PLoS ONE: Five Years, Many Milestones

PLoS ONE is five years old today – warmest congratulations to everyone who makes this journal a success! On Friday, we celebrated our landmark anniversary with cake and champagne alongside the current and former staff and Academic Editors who have worked so hard to support PLoS ONE.
Birthday cake

The lovely cake that we shared at PLoS ONE's 5th birthday party on Dec. 16, 2011

As we look back over the the past five years and forwards to the next five, it’s interesting to review the original motivation for PLoS ONE as articulated by one of our co-founders, Mike Eisen:
Scientists are eager to apply the awesome power of the Internet revolution to scientific communication, but have been stymied by the conservative nature of scientific publishing. PLoS ONE redefines what a scientific journal should be – eliminating needless barriers between authors and their audience and transforming the published literature from a static series of articles into a dynamic, interconnected, and constantly evolving resource for scientists and the public.

Where Have We Come From?

The journal launched on 20th December 2006 and the occasion was marked by a minor earthquake in the vicinity of our offices. The tremors might have been a first clue to the seismic changes that would soon occur in the publishing landscape.

The journal was formally conceived by the PLoS Founders in May 2005 (although it had been anticipated by them several years earlier in PLoS’s history). At the time, it was named PLoS Reports but, in the months before launch, it was renamed PLoS ONE to reflect the journal’s concept as being the one potential home for all science.

PLoS ONE represented the biggest step to date in PLoS’s attempt to reinvent the prevailing system of science communication that had existed since the 17th century. The idea was simple: to reduce the time it takes to publish papers by providing a single location that would guarantee acceptance to any research that had been conducted and reported adequately (as determined by objective editorial criteria). The ‘impact’ of the paper would then be decided by the readers (after publication), not by editors and reviewers before publication. In doing so, the journal consciously sought to separate the act of deciding whether or not a paper should be published (a decision which clearly needs to be made ‘pre-publication’), from any evaluation of the significance or importance of that article (a determination which is best made ‘post-publication’).

The growth of the PLoS ONE exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. In the first full year of publication it published 1,230 articles (making it larger in volume than all but about 100 journals) and, within 4 years, it became the largest peer-reviewed journal in the world. To date, PLoS ONE has published more than 28,700 articles and in 2011 alone it will publish almost 14,000 articles (meaning that approximately 1 in 60 of all articles indexed by PubMed for 2011 will have been published in PLoS ONE).

Although simple, the approach was radical and innovative (as demonstrated by the awards it went on to receive from the ALPSP (pdf) and SPARC). According to Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, since it opened its door to submissions in August 2006, PLoS ONE has become a “game changer” in the publishing industry.

One particular innovation that helped define PLoS ONE has been the provision of ‘Article Level Metrics’ on every published manuscript (something which is actually provided on all PLoS articles). With ALMs, in addition to ‘traditional’ metrics such as citations, authors could now see detailed information about the total views and downloads of their paper, as well as information about blog coverage, social bookmarks and so on. This program was introduced in 2009 at least in part to represent an alternative means of measuring an article’s merits post-publication and it continues to be developed by us and by others.

In addition to wide readership and high citation rates, articles published by PLoS ONE have always generated significant media coverage, for example appearing in The New York Times Science section 6 weeks running and even inspiring a Google Doodle on one occasion. Research on antiviral therapeutics, a possible fourth domain of life, and a group of articles that shares an inventory of species distribution and diversity in key global ocean areas are just a few of the most recent examples of the cutting edge research that has been covered by media outlets from around the world.

To what can we attribute this success?  First of all, PLoS ONE came from the Public Library of Science – a well-established, not-for-profit publisher that had already proven itself as a trusted venue for high quality peer-reviewed publications (PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, and the PLoS Community Journals) – clearly PLoS ONE would not have been as successful without the support and brand recognition that those journals provided. Secondly, it seemed that Academics are increasingly realizing that the ‘game’ of submitting to a top journal and working down a ‘rejection ladder’ until a journal accepts the paper is a waste of everyone’s time and resources, and that PLoS ONE circumvents that process. And thirdly, it feels like an idea whose ‘time has come’ – as the movement towards Open Access to all journal content grows, it seems inevitable that a publishing model such as PLoS ONE will emerge as one of the most effective ways to publish scientific content.

