On 31st October, PLOS sent out a surprise tweet saying that its CEO Elizabeth Marincola is leaving the organisation for a new job in Kenya. Perhaps this is a good time to review the rise of PLOS, put some questions to the publisher, and consider its future.
PLOS started out in 2001 as an OA advocacy group. In 2003, however, it reinvented itself as an open access publisher and began to launch OA journals like PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. Its mission: “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication.” Above all, PLOS’ goal was to see all publicly-funded research made freely available on the internet.
Like all insurgent organisations, PLOS has over the years attracted both devoted fans and staunch critics. The fans (notably advocates for open access) relished the fact that PLOS had thrown down a gauntlet to legacy subscription publishers, and helped start the OA revolution. The critics have always insisted that a bunch of academics (PLOS’ founders) would never be able to make a fist of a publishing business.
At first, it seemed the critics might be right. One of the first scholarly publishers to attempt to build a business on article-processing charges (APCs), PLOS gambled that pay-to-publish would prove to be a viable business model. The critics demurred and said that in any case the level that PLOS had set its prices ($1,500) would prove woefully inadequate. Commenting to Nature in 2003, cell biologist Ira Mellman of Yale University, and editor of The Journal of Cell Biology, said. “I feel that PLOS’s estimate is low by four- to sixfold,”
In 2006, PLOS did increase the fees for its top two journals by 66% (to $2,500), and since then the figure has risen to $2,900. While this is neither a four- or sixfold increase, we must doubt that these prices would have been enough to make an organisation with PLOS’ ambitions viable. In 2008 Nature commented, “An analysis by Nature of the company’s accounts shows that PLOS still relies heavily on charity funding, and falls far short of its stated goal of quickly breaking even through its business model of charging authors a fee to publish in its journals. In the past financial year, ending 30 September 2007, its $6.68-million spending outstripped its revenue of $2.86 million.”
But by then PLOS had pioneered a new – and very different – type of journal. Launched in December 2006, PLOS ONE was the world’s first “megajournal”, and is distinctive in two ways. First reviewers are told that when considering a paper for publication in the journal they should not consider its novelty, importance, or interest to a particular community, but only whether it is “technically sound and worthy of inclusion in the published scientific record.”
Second, PLOS ONE accepts papers from right across science, technology, engineering and mathematics, along with some social sciences.
These two features meant that the journal was soon flooded with submissions from authors keen to benefit for its low-bar approach to publishing research.
And this in turn provided a welcome fillip to PLOS’ coffers. “In its first full year of operation in 2007, PLOS ONE published 1,230 articles, which would have generated an estimated $1.54 million in author fees, around half of PLOS’s total income that year” reported Nature in 2008. “By comparison, the 321 articles published in PLOS Biology in 2007 brought in less than half this amount.”
The flood continued, and by 2013 PLOS ONE had become the largest academic journal in the world, publishing 31,509 articles that year. While it had set its APC at the lower rate of $1,250 ($1,495 today), the sheer numbers of papers PLOS ONE was able to attract saw the publisher break even in 2010, and in 2012 it reported a surplus of $7 million on net revenues of $34.5 million.
Essentially PLOS ONE had provided the publisher with what critics tend to sneeringly describe as a “cash cow”.
But critics had another line of attack up their sleeve: PLOS ONE’s approach to peer review, they said, is serving to lower the quality of the scientific corpus. Thus where PLOS fans like to describe the PLOS ONE model as providing “objective review”, critics deride it as “peer review-lite”, or – in the words of green OA advocate (and vegan) Stevan Harnad – “a pine-nut in a poke”.
PLOS ONE has certainly published controversial papers along the way, including one in 2007 on HIV/AIDS that led a Geneva-based official in the World Health Organisation’s HIV-prevention team to comment, “The paper is total drivel, it should have been picked up in the review process.”
I discussed this paper and other such controversial papers in a piece I wrote on PLOS ONE in 2011.
More recently, stories have begun to emerge suggesting that the way PLOS ONE recruits its reviewers leaves a lot to be desired. See, for instance this; and I have documented my own experience here.
However, the truth is that problems like these are by no means restricted to PLOS ONE. They are now endemic to scholarly publishing, and it is widely acknowledged that scholarly communication is in the grip of a deep and wide-ranging quality and reproducibility crisis.
That said, pay-to-publish open access certainly appears to have exacerbated these problems (including giving rise to “predatory publishers”). Some now also appear to be questioning whether OA is the right answer to the problems scholarly communication faces.
