PLOS is anti-elitist! PLOS is elitist! The weird world of open access journalism.

In 2005 I submitted an essay about science publishing to a political magazine. I got a polite reply back saying that the article was interesting and the issue important but that my approach wasn’t right for them. My piece was too straightforward. Too persuasive. They preferred articles that had a simple “hook” and, most importantly, were “counterintuitive”.

Zoom forward a decade and I finally get what they were looking for. In the last few months two articles about open access have appeared in political magazines, both having “counterintuitive” points.

The first,  “The Duck Penis Paradox: Is too much Internet pop science drowning out the serious stuff?” by Alice Robb appeared in September in The New Republic. I spoke to Robb extensively as she worked on the article (although I got labeled “voluble” for my efforts), and as I started to read it, I was reasonably pleased. Although she was a bit flippant, Robb did a credible job of describing the motivation behind PLOS ONE and our rise in the publishing world.

But then she got to her “counterintuitive” point:

So, in many ways, Eisen has won. More people have more access to more studies than ever before. Science has never been so democratic. It’s just not clear whether democracy is what science needs.

Robb goes on, describing how actually reading about the variety of science people are doing gave her a headache, and laments the potential loss of filters:

The traditional journals may be inefficient, but they serve a purpose. By establishing a hierarchy, they help direct scientists’ and journalists’ limited attention to the research that deserves it.

So, basically, Robb was complaining that PLOS is bad because it is anti-elitist – that we may not like elitist journals, but we NEED them, lest we leave poor science journalists dangling in the wind, forced to actually read papers and figure out what’s interesting on their own.

Nevermind, that said meritocracy is demonstrably flawed. Nevermind that the current system of peer review sucks at identifying good quality and important science. Nevermind that anyone who pays attention to science – and Science – should know “high quality” journals routinely publish crap. After researching the issue, Robb concluded that even a dysfunctional elitist hierarchy is better than no elitist hierarchy.

In retrospect, this should not have surprised me. For as long as I can remember – and long before that too – The New Republic has been a great defender of our current “meritocracy” in all areas of life. So why should it be a surprise that they view efforts to democratize science as a bad thing.

Robb’s piece of reminiscent of an editorial that appeared in The Harvard Crimson shortly after PLOS ONE was launched:

Getting into Harvard is hard, very hard. Yearly the gatekeepers in Byerly Hall vet thousands of applicants on their merits, rejecting many times the number of students that they accept. But getting a scientific paper published in Science or Nature, today’s pre-eminent scientific journals, is oftentimes harder.

Science, like much of academia, has its own admissions committee. Though over a million manuscripts are published in journals yearly, many more are submitted and rejected. The gatekeepers of science—peer reviewers who are reputable scientists and well versed in a particular field—advise journal editors whether to reject a manuscript outright, send it back for revisions, or publish it.

Without a peer review process to separate the revolutionary papers from the merely good from the rubbish, scientists will have no way of knowing which discoveries and experiments merit their time and interest. Instead, they will spend inordinate amounts of time wading through the quicksand of junk science to get to truly interesting work. Peer reviewers are chosen as peer reviewers for a reason—unlike the hoi polloi that roam the Internet, they have the knowledge and experience to judge scientific research on its merits.

I responded at the time:

As a Harvard graduate and co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), I was appalled by your editorial, “Keep Science in Print” in which you condemn our new journal PLoS One. The article is too ill-informed and riddled with factual inaccuracies to be taken seriously as an attack on our efforts to rejuvenate peer review by opening up the process to all members of the scientific community. I would normally feel compelled to correct all these errors, but fortunately I don’t have to. Perhaps sensing the opportunity for delicious irony, the “hoi polloi that roam the Internet” have identified and corrected your mistakes in the open commentary you provided for this article.

They did not, however, respond to your repellent effort to rally the forces of elitism to derail a project whose primary aim is to rapidly bring scientific knowledge to everyone. Elite scientific journals are, you argue, like the Harvard admissions committee—carefully separating revolutionary papers from the merely good, just as Byerly Hall culls the unworthy from the ranks of each year’s freshman class. I couldn’t agree more. The two are very similar—and both are deeply flawed. It is impossible for even the smartest scientists to recognize the true merit of a paper before it is published, just as it is impossible to identify the smartest and most talented scholars on the basis of their high school grades and SAT scores.

