Monday, November 21, 2016

PLOS CEO steps down as publisher embarks on “third revolution”


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.”