Be that as it may, PLOS ONE allowed the publisher to devote resources to advocating for open access and, importantly, to continue innovating. In 2009 PLOS pioneered Article-Level Metrics (ALM), and to speed up and make more efficient the publication process it set about developing its own submission system Aperta (currently only available for PLOS Biology).
And in 2014 PLOS introduced a data policy that requires authors to provide supporting data with their papers (with the aim of improving quality and reproducibility). It now also encourages researchers to post their research to preprint servers, on the principle I assume that this too could improve quality. Authors can also now have their preprints automatically submitted to PLOS via services like bioRxiv.
Eating PLOS’ lunch
But innovation requires a constant flow of surplus cash, and the problem PLOS faces is that it is dependent on a cash cow that others want to eat. So we have seen legacy publishers developing their own megajournls, including BMJ, IEEE, Sage, Elsevier and Nature.
To put it another way, legacy publishers are now eating PLOS’ lunch.
The consequences of this became evident in 2014. In a post on The Scholarly Kitchen blog that year, Phil Davis reported that PLOS ONE’s publication output had fallen 25% since its peak in 2013, and it did not appear to be recovering.
Consequently, Davis predicted, PLOS’ revenues can be expected to decline, and at a time when its expenses are growing. “For 2013, the publisher reported that gross revenue grew by 31% to $50.8 million (up from $38.8 million in 2012). At the same time, PLOS’s expenses grew by 35% to $37 million (up from $27.4 million).”
Since then the situation appears to have deteriorated. In its 2015 financial overview PLOS reports that for the year ending December 31st 2015, it generated total revenues of $42.9 million, compared to total revenues of $45.6 million for the year ending December 31st 2014. Total expenses in 2015 were $42.8 million compared to $40.7 million in 2014.
In the Q&A below PLOS says that PLOS ONE published 28,000 articles in 2015. I don’t know what the figures for this year will be, but recently Stephen Pinfield, professor of information services management at the University of Sheffield, reported that in September PLOS ONE was overtaken by Nature’s Scientific Reports, which published 1,940 research articles in that month, compared with PLOS ONE’s 1,756. The figures for August were 1,691 and 1,735, respectively.
Looking to the future, Pinfield sees two possible scenarios. In one scenario, he suggests, the megajournal could “sink without trace”. Alternatively, he says, megajournals could find a long-term niche for themselves as cash cows whose raison d’être is to subsidise a publisher’s selective journals. Clearly, in being able to bask in the sun of high-value brands like Nature and Elsevier, megajournals operated by legacy publishers might be expected to have a long-term advantage over PLOS ONE.
In short, the financial challenges facing PLOS have not gone away. And it faces the added challenge of seeing its authors starting to complain about its prices. In addition, there is a growing pushback against the pay-to-publish model of gold OA (see here, and some of the comments here for instance). Against this background, developing a viable strategy can be no easy task for PLOS.
Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that we have seen signs of internal conflict. In 2013, for instance, both the CEO and CFO at PLOS disappeared, practically overnight.
And the (brief, and tight-lipped) announcement the publisher made left the scholarly publishing community both surprised and perplexed. The only hint as to what had happened, reported Kent Anderson, were rumours that there had been a disagreement within the publisher, with the CEO and CFO arguing vigorously that PLOS should either become for-profit, or spin off a for-profit, and the board roundly rejecting the idea.
Whatever the cause of the rupture, it was the deafening silence over what had happened that most stunned commentators. For a publisher committed to openness, suggested publishing consultant Joseph Esposito, this was a real surprise.
Behind the innovation curve?
So, what changed with the new CEO Elizabeth Marincola? A month later she told Nature that PLOS saw the future of science publishing not in branded, highly selective titles but a world in which article metrics and community judgements help the cream of research to rise to the top. “The packaging of a journal will become less and less important,” she said.
We might be forgiven for suggesting that that was the premise of PLOS ONE, so what had changed? Central to the Marincola strategy, it seems, is was what PLOS calls its “third revolution”. This is focused on enabling the immediate posting of research, open evaluation and community review. Again, this is not all new – community review, for instance, was implicit in the PLOS vison from day one.
Moreover, how much additional revenue this third revolution can generate remains uncertain. If nothing else, it will surely need to make up for the fall in revenue that PLOS has been experiencing.
But the real fear must be that PLOS is falling behind the innovation cycle, a point made to Nature by board member, and PLOS co-founder, Michael Eisen in 2013. Citing F1000 Research, Eisen said, “They are doing lots of things that PLOS should have done five years ago. PLOS has created the landscape that has enabled others to flourish, which is great. The question is, how can it continue to be innovative?”