Think, if you will, of PLoS One as a large public university—our doors are open to papers that might not earn admission to Science or Nature. But, over time, many of these papers will turn out to be outstanding. Once they see PLoS One, we are confident that consumers of scientific papers will discover what employers have long ago: If you’re looking for the imprimatur of greatness, try Nature or Harvard—but if you want the real thing, try PLoS One or Berkeley.

Although I am disappointed that the conversation about PLOS ONE hasn’t really changed in a decade, both The Crimson and TNR were right in calling PLOS ONE an attack on elitism in science. We just differ in whether we think that’s a good thing.

With this critique of PLOS in mind, it was surprising to read an article published earlier this week, “Free Access to Science Research Doesn’t Benefit Everyone” by Rose Eveleth that comes at open access (and open science in general) with a different “counterintuitive” point. She too starts off with a generally favorable outlook on openness, but quickly comes to a different conclusion: that PLOS is TOO elitist:

Making something open isn’t a simple check box or button—it takes work, money, and time. Often those pushing for open access aren’t the ones who will have to implement it. And for those building their careers, and particularly for underrepresented groups who already face barriers in academia, being open isn’t necessarily the right choice.

Melissa Bates, a physiology researcher at the University of Iowa, says that when it comes to making papers open access, it’s not fair to ask graduate students and early career scientists to bear the brunt of the responsibility. “There’s this idea that open access is this ethical and moral thing, that it’s a morally and ethically grounded movement, and I can appreciate in a sense that it is,” she said. “But there’s also a business model to how science is done.”

That business model isn’t all that different in science publishing than it is in any other kind of print publishing. Putting out a journal costs money. And someone, whether it’s the university, the scientists, the government, the public, or some benevolent billionaire, has to pay for it. Much scientific research is funded by taxpayers. But the editorial process—the printing, the hosting, and the rest of it—is not. “In principle, Open Access is what I call doing the right thing,” said Alan Leshner, the executive publisher of Science, a journal the keeps its papers closed for the first year after they’re published, and then opens them up to the public. “It would be great if we could afford open access to everything we publish immediately. The problem is it costs $50 million a year to publish Science.” Somebody has to foot that bill, he says.

When a paper is accepted to a journal that isn’t automatically open access, in some cases scientists can pay a certain amount of money to release it to the world. Those publishing fees can be thousands of dollars for each paper. Open-access advocates argue that it’s worth the money to put the work out there, but Bates points out that often grants will have a limit to how much someone can spend on publishing fees. Gezelter says that that economic tension is a big one in labs. “Would you rather publish these 10 papers open access or would you rather hire a grad student for a year?” he asks. “It leaves individual scientists in an ethical quandary,” Bates said. “The answer for me is always going to be: I’m going to pay a person.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but Eveleth’s basic argument is that open access is a high-minded ideal being pushed on young scientists by an elite who don’t understand, or don’t appreciate, the challenges of doing science in the modern world. I agree completely that the system as a whole pushes people away from open access, both in terms of career development (pressure comes from many directions pushing people to publish in the highest impact journals, irrespective of how they are run) and financially (universities heavily subsidize the costs of getting access to subscription journals, but do little to offset the costs of open access journals). There has been a tendency in the OA community (myself included) to put our hopes in young scientists (since the publishing behavior of most established scientists has proven themselves to be beyond amendment.  But that’s not fair or reasonable (something previous interactions with Bates helped me to appreciate). So there is value in this piece for shining light on a aspect of open access that hasn’t received a lot of press play.

I really like Eveleth’s writing. But I feel that this piece did not do justice to the past or present of open access in several important ways.

