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The importance of being second – PLOS-wide edition

 

Our journals which are selective for novelty — PLOS Biology, PLOS Medicine, PLOS Computational Biology, PLOS Genetics, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and PLOS Pathogens — have all revised their ‘scooping’ policy to waive the novelty criteria for work submitted within six months of a similar study having been published. If your almost-completed work was ‘scooped’ by a study published today, it will still be considered novel by these journals, giving you the time to rigorously complete it and submit it within the next six months.  

 

What is a better demonstration of the reproducibility of a piece of research than two or more labs independently and rigorously conducting the same work in parallel? Whether they reach similar results or uncover intriguing differences, the studies complement and add value to each other, providing validation or additional insight. Yet, in the current incentives landscape in scientific research, it too often matters most to be first. 

The effects of this flawed incentive system are particularly acute in the life and biomedical sciences. Because of it, labs aware of competition race to complete a study and publish it first, researchers are wary of posting results on preprint servers or presenting unpublished results at conferences to avoid tipping off competitors. And yes, in that race to be first the temptation to cut corners can be high. Because if you come second, your study will most likely be rejected from your journal of choice for not being deemed novel. You will likely endure the protracted journey of finding a journal that will consider your work, or find yourself in need of adding more results to provide ‘sufficiently novel insight’.

It doesn’t have to be like that. 

Inspired by a desire to nudge the norms of research assessment, PLOS Biology pioneered an expanded ‘complementary research’ policy in 2018. Under that policy, manuscripts that confirm or extend a recently published study are eligible for consideration at PLOS Biology. The editors’ experience has been exemplary — the ‘scooped’ studies they considered were thorough, of high quality and their comparison with the complementary study provided even more value to the research question. Two of the first researchers who experienced the policy first-hand wrote about it eloquently. 

Across PLOS, we’ve been watching the reactions to the PLOS Biology policy. PLOS ONE of course never considered novelty as a criterion, but until recently the existing policy at all other journals was to protect from ‘scooping’ from the time of submission only. The experience of a highly-selective journal like PLOS Biology when it expanded this protection period to six months before submission was intriguing to all, and editors started becoming more lenient about scooping. The results from PLOS Biology and the experience across the portfolio convinced the Editors-in-Chief of all PLOS journals of the value of this policy for scientific research in general and all PLOS journals now have adopted the same policy (see for example PLOS Genetics). 

We hope that for all researchers intent on conducting rigorous research this helps relieve the pressure to submit before others, allowing them to do all proper controls and analyses that make their results more robust. We also hope that other journals and research assessors take note so that ultimately the norms can change across the landscape. As a widely-adopted policy, this would be a game-changer for researchers whose careers hang on the prominence of their publications and revolutionize the way we plan, execute and attribute credit for scientific research.  After all, we should all recognize that being first is not always the most important.

 

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