Non-profit life science publisher PLOS is aiming for a greater slice of science beyond the biomedical realm with the launch of five journals in areas where open science is less widely embraced. These will be his first unreleased titles in 14 years. It is also piloting a new open access business model, with the aim of spreading the cost of publication more evenly among researchers.
The new business model is the publisher’s first redesign in quite some time, and it’s eagerly awaited. “PLOS is a publisher that punches above its weight,” says Michael Clarke, managing partner of publishing consultancy Clarke & Esposito in Washington DC. “Since their inception, they have had an outsized influence on the industry. After a period of rest, it is good to see a long-awaited innovation,” he adds.
In the 20 years since its inception, PLOS has blazed a trail that many mainstream journals have followed, making articles free to read and earning revenue from publication fees rather than subscriptions. But some warn that other publishers may be less likely to adopt the new model – which requires institutions to sign long-term publishing agreements – because of its complexity.
Open access pioneer
PLOS began in 2001 as the Public Library of Science, in response to an open letter signed by nearly 34,000 scientists calling for an online repository of life science articles. In 2003, she launched her first magazine, PLOS Biologywhich was funded using an unconventional business model – asking authors to pay an article processing fee to make their articles freely available to everyone.
For the past 14 years, PLOS has maintained the same portfolio of seven life science journals covering biology, medicine, computational biology, genetics and pathogens. Some of its more selective journals, such as OLP Medicine and PLOS Biologyran at a loss, but the publisher generated more revenue by launching the mega-newspaper PLOS ONEwhich accepts scientifically valid research in all disciplines.
The five new journals focus on water, climate, sustainability, global public health and digital health. Introducing non-life science titles will allow PLOS to diversify, Clarke says. “It’s important to think about possible future directions for the organization.” In the years since PLOS ONE was launched, he adds, other publishers have emulated the mega-journal concept and eroded PLOS’s market share. The publisher’s financial history is checkered. It broke even in 2010. In recent years, it has fallen into deficit, with 2019 being the first year it achieved an operating surplus since 2015.
Spread the cost
The review’s launches come as PLOS continues to pilot a business model it introduced last year. Under this program, known as Community Action Publishing, universities sign an agreement that grants their researchers unlimited publication in OLP Medicine Where PLOS Biology for a fee.
Membership fees for individual institutions range from approximately $350 to nearly $40,000 for the three-year pilot program. The cost is based on an institution’s researchers’ publication history over the past six years and takes into account whether the scientists were corresponding or contributing authors. Profits are capped at 10%, with any income above this amount being returned to members. Researchers who publish in these titles from institutions without an agreement will pay a non-member publication fee – similar to an article processing fee – which increases from year to year.
The idea behind the new model is that the cost of publishing an article is more evenly distributed among all of the authors’ institutions, rather than the corresponding author’s institution or funder footing the bill, as c is the case with item handling fees. PLOS claims that as more members join the program, it will become cheaper for researchers to publish papers. So far, more than 75 institutions in 8 countries have registered.
PLOS publishing director Niamh O’Connor says PLOS hopes to get around the idea that open access shifts the cost of publishing an article from the reader to the author. “While the article processing model has allowed open access to grow, we don’t see this as the future,” she says. “We are working for a future where these barriers are removed.”
Clarke says Community Action Publishing is a “smart plan”. Instead of collecting revenue from one-time transactions to publish individual articles, the partnership model locks institutions into longer-term financial agreements that give PLOS predictable income over several years, which could make its journals profitable. “While 10% may represent a modest profit margin, if journals are currently operating at a loss, the 10% target represents a substantial margin shift,” he says.
As science grapples with the future of publishing, there has been much debate about acceptable profit margins for publishers.
Lisa Hinchliffe, a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is a member of the Community Action Partnership, says that if many institutions are signing up for the PLOS program, it could indicate that a 10% profit margin is considered acceptable. . She also warns that since the scheme takes into account all the authors of an article, it will be complicated to manage. “I think this complexity makes adoption by other publishers less likely,” she says.
O’Connor and his team are already thinking about how they can improve access to research without reinforcing existing hierarchies that exclude researchers from low- and middle-income countries. On May 12, PLOS announced a partnership with a center that teaches communication skills to scientists, based at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The link is designed to ensure that the interests and values of African scholars are represented in the policies and services of the publisher.
“Our next phase of work isn’t just about being able to read or share an article: it’s about building a framework for equitable participation and distribution of knowledge,” says O’Connor.