One of the central premises of the story is that costs associated with open access publishing (or open source software) make it a luxury that many can not afford. There is some truth to this – the move to open access publishing has shifted the way in which money is transferred from scientists to journals. Although it costs the system way less when people publish in open access journals – the average revenue for subscription journals is around $6,000 a paper, more than even the most expensive open access journals, and several times more than the cost of publishing in PLOS ONE – subscription costs are almost completely subsidized by universities, while open access charges rarely are. Thus the money it takes to publish in an open access journal comes out of research funds, while subscription costs do not.

However Eveleth raises this issue as if it’s something new – an unexpected, and unappreciated, side effect of open access publishing. But this is not a new problem. Supporters of open access have long been aware that until the ~$10b currently spent every year on subscriptions is diverted and used to support publishing in other ways, mechanisms must be developed to help authors whose grant funds are insufficient to cover up front charges to publish in open access journals. And Eveleth fails to mention the many initiatives designed to address this issue. PLOS (and many other OA publishers) offer fee waivers to authors who are unable to pay the publication fee, and to my knowledge PLOS has never turned away a paper on financial grounds. Furthermore, many funding agencies will cover the costs of OA for their grantees. And an  increasing number of universities have open access funds that will cover or help defray these costs for scientists at their institutions. Bates’ own University of Iowa has such a fund, although it is limited to researchers without grants.

And the situation with publishing costs is far more complicated than the story lets on. Many subscription journals also charge authors who publish there – in some cases more than it costs to publish in open access journals. Bates, for example, published an article in the Journal of Applied Physiology last year.  This journal charges authors a $50 submission fee, and $75 per page in the final PDF. At 9 pages, this article would have cost them $725. That’s a bit less than publishing in PLOS ONE, but not more than it would have cost to publish in Peer J. And this is low compared to the cost of publishing in other subscription journals. PNAS charges $1700 per article, for example. While it’s “free” to publish in ScienceNature or Cell, they charge ~$1000 if you have a color figure (which most articles do). Thus, at an institution that has funds to support open access publishing, it might actually be cheaper to publish in open access journals than in many subscription journals.

I am not denying that that people are under severe financial pressure these days, and there are certainly many authors who do not have access to institutional funds to cover these costs. It’s a systemic failure when funding agencies (e.g. the NIH) and institutions that claim they support open access publishing but leave authors in a position where they have to choose between publishing in open access journals and having some extra research funds. But it was incorrect of Eveleth to suggest that these financial challenges are unique to open access.

This has been a disturbing trend in journalism about open access lately. It’s become fairly common for people to take a problem with publishing, note that this problem applies to open access journals, and make this a problem for open access. The most egregious example was the “open access sting” carried out by John Bohannon in which he submitted a bogus paper exclusively to open access journals, found that many accepted it, and concluded that open access journals had a problem with peer review. If we are worried about ensuring all scientists have unfettered ability to publish their work – as we should be – we should worry about obstacles to publishing in all journals, not just open access ones.

Leaving the author charges issue, Eveleth  chose to wade briefly into the broader economics of scholarly publishing, quoting Alan Leshner, the outgoing publisher of Science, citing the fact that it costs $50,000,000 to publish Science, and complaining, “Somebody has to foot that bill.” But this point is left hanging – with no discussion or response. By doing this Eveleth says to her readers – many of whom, because the story was published outside of the science press, are learning about open access for the first time – that these is a valid and open criticism of open access, for which there is no response. When, in reality, Leshner has been saying the same thing for over a decade, and I and other open access advocates have a detailed response. I don’t necessarily expect Eveleth to rehash the whole open access debate, but to leave it seeming that this is some kind of new, unanswered critique of open access does not do justice to the history of this subject.

There are several problems with Leshner’s statement. Yes, it costs $50,000,000 to publish Science. And there is no way these costs could be covered by the thousand or so authors of research articles it publishes each year ($50,000 a paper would tax even the most well-heeled labs). But the fact that Science can not come up with a business model that would allow it to make the papers it publishes freely available is not a problem with open access, it’s a problem with Science.