It might seem significant that Eisen made this point three years ago, and yet the third revolution that Marincola has been spearheading has yet to be implemented. Might there still be internal disagreement about the best way forward?
One reason for suspecting there may be is that on 31st October I (apparently along with an unknown number of others) received an email from what appeared to be a PLOS address (email@example.com). The message was headed “PLOS CEO to leave” and contained a short, simple statement: “the ship is sinking”.
Assuming the PLOS account had been hacked in some way, I tweeted an image of the email, and invited PLOS to comment. To my surprise, PLOS replied (with a tweet that was subsequently deleted on the grounds that it included a typo) by confirming that Marincola is indeed leaving.
Since only PLOS employees had been told of Marincola’s impending departure (at a meeting held one week earlier), I found it hard not to conclude that the message signalled continuing internal disagreement within the publisher, or at least disaffection amongst staff. Below PLOS insists that this is “categorically not the case”. Either way, that the world heard of Marincola’s departure like this seems odd indeed.
Subsequently David Knutson, Public Relations Manager at PLOS, agreed to answer a list of questions I emailed to him, which I publish below.
Eisen is surely right to argue that PLOS has fallen behind the innovation curve. After all, F1000 is now busy licensing its publishing platform to funders like Wellcome in a way that would seem to pose an existential threat to journals like those PLOS publishes, including PLOS ONE. Or might it be that PLOS has plans to license Aperta in a similar way?
What seems certain is that if PLOS continues to face falling revenues it will struggle to get back up on the innovation curve without access to external cash. That is why in my final question I ask Knutson if he envisages the publisher being sold to a large for-profit publisher which, we could note, is what both Mendeley and SSRN felt compelled to do.
Of course, the latter two companies were conceived as for-profit organisation, whereas PLOS is non-profit. But PLOS competitor Frontiers was also initially non-profit, until it reinvented itself as a for-profit. As Frontiers CEO Kamila Markram explained to me earlier this year: “We realised early on that we would need more funds to make the vision sustainable and it would not be possible to secure these funds through purely philanthropic means – a long-term solution was needed. In 2008, we formed Frontiers Media SA, a commercial entity, to secure investments.”
It is perfectly possible, of course, that PLOS may be readying some innovative new solutions behind the scenes. Below Knutson says that “innovations that PLOS is developing within its publishing program and technology initiatives continue to attract attention from across the industry, attracting new communities and business partners that provide additional financial opportunities that co-exist with the on-going sustainability of our journals.”
Might we see, for instance, an announcement that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) plans to use Aperta to publish papers from the research it funds in the manner that Wellcome is doing with the F1000 platform?
But for me what is most disappointing in the PLOS story is that an organisation that boasts about its commitment to openness is so unwilling to be open about its own operations.
Perhaps this is an indication of how beleaguered PLOS feels. After all, there is no shortage of critics who would still like to see PLOS fail, or have to call in a commercial white knight. While I can appreciate that, I am conscious that PLOS’ business is built on public money. As such its overly secretive nature seems unfortunate. It would also be unfortunate, of course, if PLOS were to slip further behind the innovation curve due to internal conflict, or loss of direction.
Q&A with PLOS’ David Knutson
RP: On 31st October, I received an email that used the firstname.lastname@example.org address. This was headed “PLOS CEO to leave” and contained the simple statement, “the ship is sinking”. What do you know about the origin of the email, who sent it, and why it was sent to me?
DK: PLOS investigated the email@example.com and found that it was a forged message from an IP address registered in Amsterdam. It points to emkei.cz, which is a Czech registered domain and is a free, anonymous, mail tool and therefore a dead end. We don’t know who sent, to whom it was sent or why.
RP: It turns out that the email was fake but the information in it (that PLOS CEO Elizabeth Marincola is leaving the organisation) was correct. PLOS had at the time made no public statement about the impending departure, which suggests to me that there is within PLOS a whistle-blower, or someone who wants to hurt and/or embarrass the organisation. This in turn suggests that there is some discontent or unresolved conflict within PLOS. What is the source of that conflict and what is PLOS doing to try and address the matter?
DK: PLOS has no idea why someone would send an anonymous and erroneous message of this sort. The reason that no explanation was given is that the organization that she is joining cannot announce her appointment until after it holds its previously-scheduled Board meeting in December. It has nothing to do with, “a whistle-blower, or someone who wants to hurt and/or embarrass the organisation [or] that there is some discontent or unresolved conflict within PLOS.” This is entirely fabrication and is categorically not the case.
RP: Where is Elizabeth Marincola going, when, and why?
