An open letter to PLoS ONE — a pox on your numbered references!
January 7, 2011
In most journals, in-line citations are by author and year. So, for example, if someone writes “Haplocanthosaurus has been recovered as a non-diplodocimorph diplodocoid (Wilson 2002)”, you know that the paper that recovered Haplo in that position was, well, Wilson 2002. And everyone who works on sauropods is familiar with Wilson 2002.
But there are some journals — our old friends Science and Nature are the most significant perpetrators here — that use numbered references instead. So you’d read ”Haplocanthosaurus has been recovered as a non-diplodocimorph diplodocoid “, and then you have to flip to the end of the paper, look up number 35 in the numbered list of notes, and see that the reference is given as “J. Wilson, Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 136, 217 (2002).” (Yes, it’s true: Science doesn’t even bother to tell you the title or end-page of the cited paper. You just get author name, hghly abbrvted jrnl ttl, volume, start-page and publication year.)
This is completely stupid, of course, but you can just about see why the world is that way: S&N are basically print journals (albeit with online editions), and space is at a very tight premium. So this kind of extreme compression may be worth the pain it costs in terms of space recovered.
But you want to know what’s really stupid?
PLoS ONE, and the rest of the PLoS journals, use numbered references. Yes, PLoS ONE, the online-only journal that has no length restrictions whatsoever. In PLoS ONE, you can have as many giant figures as you need, and as many tables, and as much text. Yet still they niggle away at space by using the objectively inferior numbered-references format.
I can only assume it’s because they want to look like Science ‘n’ Nature.
Which is really, really, really stupid, because the whole point of the PLoS journals is that they’re not Science and Nature. PLoS is the antidote to all the dumb diseases that the tabloids have infected us all with. But for some reason, this particular part of the Tabloid Plague Complex — numbered references — has been picked out as worthy of promotion. The stupid, it burns.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that when I finally get around to finishing the Archbishop description, I’ll be sending it to PLoS ONE, mostly because of its open access and its handling of figures: no limits on number, and they’re made available at original resolution. The use of numbered references is a significant drawback to comprehensibility, but a price I’m prepared to pay in order to get those delicious figures.
But I was interested last night, when discussing journal selection with a colleague who will remain nameless, to read this [edited for punctuation only]:
Everyone loves PLoS — I can’t stand their referencing … I just think no way would I want to have a reader of a my hypothetical longer paper suffer that.
And yes, it is an abolute deal breaker for me.
The longest paper I had to deal with was Hocknull’s “short” monograph on titanosauriforms/Australovenator. What a nightmare for me.
I hadn’t realised how strongly the feelings run for some people. My interlocutor was dead serious — I did check. He’s going to be not sending his good papers to PLoS journals for this single reason. Because of this dumb, ever-so-avoidable screwup.
Come on, PLoS people — sort it out. (I called out Palaeontologia Electronica on their lame image resolutions, so it’s only fair that I spread the love around.)
The very nice Lego Nebulon B Frigate that decorates this page is the “Malevolent Nova”, created by The One They Call Eric.