One of the main reasons that Science is so expensive (its cost of ~$50,000 per paper is roughly 10x the industry average, which is already absurdly high) is that it employs highly paid editors to screen papers, and rejects the vast majority of them. I don’t know the exact numbers, but probably only one in fifty submissions is ultimately published. Thus, even with a fairly gilded staff, their cost per submitted paper is a much more reasonable $1,000. The problem with Science (and NatureCell and other high profile journals) is that this “review but reject most papers” is that it’s a relic of the print age, when space in a printed journal was limited by the cost of paper and shipping. But those costs are gone. And instead Science maintains a false scarcity to drive up the value of its brand. The alternative is a system in which we decouple the act of publishing and review – to have a system in which all papers are rigorously assessed, but where the assessment – whether good or bad – is simply published alongside the paper, rather than used as the basis for an absurd partitioning of papers into the 20,000 silos we call journals. (I’ve written about this more extensively here and here).  People might not agree this is a better solution – but given that Eveleth raised this issue, it is a disservice to the topic and her readers that she didn’t contextualize Leshner’s quote properly.

After raising the cost issue, Eveleth moves on to argue that open access is a also luxury of a non-financial sort – that only to people who are well established, and that publishing in open access journals is intrinsically bad for one’s career. I know that everybody believes that a paper in Science, Nature, Cell, NEJM or JAMA  is a ticket to career success, and that to some extent this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I think that – despite this near universal perception – that the effect isn’t nearly as strong as people think. There is certainly a correlation between career success and publishing in these journals. But as we all know, correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and I think it’s very possible that that people get jobs/grants/tenure as well as big 5 publications because the same criteria are applied in hiring, promotion and funding as are applied in selecting papers for publication.

I understand why Bates and most other scientists say that they will always choose to publish in these journals if offered the chance, because it is something under their control that they believe might lead to greater career success. But it’s disappointing that an excellent journalist like Eveleth just takes this assumption at face value instead of questioning it or at least pushing back on people who assert it as if it is a fact.

Finally, Eveleth makes the point that open access is elitist because it is particularly dangerous to pursue for scientists early in their careers. It is, of course, obviously true that scientists at different stages of their careers face different challenges. I am, personally, more able to take risks than, say a postdoc looking for a job, or an untenured, unfunded new PI. But nearly every paper I have ever published, and nearly every paper anyone ever publishes, has primary authors who are not well established. It’s the way science works. A graduate student, postdoc or other young scientists is the first author on the vast majority of papers published. And so nearly every paper involves someone in a vulnerable position in their career who would stand to benefit from whatever boost one gets from publishing a high impact paper. Thus the oft-repeated idea that there is some special subset of open access papers where the authors can safely publish in open access journals, while the authors of other papers can not, is, to a large extent, not true.

In saying that I am not trying to argue that Bates or any other scientist should be asked to gratuitously endanger their careers for the greater good. Or that everyone faces anything remotely like equal challenges in building a successful career in science. Rather I think it is important to note that the concerns Bates expresses apply far more broadly than the article implies. Indeed, as successful as open access publishing has been, it is one of the movement’s great failings that we have not succeeded in upending the system to the extent that people like Bates, who appears to genuinely support the ideals of open access, feel like publishing in open access journals is the best way to build their careers. Until we change this, the movement for greater openness in science will not succeed.

So, despite its failings in accurately representing open access, Eveleth’s piece serves a useful purpose. I believe the open access movement is driven primarily by anti-elitist sentiments – a desire to free information, to remove its control from the forces of commerce, and to break down the elitist hegemony of high-profile journals. But the elitist risks in open access are real. I don’t think they’re the fault of the open access movement – we have tried from the beginning to have the powers that control the funds used on subscriptions use them instead to fully subsidize open access fees; we have tried to undermine and ultimately destroy the impact factor driven culture of high-profile journals and their perceived role in hiring, funding and promotion. But the forces of inertia have, so far, been too strong. But our fault or not, it is crucial that we listen to the concerns of young scientists like Bates and try to make sure that open access really is accessible to everyone.

[NOTE: In the original version of this piece I suggested the Iowa open access fund would have covered Bates’ open access fees. It wouldn’t have as it was restricted to researchers without grants. I apologize for suggesting otherwise and for being an asshole about it.]

