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Making Strides in Research Reporting

The research landscape constantly evolves as researchers build on prior findings, incorporate new methods, resources, and technologies, and respond to the needs of our global communities. PLOS keeps a watchful and enthusiastic eye on emerging research, and we update our policies as needed to address new challenges and opportunities that surface. In doing so, we work to advance our core mission and values aimed at transforming research communication and promoting Open Science. 

Here, I summarize a few key updates we made between 2016-2021. For a more in-depth discussion of each, see the links in the “Further reading” section. 


Open Science initiatives

Partnering with bioRxiv for early access. Timely and widespread access to research output helps to inform ongoing investigations and ensure that resources and findings are used to their utmost potential. As has been exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, rapid dissemination of research can directly impact clinical care and may in some cases have life-or-death consequences. All published PLOS articles are freely available under a CC BY license, but there is an inherent delay between research completion and peer-reviewed publication. To address this, PLOS partnered with bioRxiv in May 2018 to give authors the option of posting submitted manuscripts as preprints. For authors who opt in, PLOS transfers manuscripts to bioRxiv after initial submission checks are complete. 

Publishing peer review history. While Open Science ideals call for transparency, the industry standard has historically been to maintain the confidentiality of peer review. This provides important protections for the objectivity of the review process, enabling reviewers to contribute critical feedback without risk of personal retribution. However, it also withholds from readers information about the depth, quality, and content of the review process, and impedes research on peer review itself. PLOS has always published handling editors’ names on our articles, and we give reviewers the option to disclose their identities to authors. In May 2019, PLOS took a leap toward opening up peer review by giving authors the option to have peer review history (reviews, decision letters) published with accepted articles. Reviewers can still elect to keep their identity confidential. 

Encouraging complementary research. It’s not uncommon for multiple research groups to study the same or highly similar topics. Per traditional publishing standards, only the first report is accepted for publication and subsequent manuscripts tend to be rejected based on redundancy or lack of novelty. Viewing the same issue from another perspective, replication by independent research groups provides evidence as to the reproducibility and robustness of results. Recognizing the value of this for the scientific community, PLOS Biology innovated a Complementary Research policy in 2018. Under this policy, submissions are considered for publication even if a redundant or closely related study has been published or posted as a preprint within six months of the PLOS submission. This policy was expanded to all PLOS journals in 2020.  

Publication ethics

Formation of the Publication Ethics team. In January, 2018, PLOS ONE formed an editorial team dedicated to publication ethics. This team, whose scope expanded in 2020 to support all PLOS journals, addresses concerns raised about PLOS content, and contributes to internal policy discussions as well as external initiatives pertaining to ethics and integrity. Through this work, the team continually gains insights as to issues that commonly arise in submitted or published work and where policy or workflow updates may help. As a few examples, in 2020-21 we updated our Content and Licensing policy to clarify issues pertaining to confidential and proprietary content; elaborated our policy on Corrections, Expressions of Concern, and Retractions; and added submission guidelines about citation of retracted or corrected work.

Blot and gel data policy. Image integrity concerns – whether due to honest errors or misconduct – present a substantial burden to the scientific and publishing communities and are often identified only after publication. Original uncropped and unadjusted image data can be instrumental in clarifying these issues, but as time passes it becomes increasingly difficult for researchers to retrieve image data from old computers and laboratory records. Toward improving the integrity and transparency of image data reporting, PLOS ONE and PLOS Biology implemented a policy in July 2019 whereby authors must provide original image data to support all reported blot and gel results. The raw images are available to editors before publication, and remain accessible indefinitely after publication in supporting information or data repositories. This provides additional assurance as to the results as well as protection for authors should post-publication questions arise. Importantly, this policy also presents a barrier against publication of fabricated results for which raw image data do not exist. 

Responding to attribution needs of diverse contributors

Identifying authors via ORCIDs. Publications are an important currency by which a researcher’s work is measured and evaluated. However, issues around author names can hinder the discoverability and recognition of one’s contributions. Open Researcher and Contributor IDs, or ORCIDs, disambiguate research records for individuals who have the same or similar names and serve as stable identifiers through which researchers can record and promote their contributions to the public record over the course of their careers, even after name changes. Since 2013, we have given authors the option of listing ORCIDs on PLOS publications. In 2016 we began to require ORCIDs for corresponding authors, and we also started including ORCIDs with manuscript data we submit to CrossRef, which enables authors’ ORCID profiles to be automatically updated with their newly published PLOS articles. 

Updated name change policy. For some researchers, the use of ORCIDs may not suffice to address attribution needs after mid-career name changes. For example, for transgender and non-binary gender individuals, publications under a deadname may not be identified as their own following a name change, and identifying with such publications via an ORCID or resume may reveal an aspect of one’s personal history that the author prefers to keep private. There are also circumstances wherein an individual may find themselves at risk due to their involvement in controversial research or work that is not accepted within their community. PLOS is committed to providing an inclusive publishing environment for all researchers. To this end, in October 2020 PLOS was among the first publishers to update our Authorship policy to allow silent author name changes under certain circumstances, including for transgender and non-binary authors and authors who may be at risk. In such cases, we republish the article with the updated author list, and to honor authors’ privacy we do not notify co-authors or publish notices of republication. 

Closing remarks

PLOS strives to address the changing needs of our communities, and we continually seek opportunities to improve research communications, including via updates to our policies and practices. We sincerely thank our contributors and partners for ongoing input and support.

Further reading

PLOS staff discussed the aforementioned updates in the following posts.

Supporting preprints 

Published peer review history 

Complementary Research policy

Publication ethics team 

Blot and gel data policy

Attribution

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