DK: Elizabeth will be moving to Nairobi, Kenya, where she has accepted the position of Senior Advisor for Science Communication and Advocacy for an organization that will soon announce this appointment. This next move is an exciting one for Elizabeth personally and professionally, and while we will miss her and her many contributions to PLOS as both a Board member and CEO we wish her well in her new adventure. She will continue with PLOS through the end of this calendar year.
RP: What achievements and successes would you say PLOS has had under Marincola’s leadership, what disappointments have there been, and what new direction do you think the board will want the next CEO (when appointed) to take PLOS?
DK: Under Elizabeth's leadership, PLOS has achieved many important milestones. These include the launch of Aperta, the introduction of Advanced Online Publication, development of a plan to introduce the “third revolution of PLOS” through immediate communication of research findings and transparent review, and many advances in our publishing services and editorial practices. Of equal or even more importance, during Elizabeth’s tenure as CEO, PLOS has attracted and retained an outstanding team at every level, which ensures that we are positioned to continue pushing the boundaries of research communication going forward.
RP: Will Elizabeth Marincola be leaving any unfinished business behind her?
DK: Every CEO leaves behind some unfinished business. In the case of PLOS, while the organization has developed plans and is fully committed to providing immediate posting of research, open evaluation and community review, this ambitious vision is yet to be implemented. The Board has appointed a search committee and is fully confident that it will find a CEO who has the experience to lead us effectively and passionately as we drive toward fulfilling our Vision. In the meantime, Richard Hewitt, currently CFO, will serve as Interim CEO, effective January 1, 2017.
RP: I cannot help but think we have been here before. When in 2013 Elizabeth Marincola took over as CEO her appointment came in the wake of the sudden and unexplained departure of the previous CEO and the CFO – as reported on The Scholarly Kitchen blog here and here. The rumour was that they had departed following a row within PLOS over its non-profit status: the CEO/CFO wanted to turn it into a for-profit organisation but the board disagreed. Does Elizabeth Marincola’s departure come in the wake of a similar disagreement, only perhaps this time the other way round. I see, for instance, that there was an announcement on 25th October that a private equity person has been added to the board.
DK: There is nothing similar in these circumstances. First, Marincola’s departure is entirely voluntary on her part and reflects only a personal opportunity to live in an exciting part of the world, and her professional desire to bring her experience to Africa, despite having to leave PLOS to do so. Therefore, PLOS rejects the premise of the question.
As for the Board of Directors, it is both customary and in accordance with sound governance practices to recruit expertise from diverse sectors to ensure broad input into organizational direction. PLOS is very fortunate to have attracted volunteer members from the Academy as well as from the private sector.
Let’s be open about open access?
RP: You say that Marincola’s departure was different because it was voluntary. That presumably means that the former CEO and CFO were fired, but you don’t say why. Was the rumour about a disagreement over PLOS’ non-profit status correct, or was there some other reason for their precipitate departure? And why was PLOS so tight-lipped about it at the time? Does not a commitment to open access by a publisher also imply a commitment to explaining its internal operations to outsiders? As Joseph Esposito put it at the time, “Let’s be open about open access”?
DK: PLOS does not discuss personnel matters.
RP: How is PLOS currently doing financially, and in terms of growth, and what are the expectations going forward?
DK: PLOS continues to see a comparable volume of submissions from the previous year, but our published article rate is down. Simply put, PLOS is rejecting more papers. Another factor is the natural maturation of PLOS ONE. PLOS never expected PLOS ONE’s submission volume to keep increasing year over year. It remains one of the largest journals in the world with more than 28,000 articles published in 2015 alone.
PLOS’ commitment to operating a high quality and rigorous stable of peer reviewed journals remains unchanged and the innovations that PLOS is developing within its publishing program and technology initiatives continue to attract attention from across the industry, attracting new communities and business partners that provide additional financial opportunities that co-exist with the on-going sustainability of our journals.
RP: You say that PLOS’ published article rate is down. Does that mean that revenues will be down when PLOS next reports its financials, or will the additional financial opportunities you refer to make up for lost APC revenue? What are the additional financial opportunities? And what implications do these changes to its revenues have for the organisation?
DK: PLOS will not address its additional financial opportunities. However, you will find a link to our financial update here.
RP: Can we expect at some point to see PLOS sold to one of the large for-profit companies like Elsevier or Springer Nature? If the board does not feel that would be a good outcome, has it considered inserting some kind of poison pill into its Articles of Incorporation (or a similar document) to prevent it from ever happening?
DK: No and no.
Autor: Richard Poynder