Why do people publish in Scientific Reports?

April 25, 2020

In the last post, I catalogued some of the reasons why Scientific Reports, in its cargo-cult attempts to ape print journals such as its stablemate Nature, is an objectively bad journal that removes value from the papers submitted to it: the unnatural shortening that relagates important material into supplementary information, the downplaying of methods, the tiny figures that ram unrelated illustrations into compound images, the pointless abbreviating of author names and journal titles.

This is particularly odd when you consider the prices of the obvious alternative megajournals:

So to have your paper published in Scientific Reports costs 10% more than in PLOS ONE, or 56% more than in PeerJ; and results in an objectively worse product that slices the paper up and dumps chunks of it in the back lot, compresses and combines the illustrations, and messes up the narrative.

So why would anyone choose to publish in it?

Well, the answer is depressingly obvious. As a colleague once expressed it to me “until I have a more stable job I’ll need the highest IFs I can pull off to secure a position somewhere“.

It’s as simple as that. PeerJ‘s impact factor at the time of writing is 2.353; PLOS ONE‘s is ‎2.776; That of Scientic Reports is ‎4.525. And so, it in the idiotic world we live in, it’s better for an author’s career to pay more for a worse version of his article in Scientific Reports than it is to pay less for a better version in PeerJ or PLOS ONE. Because it looks better to have got into Scientific Reports.

BUT WAIT A MINUTE. These three journals are all “megajournals”. They all have the exact same editorial criteria, which is that they accept any paper that is scientifically sound. They make no judgement about novelty, perceived importance or likely significance of the work. They are all completely up front about this. It’s how they work.

In other words, “getting into” Scientific Reports instead of PeerJ says absolutely nothing about the quality of your work, only that you paid a bigger APC.

Can we agree it’s insane that our system rewards researchers for paying a bigger APC to get a less scientifically useful version of their work?

Let me say in closing that I intend absolutely no criticism of Daniel Vidal or his co-authors for placing their Spinophorosaurus posture paper in Scientific Reports. He is playing the ball where it lies. We live, apparently, in a world where spending an extra $675 and accepting a scientifically worse result is good for your career. I can’t criticise Daniel for doing what it takes to get on in that world.

The situation is in every respect analogous to the following: before you attend a job interview, you are told by a respected senior colleague that your chances of getting the post are higher if you are wearing designer clothing. So you take $675 and buy a super-expensive shirt with a prominent label. If you get the job, you’ll consider it as bargain.

But you will never have much respect for the search committee that judged you on such idiotic criteria.

10 Responses to “Why do people publish in Scientific Reports?”

  1. IF does correlate with something.

    Idiotically, aside from getting jobs, ir correlates NOT with quality, NOT with likelihood of being cited, or any other desirable metric.

    It correlates with likelihood of retraction.

  2. pfalkingham Says:

    One important factor not stated, Mike, is that Scientific Reports is often available to institutions to publish in for free as part of a subscription to a larger package of journals.

    I acknowledge the issues with, and movement against, paying to read journals, and the arguments associated with that. I think there are also significant issues with the pay-to-publish model, but there’s no need to get into that here (not without a beer and an in-person chat).

    However, the fact is that as things stand in the UK today, many of the non-Russell group Institutions lack any funds for open access publications. People at such Universities, without specific funds for open access publishing, can publish in Scientific Reports, but we can’t afford PeerJ or PLOS ONE.

    An argument might be put forward that we can always ask for fee-waivers, but the last time I did that, PLOS ONE asked me for _personal_ bank statements to prove I couldn’t afford the £1000+. At that point I made the decision not to publish in, or review for, pay-to-publish journals.

    PeerJ and PLOS ONE have placed a monetary barrier in the way of publishing in a journal that offers poorer career prospects. What’s important here is that the monetary barrier exists for all three journals, but Scientific reports places that [for some – I admit] at the institutional level, while PeerJ and PLOS ONE place it at the individual’s level – I find the latter far more distasteful, and far more likely to lead to issues around inclusivity and access etc.

    The second reason this is important, is it changes the incentive dynamic somewhat – If Scientific Reports has been ‘pre-paid’ a bulk amount, then there is no financial incentive to publish a paper. The same cannot be said of PeerJ and PLOS ONE – each paper they publish provides a financial incentive. Of course I’m not saying they are only publishing to make money, but the dynamic is potentially there.

    I’m sure numbers can be run and arguments made that dropping all the subscription fees and devoting all that money to publishing in megajournals is economically and morally good. That the better solution would be not having a package deal that includes Sci Reports, and saving the money for publishing directly. But that’s not where things stand at the moment.

    Given that job applications and promotion forms often [not always] ask for impact factor, Scientific Reports offers higher impact factor while being more accessible to those without Russell Group or Research council funding. Without even discussing which journal is ‘best’ or provides the ‘objectively better product’, Scientific Reports is an obvious choice for many.

    Sorry, I hope that didn’t come across as ranty. It’s a nuanced discussion to have, and the internet is a poor venue for nuance.


