Dear PLOS ONE: time to sort out your multiple review tracks
May 17, 2013
Here at SV-POW!, we are an equal-opportunity criticiser of publishers: Springer, PLOS, Elsevier, the Royal Society, Nature, we don’t care. We call problems as we see them, where we see them. Here is one that has lingered for far too long. PLOS ONE’s journal information page says:
Too often a journal’s decision to publish a paper is dominated by what the Editor/s think is interesting and will gain greater readership — both of which are subjective judgments and lead to decisions which are frustrating and delay the publication of your work. PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound.
Which is as we would expect it to be. But their reviewer guidelines page gives more detail as follows (emphasis added):
[Academic Editors] can employ a variety of methods, alone or in combination, to reach a decision in which they are confident:
- They can conduct the peer review themselves, based on their own knowledge and experience
- They can take further advice through discussion with other members of the editorial board
- They can solicit reports from further referees
As has been noted in comments on this blog, this first form, in which the editor makes the decision alone, is “unlike any other first-tier academic journal”. When I submitted my own manuscript to PLOS ONE a few weeks ago, I did it in the expectation that it would be reviewed in the usual way, by two experts chosen by the editor, who would then use those reviews in conjunction with her own expertise to make a decision. I’d hate to think it would go down the easier track, and so not be accorded the recognition that a properly peer-reviewed article gets. (Merely discussing with other editors would also not constitute proper peer-review in many people’s eyes, so only the third track is really the whole deal.)
The problem here is not a widespread one. Back when we first discussed this in any detail, about 13% of PLOS ONE papers slipped through on the editor-only inside lane. But more recent figures (based on the 1,837 manuscripts that received a decision between 1st July and 30th September 2010) say that only 4.2% of articles take this track. Evidently the process was by then in decline; it’s a shame we don’t have more recent numbers.
But the real issue here is lack of transparency. Four and half years ago, Matt said “I really wish they’d just state the review track for each article–i.e., solo editor approved, multiple editor approved, or externally reviewed […] I also hope that authors are allowed to preferentially request ‘tougher’ review tracks”.
It seems that still isn’t done. Looking at this article, which at the time of writing is the most recent one published by PLOS ONE, there is a little “PEER REVIEWED” logo up at the top, but no detail of which track was taken. PLOS themselves evidently take the line that all three tracks constitute peer-review, as “Academic Editors are not employees […] they are external peer reviewers“.
So I call on PLOS ONE to either:
A. eliminate the non-traditional peer-review tracks, or
B1. Allow submitting authors to specify they want the traditional track, and
B2. Specify explicitly on each published paper which track was taken.