This entry was posted in open access. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted December 26, 2014 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    Well, Mike, you’ve made a very valiant attempt to be “fair” to these two idiot pieces, and that’s honourable. But you were right on target in your analysis up front: the problem here is magazines that want to find a “controversial” angle in an area where there simply is no legitimate controversy. Authors who meet that brief can’t help but write nonsense, just like authors who try to write a “controversial” piece on the two sides to the climate-change argument. In the end, this is a very fundamental failure of journalism — magazines that want to publish something that fits their preconceived ideas of what their pieces should look like, rather than wanting to publish what’s true.

    “Eveleth’s basic argument is that open access is a high-minded ideal being pushed on young scientists by an elite who don’t understand, or don’t appreciate, the challenges of doing science in the modern world.”

    That would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. The truth is almost exactly the converse, of course: open access is an ideal being pushed by young scientists on an elite who don’t understand. Thank heavens we have people like Erin McKiernan (“If I am going to ‘make it’ in science, it has to be on terms I can live with.”)

    • Posted December 26, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      I agree that open access is an ideal being pushed on an elite who don’t understand. But I’m not sure it’s right to say it’s a movement pushed by young people. Erin is spectacular, but I think Melissa Bates is probably more representative of young scientists today. She believes in the ideal of open access. But is trying to build her career and doesn’t see open access as the MOST important problem. It would be great if everyone were as committed to the cause as Erin, but if we’re going to really succeed we have to create a system that doesn’t force people who are intrinsically on our side to choose between our priorities and theirs. And challenge number one is changing the system so that people do not see open access as something that is bad for their careers or lab bottom line.

  2. Posted December 26, 2014 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    Dr. Eisen,

    I am not “unaware” of the fund, but it is sweet of you to imply my ignorance (and Rose’s). I would draw your attention to this line on the page:

    This assistance is not available to researchers with funding (grants, research startup funds, etc.) which could be used to pay open access fees.

    Now, I was lucky enough at my previous institution to have funding for my work and I have grant and start up funds available now. Thus, I (like many researchers) am not eligible for this fund. I am listed as an author in PubMed on 9 papers in 2014 and I have 3 more in press. Publications fees were paid for two of them, if I recall – my publication in PLoSOne and JAPPL. I chose those publications because they were the most appropriate place to put my work based on the journal’s mission statements regardless of their OA status, but if I had put all of my papers in PLoS Medicine purely as a result of my dedication to the OA movement, I’d be looking at $34,800 for the year. I’m hoping 2015 will be equally good to me, so it would be completely unreasonable to publish every paper there. I’d also much rather fund a graduate student for a year than pay the OA option for a publication at JAPPL, especially when my work is freely available there in 12 months. As long as I continue to have funding, your argument that my university would simply pay my OA fees from some magical fund is absurd at best, disingenuous at worst.

    OA as it fits into the business enterprise of science makes no sense to me. I’m not sure exactly where these submission fees to PLoS go, beyond funding the infrastructure of the journal. I know where my publication fees to society journals go. One of the benefits of publishing with my society is that, in part, the publication and subscription fees collected by the society subsidize their activities which include supporting trainee scientists, lobbying on my behalf for the support of the NIH and my ability to continue to responsibly use animals in research, and serving as repository of free information and tools for K-12 teachers. They do a fantastic job and these are activities that I value….

    • Posted December 26, 2014 at 5:48 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry about the details of the Iowa fund. I interpreted the language differently, not that anyone with a grant is ineligible, but rather than anyone who didn’t have funds available (i.e. they were tapped out) could apply. I’m sorry I suggested otherwise, and, more importantly, for being an asshole about it.

      As for your situation, you are an unusually productive researcher. 12 papers per year has to put you into the top 1% in that regard. So I don’t think the equivalence of OA fees = graduate student is right for most researchers. Nonetheless, as I said, the very fact that you – or anyone – is ever in a position where they feel like they have to choose between paying for open access and doing something in the lab is a systemic failure. I just wish the piece had pointed the finger more squarely at a broken scholarly publishing system, rather than suggesting it is a failing of open access.

