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Of babies and bathwater

Many of you may have seen a news piece from Associated Press writer Alicia Chang in the papers on Monday morning which talks about PLoS ONE. According to Google News it’s in at least 130 papers (I’ve linked to Wired News above) and is titled things like “Online journals challenge scientific peer review”, “Web journals threaten peer-review system” and “Online Science Journals Challenge Peer-Reviewed Counterparts”. Obviously there are a few things I would have written differently.

The article itself is a more balanced, talking about different approaches to peer-review that are made possible by the web. PLoS gets a lot of coverage which is great. It does give the impression though that PLoS ONE will in some way not be peer-reviewed properly.

That is a huge shame as the Editorial Board of PLoS ONE are working very hard to ensure that only valuable science gets accepted. This is peer-review, often using formal external referees, it just concentrates less on subjective matters than many other journals. Certainly I am disappointed (and that is English understatement) that it says “an editor gives them [submissions] just a cursory look“. That isn’t the case at all and is a slur on the hard working Editorial Board to suggest that is all they are doing.

Apart from that sentence (and the headline) the piece does a pretty good job of explaining the idea that subjective opinions as well as the detection of fraud and other misconduct are better handled by discussion of research in an open fashion and that this is achieveable through the web.

I’m quoted a couple of times but my favourite part of the article is the closing quotation from Linda Miller, Nature‘s U.S. executive editor: “If we don’t serve the community well, we will become irrelevant“. I don’t think that she intended to sound the death knell for traditional publishers but she is quite right: they, and we, need to provide scientists with what they need or face the consequences.

Discussion
  1. I get the impression that the PLOS One editorial process will not routinely involve the sending of a manuscript back to the authors for revision. Many times in the traditional peer review process the science in the original manuscript is fine, but the writing, organization, ect is awful. To some extent the traditional model spares readers from this original version of the manuscript.

    In this new peer review model, will authors be able to use comments they recieve to improve the manuscript post ‘publication’? That seems a little dicey; wouldn’t that result in more than one published version of the same manuscript?

  2. It is perfectly true that papers could pass from initial submission to publication without being revised in any way but I can’t imagine that will be routine. To achieve this a paper would need to be near perfect to begin with which is seldom the case. Even if the science is fine PLoS ONE‘s editors are going to be pointing out presentational and organizational problems where appropriate.

    This does bring up the question of how much the content of a paper is the authors’ responsibility and how much it is the job of the reviewers and editors of a journal to polish it for them. Given that referees and academic editors in general act from a sense of altruism I think that responsibility for making a submitted paper as good as possible lies squarely on the shoulders of the authors. Referees and editors are there to help not to act as unpaid consultants.

    Heather Morrison at the The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics goes into this much more eruditely than I can in a post
    on pre-submission peer review.

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