  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Important and interesting points, Peter, which deserve a fuller reply than I can give now. I just want to note that PeerJ and PLOS also have bulk-pay arrangements with institutions, like those you’re referring to for Scientific Reports: see for example https://peerj.com/pricing/institutions/

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Having now re-read Peter’s comment in full, I now find I don’t have a lot to add to my initial brief response. The key point here seems to be that different universities have different institutions arrangements with different publishers, so their options for what is free to publish in will differ accordingly. On that basis, I can see why someone in particular circumstances would accept the inferior publication process of Scientific Reports over the superior process of PeerJ.

    And I do agree that for PLOS to ask for details of your personal finances is way out of line, and very far from the stance they took until a few years ago — offering a waiver with no questions asked to anyone who requests it. It’s part of what looks to me like an overall somewhat disappointing trajectory of PLOS.

  5. Thomas Munro Says:

    I’d say the formatting and usability problems you mention for Scientific Reports are if anything worse at PLoS, their html rendering in particular. Here are some gripes:
    * abbreviated journals, just like Sci Rep. Forget benign stuff like “Palaeogeogr.” Try foreign journals instead: “Angew Chem Int Ed”, “Z Krist”, “Arzneim Forsch”. Some of them look enough like English to fool you: “Arch Int Pharmacodyn Ther” anyone?
    * separate files for each figure and table in the supporting information? Check.
    * PLoS’s figures are much worse. Scientific Reports at least renders them in full column width in the html. PLoS is still shrinking them down to blurry little previews to make room for “Download as PowerPoint slide”(!) That may have made sense for slow connections in 2003, but today?
    * to see any detail, you have to launch their bloated figure viewer, which cuts off the top and bottom.
    * PLoS converts tables to raster images for some ungodly reason, so you can’t search or copy them without downloading the PDF.
    * their pseudo-proofreading process is confined to editing the manuscript itself. Then when the actual conversions take place, there is no chance to fix the inevitable errors.

    A tragic example of this is the paper introducing Manubot: free, open-source software for collaborative scientific writing. Compare the immaculate output of Manubot itself:

    and the adequate free version at PMC:

    with what one of the PLoS flagships did to it:

    Compare the figures, tables and bibliography. Is that worth $2,500?

  6. Oh my, someone got dissed!



  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Thomas, I am certainly not here to defend a bunch of extremely questionable decisions that PLOS have made in the HTML articles — and I have criticised them here before (though I admit that the specific criticism in that case, the use of numbered references, seem to split opinions). In particular, the raster rendering of tables is completely inexplicable to me, and I can’t imagine why they are still doing to a decade and more after it was ridiculous; and the tiny figures make no sense either.

    But, that said, their PDFs are very much better than the HTML; and I suspect that is the form that most people read in. (It’s certainly what I use.)

    The real issues for me are to do with narrative coherence and reusability.

    The former is fundamentally crippled in Scientific Reports by things like the Results, Discussion and Conclusion coming before the methods; and most fatally by the random relegation of great swathes of the substance into a completely unformatted Supplementary Information document that for all I can tell is not even included in the peer-review process (or, if it is, it’s down the individual generosity of the specific reviewer).

    The latter comes out most obviously in the tiny “full size” images of Scientific Reports — 1000 pixels across, not enough to print 8.5cm wide at 300 dpi. By contrast, while the embedded-in-HTML images of PLOS articles is stupidly small, the genuinely full sized images are available: looking at my own most recent PLOS article (the Haestaurus description Upchurch et al. 2015) I see that the two figures I prepared (figures 1 and 18) download at 2333×3064 and 2201×4000 — the resolutions I submitted them at. It also comes in with the unavailability of raw data — something that really should be a given in 2020.

    So while I agree that PLOS has a lot of work to do in its HTML formatting, and has been unaccountably slow to do it, the fundamentals are all in place — as is evidenced by the much better HTML at PubMed Central that is generated from the PLOS XML. (See for example The Haestasaurus paper at PMC.)

    In short: PLOS ONE falls short in cosmetics; Scientific Reports fails in essentials.

  8. dimetroblog Says:

    Funny anecdote, but neither for the authors nor for the interested readers : I mailed two different teams of colleagues who had published in PLoSONE to tell them that figures had been switched and/or moved forward. Something like figure 2 which had become figure 10 and figures 3 to 10 had thus become figures 2 to 9. Note that the captions remained the right ones, which made things very confusing.

    I don’t know where things got wrong, in the editorial process, but they did.

    As an author, I need of course to be very careful, especially when proof-reading, but this is also the case for scientific editors and the part of the editorial team that formats the manuscript into a full-fledged article.

  9. David Marjanović Says:

    As an author, I need of course to be very careful, especially when proof-reading

    There is no proofreading at PLOS journals, because PLOS journals don’t produce proofs.

    They actually believe this is not a bug, but a feature, because it speeds up publication.

    Even though there is no proofreading process, there is a copyediting process, however – and it introduces mistakes that authors get no chance to fix. I don’t think I’ll publish there again.

  10. […] I’m fairly happy with this formulation: and in fact, on revisiting my speech in support of the original proposition, it’s apparent that I was really speaking in support of this modified version. I make no secret of the fact that I think some journals are objectively better than others; but that those with higher impact factors are often worse, not better. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: