Helen Jaques: New publishing models at the BMJ Editors’ seminar

Helen JaquesThis week at the BMJ Editors’ seminar I heard about two innovative new publishing models: Nature Communications from Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and PLoS Currents from Public Library of Science.

Nature Communications is an online only, multidisciplinary, “middle tier” research journal being launched this spring by NPG.

As Sarah Greaves, publisher of Nature Communications, explained, Nature and the Nature branded journals reject about 90% of submissions. The rejected articles are often solid science that just doesn’t have far reaching enough implications to make it into Nature and can’t find a natural home in a specialty Nature branded journal.

The idea of Nature Communications is to publish such articles rapidly, in particular research from emerging fields or from fields that can’t easily be categorised as a particular discipline.

The journal will work to a hybrid publishing model: authors will have the option to pay a $5000 (£3,035) “article processing charge” so that their research is available open access, or can choose not to pay the fee and have their article published behind a paywall.

As such, the business plan is quite interesting. The whole archive of papers can only be accessed via a site licence; there will be no personal subscriptions. The site licence cost will vary depending on what proportion of the papers in the archive is open access, so institutions won’t be paying for articles that are freely available. Individuals can buy articles on a pay per view basis.

I must confess I’m a little sceptical of the whole concept: it sounds like NPG is trying to squeeze some value out of all the “adequate but not exceptional” submissions they reject. Furthermore, authors would presumably take their research elsewhere in the case of a Nature rejection, but by launching Nature Communications NPG seems to want to hoover up these articles and essentially poach them from the smaller non-NPG specialty journals where they would otherwise end up.

The second talk was by someone from a publisher that has built its reputation on being “out there” with its attitude to scholarly publishing: Ginny Barbour of PLoS and chief editor of PLoS Medicine.

The flagship journal of the PLoS group is PLoS ONE, a multidisciplinary, open access, online only publication. Rather than cherry picking work they consider to be important or asking who the audience might be, the PLoS ONE journal editors instead aim to publish anything that is publishable.

In fact, the main emphasis of all the PLoS publications seems to be getting sound research out into the public domain. All the PLoS journals are open access and although the company requests a publication fee, it has a “no questions asked” waiver.

Although PLoS articles are peer reviewed, “certification” of the research only really takes place after publication. PLoS automatically produces an astounding number of article level metrics, such as online usage data (for example, number of HTML page views or PDF downloads per article), data on community commenting and rating, stats on how often an article is saved using a social bookmarking tool like Connotea . . . the list goes on and on.

The purpose of this approach is to avoid the flawed and derided journal impact factor and stop people using the journal as a proxy for how good a piece of research is.

PLoS has just launched a new product called PLoS Currents, which at the moment just covers influenza. The purpose of PLoS Currents is to allow people to rapidly communicate new findings and ideas without having to wait until they have a full article or having to plod through the traditional publishing process.

The publishing model isn’t based on articles: people can submit anything from tables, ideas, and data to complete manuscripts. Submissions are then reviewed by an expert and published within 24 hours using the Google Knol platform.

Items in PLoS Currents are indexed in PubMed and are citable, so sticking some data on Currents counts as formal publication. This approach should placate researchers who are worried about putting their data “out there” and being “scooped” before they have a full paper ready.

The first PLoS Currents experiment is with swine flu. The H1N1 influenza A epidemic grew very quickly and opinions have been shifting very fast, so there is a real need to communicate scientific information on the topic as quickly as possible.

PLoS Currents seems to function essentially as a community blog on a subject, but one with plenty of hard data and facts and that is overseen by a reliable authority. It does certainly sound like a very interesting idea and one that really focuses on disseminating research rather than on pleasing authors or publishers. I think PLoS is going to have to really fight for Currents to be seen as proper publication though, rather than a collection of bits and pieces of information.

It was very interesting to hear about new approaches from two very different publishers. I think the key difference between PLoS and NPG seems to be that NPG is about quality not quantity (although this view appears to changing a little with the launch of Nature Communications), whereas PLoS has the opposite approach. But I think there’s room for both in the modern publishing environment.