Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Where to submit your paper – response to reviews.

My blog posted in open access Where to submit your paper. Or “If at first you don’t succeed, fail fail again … then try open access” has been viewed 2771 times in 5 days and has now been subject to some post-publication reviews. It seems appropriate to do a quick follow up in which I respond to those comments.

The original post made several points:
  1. If you have some great work, submitting to high-impact journals like Science/Nature is fine – even though the chances of acceptance are low. The whole process usually makes for a better paper.
  2. Traditional society-based journals are great outlets: they are well respected in the community and are frequently scanned for papers by many scientists. If you publish there, folks know you have received a rigorous and critical evaluation of your science from the perspective of its rigor AND importance.
  3. Rejection is an ever-constant companion for ALL scientists trying the above routes and it is good idea to find a coping mechanism that works for you.
  4. Open access journals are not good options (except as a last restort) because they don’t have the above properties.
Of the numerous comments on twitter and in personal emails, only item 4 seems to have - perhaps predictably - raised hackles, specifically in relation to citation rates. So let’s look at some of those comments and see what new insights they can bring.  
This statement is totally correct. Most of us think of PLoS ONE as the archetypal open access journal, which is why I didn't think to initially draw the distinction with "better" open access journals. I therefore added the follow comment after the post.

To make sure my opinion is clear, I am FOR open access PAPERS (in whatever journal) and even for open access journals as long as they are selective (e.g., PLoS Biology, Evolutionary Applications). What I am not for is for-profit open access journals where you pay your way to publish pretty much whatever you want. Those are merely profit making machines for publishing houses - they only make money when they publish your paper. PLoS ONE is non-profit but the problem there is that it is (rightly) viewed as a dumping ground for papers that people couldn't get published elsewhere. Thus, it is not good for exposure of your paper, for the influence of your paper (citations), or for your career. It should be a last resort when you are in a hurry or you (or your student) are sick of trying other places. Indeed, that is how many people already view it and you should too or people will think that was the case for your paper even if you submitted there first.

By far the best option as far as everyone (except for many publishers) is concerned is to publish in a respected traditional (often society based) journal and pay for the paper to be open access. Everyone wins. 

A number of other comments were along the lines that I had N = 2 for my PLoS ONE papers, which thus doesn't say much beyond my own limited personal experience. This is also entirely true given that the post was from my personal perspective and speaks only to my own experience.
But, wait, it turns out I have more experience than I thought (it seems I even ignore my own PLoS ONE papers). While reviewing another manuscript today, I remembered that I had another PLoS ONE paper - this one published in 2010. Yeeha: N = 3. I figured I better update my stats accordingly. I was a bit worried this time as I quite like the paper and know it has been cited at least a few times, so I was thinking that my new data point would mess up my story. Nope. Same thing - the worst cited of all my papers in that year.
Updated stats (adding 2010) for citations (Web of Science) to my PLoS ONE papers in comparison to citations to all my other papers in those years.
So, at this point, I can say with confidence that PLoS ONE is not working for me. In fact, it seems that I wasted three awesome papers by publishing them in an outlet where no one sees them or wants to cite them. I did receive a lot of comments from other people about their PLoS ONE papers also being very poorly cited (although at least one person said they had not noticed a difference). Then I was pointed (by a PLoS ONE senior editor) to something more quantitative.
The paper referred to here collected data on citations to 30 empirical ecological papers (selected in a "stratified" manner) published in 2009 in PLoS ONE, in some traditional ecology journals (Ecology, Oikos, Functional Ecology), in Ecology Letters, and in the big boys (Nature, Science). The results were that citations to ecology papers in PLoS ONE were roughly equivalent to those in Ecology and Functional Ecology and higher than those in Oikos. However, the citation rates in PLoS ONE were much lower than in Ecology Letters and the big boys.

From Wardle (2012 - Ideas In Ecology and Evolution)
These results run counter to my own experience and seem to suggest that PLoS ONE is a good target journal. The results were so different from my own that I decided to take a quick closer look at the question. For each of the three years in which I published a PLoS ONE paper, I used Web Of Science to search for all papers in PLoS ONE and Ecology (the sort of target journal I suggest shooting for) that had the word "ecology" as a topic (an objective way of comparing ecology papers from the two journals). I then used "citation report" to calculate all citations to those papers and, from that, calculated the mean citation rate (total citations divided by total papers).

Citations to "ecology" papers in PLoS ONE and in Ecology in each of three years.
 Of course, this analysis is still crude: I didn't actually read the papers, I didn't examine other journals, and I didn't examine more years. Nevertheless, these larger sample sizes than in Wardle (2012) seem more in line with my argument that citations are lower in PLoS ONE than in the canonical society-based journal. My papers, which are more evolution than ecology, are cited below these PLoS ONE rates. I wanted to do a similar analysis for PLoS ONE versus my own target journal Evolution but the "topic" "evolution" pops up too many other things in PLoS ONE that are not organismal evolution and I was too lazy to sort through them all. My suspicion (and that is all it is) is that the difference will be more severe in evolution than in ecology, where PLoS ONE is perhaps more accepted as a reasonable outlet. It would be awesome if someone did a proper analysis - but not my students - they need to be working on papers and not blogging.

