Thursday, October 16, 2014

Science publishers' pyramid structure and lock-in strategies

It is not recent news that AAAS will start a digital open access multidisciplinary journal. It is called Science Advances and it will be the 4th journal of the AAAS family of journals. As I have described in the past this is part of trend in science publishing to cover wider range of perceived impact. Publishers are aiming to have journals that are highly selective and that drive brand awareness but also have journals that can publish almost any article that pass a fairly low bar of being scientifically sound. This trend was spurred by the success of PLOS One that showed that it is financially viable to have large open access journals. Financially, the best strategy today would be to have some highly selective journals with a subscription model and then a set of journals that are less selective that operate with an author paying model. 

The Nature Publishing Group has implemented this strategy very well. They increased their portfolio of open access journals with the addition of Nature Communications, Scientific Data,  Scientific Reports, the partner journals initiative and the investment/partnership with the Frontiers journals.  NPG has also expanded their set of subscription based Nature branded research and review journals. 

This combination approach is not just financially interesting it also protects the publishers from the future imposition of immediate open access via a mandate from funding agencies. Publishers that have such a structure in place would be able to survive the mandate while others that only have subscription based journals would struggle to adjust. This has the useful side-effect of actually speeding up the transition since the bulk of the papers will be increasingly published in the larger, less restrictive open access journals. If most of the research is open access there will be less justification to have subscription journals. This will also be true even for the most well cited papers, as reported recently by google scholar. 

So, many publishers are trying to build this pyramid type structure. Even AAAS is doing it albeit (apparently) very reluctantly.  One consequence of these changes is that there will be an abundance of large and permissive open access journals. Therefore, we will increasingly need better article filters, such as PubChase, as I previously discussed. These mega-journals will compete on price and features but the publishers as whole will increasingly try to lock authors into the structure. Any submission to the pyramid should be publishable in *some* journal of the publisher. If I was working in one of these publishing houses I would be thinking of ways to use brand power to attract submissions while adding such lock-in mechanisms. 

Current practiced lock-in strategies

The best well known lock-in strategy is the transfer of referee reports within journals of the same publishing house. This is a common occurrence that I have experienced before. An editor at Cell might suggest authors to transfer their rejected article and reviewer comments to Molecular Cell or Cell Reports. Nature research journals might suggest Nature Communications or Scientific Reports. Science might suggest Science Signalling or Science Advances. This can be very tempting since it can shorten the time to get the paper accepted. The usefulness of this mechanism is going to work against the idea of having peer review outsourced to an independent accredited entity. 

Cell press has an interesting mechanism that allows for co-submission to two journals at the same time (Guide to authors - Cosubmission). I never tried this but apparently one can select two journals and the article will be evaluated jointly by both editor teams. This looks more relevant for articles that fall in between two different topics that are covered by different journals. It is still an interesting way to improve the chances that a given article will find a home within this publisher. 

Another more subtle approach might be to issue a topic specific call for articles. Back in February, Nature Genetics had an editorial with a call for data analysis articles. Note that the articles will not be necessarily published in Nature Genetics and the editorial mentions explicitly Nature Communications, Scientific Data and Scientific Reports. This allows NPG to use the Nature brand power to issue a call and then spread the resulting submissions along their pyramid structure according to input from reviewers and editors. The co-publication of a large number of articles on the same topic also almost guarantees a marketing punch.

Other ideas

I am curious to see what other ideas arise and please share other similar mechanisms that you might know of. One potential additional idea that is similar to the co-submission would be to have a chained submission. At submission the publisher could already ask for an ordered list of preference for journals. We might also start to see publishers requesting from reviewers comments with a group of journals in mind from the start.
Obviously, an alternative that would place less of a burden on reviewers and editors would be a mechanism similar to what the Frontiers journals have been promoting. Articles could be initially published at a large PLOS One like journal and then increase in awareness depending on article level metrics. This approach is probably going to take a much longer time spread widely.