Of course, none of the reasons listed above would have mattered at all, were it not for the many thousands of Academic Editors, peer reviewers and staff members who have provided their time and energy for the journal. In particular, the journal would not exist without our authors – a vital stakeholder group who have been supportive since day one. To date, we have published the work of over 100,000 authors and we regularly receive outstanding feedback from them via our Annual Author Surveys.

In the early days, some critics felt that the journal risked becoming a “vanity press”, and that any journal that aimed to publish “anything publishable” would naturally become a venue for poor quality papers. What we saw instead were carefully reviewed papers that only made it into press if they met our objective criteria for sound science and reporting. This came about with virtually no pressure from within – indeed, one might say that the secret to our success is that we have allowed our independent Academic Editors full autonomy to decide what is ‘good enough’ to be published, and they have done so by applying the standards and norms of academia to our unique publication criteria. By combining this approach with a series of strict checks and balances at the point of submission, and a separation of the financial from the editorial aspects of the journal, we have proven to the scientific community that we are serious about our goal of changing the status quo of scientific communication, and that we intend to do so in a high quality, transparent, and ethical manner.

Of course, our success has not gone unnoticed and, in the past year or so, a slew of PLoS ONE ‘clones’ have been launched by other publishers (some of whom had been quite skeptical of the PLoS ONE model in years gone past). Although we welcomed Nature Publishing Group to the party with a somewhat tongue in cheek post (and with a request to improve their copyright license), it is a fact that we genuinely welcome these new entrants. We believe that more PLoS ONE clones are a good thing that will accelerate the move towards full Open Access, and away from the current system whereby articles are reviewed by a chain of journals for the sole purpose of stratifying them according to their perceived ‘impact’. We expect that more clones will launch in the coming years and, provided they employ full ‘CC BY’ copyright licenses, we will continue to encourage them.

Where are we going?

What does the future hold for PLoS ONE? Well, firstly we will continue to develop our systems to accommodate the kind of growth we have seen so far. This includes a root to branch overhaul of our publication platform (which will take some time to realize, but which is already underway); an improved submission and peer review system; and increasing numbers of Academic Editors and reviewers. Secondly, we plan to improve our Article Level Metrics to a point where they will provide genuinely valuable context about individual articles and hopefully be more widely used and understood by decision makers such as tenure committees and funding bodies. Thirdly, we will be developing new and powerful ways to navigate our platform. And finally, we intend to continue experimenting and pushing the boundaries of academic publishing – PLoS ONE has already proven to be be a phenomenon in the Academic Publishing world, but we feel it has tremendous potential to further change the way that scientific research is communicated!

We would like to use the occasion of our 5th birthday to thank everyone who has believed in PLoS ONE and given their time and energy to make it the success that it is today.

This blog post was written by Peter Binfield (Publisher of PLoS ONE & the PLoS Community Journals), Damian Pattinson (Executive Editor of PLoS ONE) and Jackie Thai (Editorial Manager of PLoS ONE), with support from Jennifer Laloup (Publications Manager of PLoS ONE) Nick Ellinwood (Sr. Publications Assistant of PLoS ONE) and Stacy Konkiel (Marketing Associate of PLoS ONE). For further information about PLoS ONE, you can view a video of Pete Binfield presenting information about the journal to the COASP 2011 meeting; read the PLoS Biology Editorial published on 20 Dec 2011; or read this paper (PDF) which was presented at ELPUB 2009.

How deep social network “roots” help scientists communicate their research

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how social networks can specifically help scientists collaborate and spread their messages more effectively. Researchers like Heather Piwowar, Alistair Dove, and Jonathan Eisen have received recognition from fellow scientists and even the international press due to their savvy use of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, and (more recently) Google+ when promoting themselves and their projects.

We’d like share with you their stories as examples of how three scientists at very different places in their careers use social networking tools to gain influence in their field.

Dr. Heather Piwowar (Postdoctoral Research Associate at Duke University, co-funded by DataONE, NESCent, and Dryad)


Courtesy of H. Piwowar

In the world of scientometrics, there are few young researchers these days making as many waves as Dr. Heather Piwowar. How do I know that? As a fellow junior researcher interested in scientometrics, I’ve found that there’s no better way to receive up-to-the-minute recommendations on interesting white papers, insider’s information on invitation-only conferences like #scifoo, and thought-provoking observations than by following Heather on two online services where I already spend a lot of time: Twitter and Google Reader.

