, but of more limited scope, like PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. Another side of that symbiosis is that mega-journals can also benefit from the prestige of their sister journals—the success of Scientific Reports within the Nature group seems to be an example of this.

The speed achieved by Scientific Reports in publishing articles has at times marred the journal’s image. In May 2015, Mark Maslin, then editor of the publication, resigned in protest against a new policy instituted by the Nature group, which began offering authors a chance to accelerate the peer review process by paying an extra fee. According to Maslin, a professor of biogeography at University College London, the new system allows someone with money to publish more quickly and so undercuts the equality of conditions in the evaluation process that is a traditional aspect of the functioning of scientific publications.

Aside from the duel between the two leading mega-journals, the future of this kind of publication is somewhat uncertain. “It all depends on the way in which open access to scientific publications gains further acceptance in the coming years,” says Abel Packer. He calls attention to the rising trend toward the publishing in repositories of articles not yet submitted to peer review, the so-called pre-prints, thereby subjecting them to immediate scrutiny by the scientific community. “One of the main attractions of mega-journals is rapid publication, but publication in those repositories is instantaneous,” he says. That model has been adopted by only a few areas of the scientific community—the arXiv repository, already used by physicists for 25 years, is the principal example—but it is beginning to be adopted in other fields, such as biology and the social sciences. “In an increasingly more likely scenario, researchers will publish their preliminary findings in repositories. Only afterward, if they so desire, will they seek out a prestigious periodical for publishing a full-fledged article. In that environment, mega-journals could lose some of their sparkle,” Packer suggests.