Into the Future – or Off the Deep End?

Back in June, I got a press release about the pending launch of a new research journal. Ordinarily, releases like that are just background noise in my day – publishers are constantly launching new scientific journals, and few end up amounting to much. Indeed, this note wasn’t even about a launch, just a pending launch. If you’re sending out a press release about something you’re merely thinking of publishing, it means one of two things: either you’re very cocky, or you’re PLoS.

PLoS, the Public Library of Science, is the group that shook up science publishing a few years ago with a revolutionary new “open access” journal. They’ve subsequently grown into a mini-empire, now offering PLoS-branded open access journals in a wide range of fields. All papers published in PLoS journals are free for anyone to read. Most other research journals charge – often a lot – for subscriptions and article reprints.

The launch of PLoS stimulated everything from a lively and still running debate among scientists to an ominous piece of Federal legislation. Viewed in this light, PLoS’s press releases about their plans aren’t arrogant – they’re just fair warning.

So what is this new shape looming in the distance? From the press release and the pre-launch Web site, PLoS One seems to be a Nature-meets-Wikipedia chimera. Scientists will submit their work like a regular paper, and peer review will proceed as usual, but the final decision on publishing it will rest entirely on technical standards, without regard to qualitative factors like “expected impact” or “interest to a general reader.”

That’s somewhat revolutionary by itself, as it would eliminate the usual disciplinary boundaries most journals follow. If they stick to this plan, PLoS One will cover everything from astrophysics to antelope mating patterns, and the papers’ significance will range from major paradigm-shifting findings to arcane observations that will only interest a few.

But wait, there’s more. Once a paper is published, the PLoS site will let users add comments, corrections, and running debates to it. There will also be a feature for voting on a paper’s significance, providing a MySpace-like popularity contest. It looks like authors will be able to comment on their own papers, too, providing updates and revisions.

This could be the beginning a bold new future for science publishing, or it could be a catastrophic disaster. I seriously doubt it will be anywhere in between. Optimistically, I can imagine researchers focusing more on their work and less on getting it into a top journal, a goal that’s often at odds with intellectual rigor. PLoS might finally restore something resembling a true meritocracy to the publishing process. Pessimistically, I can easily envision researchers shunning the journal for fear that tenure committees and granting agencies won’t take publications there seriously. More insidious problems are also lurking in the shadows. It’s not hard to imagine how a popularity-voting system could make academic politics even more toxic than they already are, and it’s still unclear that a system like this is a safe place to store the scientific heritage of mankind. Will someone really be able to decipher these Web-based publications 20, 30, or 100 years from now?

We’ve been warned. Now we’ll have to wait and see what happens.