What’s notable about Dr. Piwowar’s use of social media is that she very rarely indulges in self-promotion. Rather, she uses social media to engage other researchers: “Tweeting, blogging, friendfeeding, creating public Mendeley groups, etc. helps me find and be found by some of the most enthusiastic, engaged people in my area.  I learn what they think, what they are working on, and sometimes a bit about who they are.  They get to know me and what I do.  As a result, I do better work and my work gets more exposure.”

Piwowar also points out that social media, as an engagement and networking strategy, is strong in two areas where traditional forms of academic feedback are weak: timeliness and connecting far-flung researchers.

She notes, “Data finds data then people find people” is really true… when you start sharing information about your research passions and seeking other shared info relevant to your work, all of a sudden you find new groups of people who are about the same things you do.  Some of them turn into collaborators, and a few into friends.

Time well spent, no doubt about it.”

Blog | LinkedIn | Twitter | Mendeley

Dr. Alistair Dove (Senior Scientist at the Georgia Aquarium Research Center)

Courtesy of A. Dove

Dr. Alistair Dove, a Senior Scientist at Georgia Aquarium Research Center—the world’s largest aquarium—is what could be called a “trust agent,” imparting insights into his deep-sea research via Twitter and his blog, Deep Sea News, while engaging the public in science.

Dove explains, “If you have, say, a thousand followers on Twitter, that’s like talking to a large auditorium every time you tweet something about your science: a powerful tool indeed.  A direct line like that means the scientist can ensure that their science is accurately portrayed and that they have an opportunity to share with the public the personal passion that drives them to science in the first place.” A great side effect of all this communication with the public? If you do it well, recognition of your name and your contributions to research will increase among your colleagues, as well.

[Facebook and Twitter] are legitimate, powerful communication tools and scientific funding agencies want to see that you are considering them (and Apps, and Google Earth and all the other tools) as part of the plan for sharing science with the public.  Social media can help you get funded, help popularise your work, and help educate, entertain and inform the public, and I reckon that’s what it’s all about.

Blog | LinkedIn | Twitter

Dr. Jonathan Eisen

I believe in making it easy for people to find information and stories and such.


Courtesy of J. Eisen

Evolutionary biologist, microbiologist, and genomics researcher Dr. Jonathan Eisen prefers using social media to the traditional press release.  Eisen, a professor at the University of California, Davis explains how he went about garnering attention for his manuscript, Stalking the Fourth Domain in Metagenomic Data: Searching for, Discovering, and Interpreting Novel, Deep Branches in Marker Gene Phylogenetic Trees, using his social networks.

Eisen explains, “I emailed the paper to a few contacts who are reporters (Carl Zimmer, for example) and told them I would be posting more information about the story behind the paper on my blog.  Then I wrote the detailed background story on my blog and when the paper came out of its embargo, I made the blog post live and then emailed a bunch of people the link to the paper and the blog post.”

He continues, “I posted these links to Facebook and twitter and my blog too — and since I have been working to build up my social networks for many years this at least got the message out to a few people.   One of those fortunately was PZ Myers, who writes the Pharyngula blog, and he posted a little discussion of how I had avoided a press release and that generated enormous web attention.  This, along with the article in the Scientist and on Carl Zimmer’s blog, was enough to get some attention around the web.  I think this helped convince others to write about it, including The Economist, which wrote a story for their online and print editions.”

Eisen’s experience shows that having a well-cultivated and engaged circle of social media friends and followers can help expand the impact of your work, even if you don’t follow traditional routes to publicize it.

Blog | LinkedIn | Twitter | Mendeley

If you are interested in learning more about how to collaborate and spread your own scientific messages using social media, check out the following links:

PLoS ONE Authors Receive “Best Environmental Epidemiology Paper” Award

Authors James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis have received an award from the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) for their much talked about paper, “Social Network Sensors for Early Detection of Contagious Outbreaks“, published in PLoS ONE in September 2010 (read our interview with the authors here.) The Society named the article the “Best Environmental Epidemiology Paper” of 2010.

On behalf of PLoS ONE, we extend our congratulations to Fowler and Christakis!