in megajournals, publishing, open-access, coasp, peer-review, science, nature

The idea of megajournals had not really formalised in my head before, but at the COASP meeting the talk was all about “Megajournals”. [PLoSOne][plosone] is the archetype for this kind of journal, and it had not really struck me before as a huge revolution in the publishing industry, but after listening to a couple of days worth of talks on the topic I’m convincible.

Megajournals are so called because they are structured to be able to publish many more articles than has been the normal practice with traditional journals. By my count there are currently about thirty five thousand academic titles. The vast majority of these titles are not indexed for impact, many of them are homebrew, and most of them are niche. They may publish a few issues per year, they may have a handful of articles per issue, and each one is mostly supported by a small community of researchers.

The big boy journals; IOP titles, Nature, Science, Genetics, NEJM and so on, have productionised the process of publishing articles. They employ a large number of people to mange the journals and sometimes to do in-house peer review. They publish their issues weekly with a constant rolling online first systems. The big publishers have applied this model to bundle publishing across many titles. However all of these venues retain the sense of an issue. In addition many of them have explicit policies around the taste or flavour of the articles that they wish to publish.

We live in a world of selectivity in academic publishing. The journals want articles that are constrained by size, or content, or topic or perceived impact. Every journal sets it’s stall on a combination of these criteria.

The result is a high rejection rate. The work is not an appropriate topic, not impactfull enough, too long, to theoretical, not written be a friend of the editorial board, etc, etc. Nature’s rejection rate is famously greater than 98%. When a researcher gets rejected from a journal they generally have to go through the entire submission process again at another venue. It can take months for an article the make it’s way through the publishing pipeline before it gets to the final rejected state. Sometimes it can take years. Each time an article is submitted it needs to be reviewed. Reviewers need to be found, and they need to spend their time reading and commenting on that paper. If the article had been submitted to another journal before and rejected, then these reviewers are repeating the work that someone else had done. Waste waste waste waste, it’s a huge waste of time.

This is a problem both for research (delayed time to publication, multiplication of reviewing effort), and a problem for journals with very high rejection rates as costs for maintaining a high rejection rate are large composed of the maintenance of a professional staff and the processing costs of dealing with a high number of manuscripts that the journal in the end is not actually going to publish.

For a long time now people have been talking about innovating the peer review system. People have been talking about how open access is going to solve all of these issues. In the end I think really pragmatic approach is going to have a big impact, and that is the approach taken by the megajournal.

The approach of the megajournal is simple to describe. They remove the pretence of having issues, and they radically simplify the criteria for publication, asking for the most part only that the paper is scientifically rigourous. (Think about that for a moment, these journals are asking only that the papers that they publish advance our knowledge about the universe around us, not asking that they do so according to some predefined criteria. They are looking to ensure that the articles pass scientific muster, and allowing posterity to take care of the impact).i

By significantly lowering the rejection rate by not rejection based on taste, but only on correctness, you dramatically increase the efficiency of getting knowledge published. If you tie that to a business model where you generate revenue as a function of the volume of articles that you publish (author pays open access for example), then you create a nice scalable revenue stream. This worked to move PLoS into the black on the back of PLoS One.

The high impact journals have taken notice, and Nature’s Scientific Reports is an explicit move to create a megajournal that can be used to publish content that gets rejected from the selective Nature branded titles. I think this is brilliant. If the authors are willing, then for their part they can rapidly get their work published without having to endure a long resubmission process. Nature already has a large volume of content that is being submitted that they are not publishing, so the new journal should not have a cold start of submissions. The content that goes on in this new journal will be OA, leading to an increase in OA content, and one could imagine a future in which this revenue stream could supplant the traditional subscription model for nature publishing group.

There are a few interesting trends emerging around megajournals.

The first is that they by no means imply low quality as measured by the impact factor. PloS One has a rejection rate of somewhere between 25 and 30% and an initial impact factor of 4.3. That’s very good, in fact submissions more or less tripled after it received an impact factor.

Next is that when a top tier journal creates a magajournal vehicle then the reviewers of the new journal really need to be educated about what the acceptance criteria are for the new journal. Publishers from Nature, Hindawi and The Genetics Society of America all described how their reviewers continued to reject articles on the bases of more than just scientific correctness. If it’s going to work you have to be willing and able to publish work that is clearly low impact, but demonstrably correct.

Lastly, for some of these submissions are continuing to grow at a healthy pace. PLoS One now publishes something like 1.5 % of all academic articles, and it’s share is growing quarter on quarter. The implication in my mind is clear, that if this trend continues many of the small titles will be cannibalised. I asked at the conference if there was any actual evidence of this happening yet. The audience were clear to say that none have seen any impact on their journals, that there seems to be no broader evidence for such a trend, that globally the entire number of articles is growing annually at a few percent, so that so far one would not expect to see an effect. However I predict that this trend will lead to an impact on many small niche journals, and I look forward to the state of the publishing landscape in five years from now.