Of course, none of this stuff is definitive in any way but these post publication reviews of the original blog have lead to revisions that bolster my original findings and thus strengthen my general conclusions. I hope that my blog is now acceptable for publication in your journal, whether open access or otherwise.

More just for fun:


  1. Hi Andrew:

    It is of course true that many papers end up in PLOS ONE because they were rejected elsewhere. But you seem to have more faith in the editorial process at society journals than I do. I think the small number of people assigned to assess a given paper are much better at assessing quality of the work than its importance to a broader audience (that they necessarily represent imperfectly). There are lots of ecology papers that end up in PLOS ONE because they do not fit the tastes of the editors at other journals, or perhaps more worryingly, they get up the noses of editors and reviewers. It is very hard to get work published that doesn't fit into a comfortable narrative and that much more difficult if it runs against it. Most people will nitpick a paper to death if it points to an unpopular conclusion. I include one example below from my colleague Os Schmitz. The paper shows, based on a review of existing literature, that ecosystems recover from disturbance much more quickly than pundits in the conservation world have suggested. This is a really important result that was goaltended out of several top journals. When it was published, it got wide media coverage because... it is important. And it has been cited 93 times since 2009 in spite of whatever PO effect.

    This is of course a single example but there are many more. I think the rise of journals where importance is judged after publication will be a great thing for the sciences since it diminishes the importance of tastemakers who have a really bad track record in the sciences. Innovation is forever being squelched by those with vested interests in current conceptions of the world.

    Dave Skelly

  2. Dave,

    I certainly agree entirely about arbitrary reviews and decisions in society journals. I even wrote a blog about how this could be improved:

    My concern with PLoS ONE is that - for whatever reason - papers published there (mine at least but others have said much the same) are either not seen or are not cited much. In addition, too many open access journals on a CV makes a young researcher perhaps less attractive for jobs than otherwise. Thus, I think that - if you can get into a society journal it is better all round. If you can't, well then - yes - open access like PLoS ONE is a valid option.

    I am also getting a sense that PLoS ONE is viewed different in ecology than evolution. It seems to be now considered a reasonably reputable outlet in the former but I am not sure that is the case for the latter. Time will tell.

    Of course, it isn't like I am avoiding PLoS ONE. Indeed, I have published four papers there (one this year - so not on my stats) and we have another in re-review. I have also published in International Journal of Ecology and Ecology and Evolution, both open access "we take almost everything" journals. However, I have so far been very disappointed with the influence these papers seem to be having. Of course, the point could simply be that the community has judged these papers to be unimportant or uninteresting. Yet I felt at the time (and still do) that they were quite important and interesting, and I can't see that my judgement is so far off that these papers are the worst I published in each of three years.

    So I think I will back off on submissions to PLoS ONE for awhile and I think others should too, at least in evolution biology. Perhaps I will feel differently with time. Still, it is hard - in my field - to beat an Evolution paper.



  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for bringing this item to my attention, it’s an interesting discussion. I have three points:

    1. In fact the results of your analysis are not hugely different to my own, especially given the big differences between our respective methodologies and their underlying assumptions. For 2009 papers you estimate that PLoS ONE papers are cited at 74% of those of Ecology papers while my estimate is 88%; both show that papers published in PLoS ONE fare pretty well on average relative to those in Ecology and are probably at least on par with those in Oikos and Functional Ecology. They are also consistent with the relative Impact Factor for both journals at that time (PLoS ONE being 86% of that of Ecology).

    2. Our views of any journal will inevitably be influenced by our own personal experiences. In that light I was curious how my own contribution to PLoS ONE fared. I have only one paper in that journal that is more than two years old (i.e., out there long enough to garner citations). This paper ranked 9th of the 12 publications I had in 2011; it was cited more often than papers I had in the same year in New Phytologist, Oikos and the Journal of Biogeography, and not far behind papers I had in Ecology and Ecography (plus, as the data in it has since been used in two meta-analysis, folk have obviously found it). So, although unlike you I had N=1 rather than N=3 examples, my own example PLoS ONE paper is exactly where I would expect it to rank based my point 1. It would be fun though to repeat this sort of analysis with a larger number of researchers.

    3. I’m afraid that I don’t really agree with your claim that PLoS ONE is 'a dumping ground for papers that people couldn't get published elsewhere'. In my field at least, some really excellent stuff gets published there. Different papers are best targeted to different journals (i.e., one size does not fit all) but there are three instances in which PLoS ONE is a logical choice: (1) Excellent and sound papers that make unpopular conclusions and polarize reviewers but might indeed be very important (see David Skelly’s points above); (2) Papers you want out fast, especially if they underpin other work you want to get out (or if you want to claim priority). There are times that you just don’t want to risk waiting 18 months and undergo multiple rounds of reviewing (either with the same or different journals, and with semi-random decisions) before getting it out; (3) When the manuscript involves a younger researcher who might need an additional manuscript accepted in a hurry in order to strengthen applications for postdoc positions and cannot afford risking 18 months for multiple rounds of reviewing. Although I'm no apologist for 'open access' and would certainly not want PLoS ONE to be my modal means of publication, I still maintain that for certain types of paper and in some circumstances it definitely provides a useful role.



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