  3. Bio Data Scientist
    Posted December 26, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink


    I like the idea of open-access publishing. And while the overall costs to the system are less than for many other journals (as you describe in this post), the price to publish in PLOS is still *very* high, whether or not you are publishing 12 times a year. Melissa asks some important questions about where the money goes. I have yet to see a transparent, detailed description of this (including any financial benefit you may receive from PLOS). You are surely aware of the Journal of Machine Learning Research, which is transparent about its funding model and costs $6.50 per article to publish ( Surely PLOS’ expenses for the actual publishing process cannot be exhorbitantly higher. But even if PLOS’ costs are 10x, that would be $65 per article. Where does the rest of the money go? I appreciate the efforts that PLOS makes at activism. But funds for such activism should come from deliberate efforts to support such activism rather than as a byproduct of the publishing process.

    The fact that CNS journals are exploiting the academic system doesn’t justify PLOS also doing so, even if it is to a lesser degree and via a different business model.

    Please help me understand. Maybe if I understand better, I can be more supportive of your efforts.


    • Posted December 26, 2014 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

      First of all, I get absolutely no financial anything from PLOS. I have volunteered my time to the organization for almost 15 years, have spent thousands of my own dollars on the organization in various ways, and the only material benefits I’ve received are a few t-shirts.

      As for the costs. I agree that the costs of publishing in PLOS are way higher than ideal. But you greatly underestimate our expenses. Even for PLOS ONE, which is our least expensive journal to operate, it costs us well over 100x the $6.50 per article number you cite. There are two main expenses – staff who screen submissions, oversee the peer review process (find editors, chase reviewers, etc…), and manage publication ; and infrastructure to handle the conversion of submitted documents into a final publishable form. (For PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine there is also the expense of professional editors). We could dispense with all of these things and run an essentially automated journal like JMLR, but few members of the biomedical research community would publish there. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. However that doesn’t mean the costs will remain that high. When PLOS launched we didn’t have the resources to rebuild the publishing infrastructure. But we do now, and are in the middle of a multi-year process that – I hope – will create a system that is far more efficient and automated – and thus a lot cheaper. It’s my goal as a PLOS board member to see the cost of publishing in our journals drop to the point where researchers consider it to be trivial. But we’re not there yet.

      As for where the money goes. PLOS is a non-profit. For our first 7 years our expenses exceeded our revenue, and we were sustained by grants from foundations. But that was a startup subsidy, and we had to achieve financial independence, which we have now done. For the past few years our revenue has exceeded our expenses. But as a non-profit, all of that money goes back into the company. We are now using it to build a modern publishing system. This system will be completely open source and available, for free, to anyone else who wants to launch their own journals.

      • Bio Data Sci
        Posted December 27, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Thanks for the explanations. It’s nice to hear that perspective. I will make one correction. JMLR is not an automated journal. Volunteers from the academic (computer science) community do all editorial tasks and editing. It is one of the top journals in its field. The same model may not yet be feasible in this field. But it has been done and can be done in that field.

        • Posted December 28, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

          I agree it can be done. We’d all be fine is we set up a cheap server with WordPress installed and let people blog their papers for free.

  4. Posted December 26, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Posted December 29, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post, it was really informative for me. I would like to ask you what is the source of this estimation: “(…) the average revenue for subscription journals is around $6,000 a paper”

    • Posted December 29, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      It comes from the STM (science, technology and medicine) publisher’s statistics about the total revenue of journals in the industry and the number of articles they publish (~$10b and ~1.7m articles).

  6. Mick Watson
    Posted January 1, 2015 at 4:21 am | Permalink
  7. JmZ4
    Posted January 4, 2015 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    “Instead, they will spend inordinate amounts of time wading through the quicksand of junk science to get to truly interesting work. ”
    -This struck me as hilarious that they think the answer is to install gatekeepers, instead of taking steps to reduce the amount of “junk” science. Especially given the header on your blog.
    Really all we’d need then is to keep peer review, and for publishing go with a slightly more secure Reddit of Science.

3 Trackbacks