Founded 14 years ago, the Public Library of Science (PLOS) has been a leader in open access—online journals that are free for anyone to read and cover costs by charging authors a fee. But PLOS has also drawn criticism, because the nonprofit broke even only after starting the multidisciplinaryPLOS ONE, which accepts all papers that pass technical scrutiny regardless of their importance. The model has drawn the complaint that PLOS ONE bulk publishes low-quality papers to make its more selective journals sustainable. That high volume made PLOS ONE the largest scientific journal in the world in 2010, with more than 8600 research papers. Last year, the site featured 31,509 papers.
But this year, the trend has been downward, notes Davis, a publishing consultant. PLOS ONE’s output peaked in December 2013 at 3039 papers and by May had fallen 25% to 2276 papers (see graph). Davis suggests that a drop in PLOS ONE’s impact factor last June could be one explanation: Researchers tend to prefer journals with higher impact factors, a measure of how widely a journal is cited that is often used—mistakenly, many argue—to assess a scientist’s performance.
Other factors may include the debut of other open-access journals, last October’s 16-day U.S. government shutdown, and a decline in U.S. federal research funding, Davis writes. Whatever the reasons, he writes, PLOS’s bottom line is taking a hit: “[T]hat 25% drop in 2014 publication represents about $1 million less revenue in the first quarter alone. If this trend continues, supporting other PLOS activities may become more difficult.”
In response to questions from ScienceInsider, PLOS cautions against reading too much into the 25% drop (see full statement below). As a nonprofit, it says, PLOS “is not primarily driven by short-term financial considerations, but rather by a mission to transform research communication.”
“PLOS as a nonprofit is not primarily driven by short-term financial considerations, but rather by a mission to transform research communication. PLOS is committed to ongoing collaboration with the scientific community to continually work toward this goal. As governments, funders and institutions, to their credit and to the benefit of society, increasingly require that research be made Open Access, and as the amount of research fluctuates worldwide, the peak volume in published works of research for any publisher is likely a moving target. Competition stimulates innovation, which ultimately will mean a better publishing experience for authors. PLOS is proud to be at the leading edge of this progress.”