There's no love lost between open access PLoS (Public Library of Science) and print journals. Nature doesn't think much of PLoS, for example, and PLoS says they created the company to make science less insular so it isn't any surprise that that a new PLoS essay by Neal Young, John Ioannidis and Omar Al-Ubaydli claims that the current system of publishing medical and scientific research provides "a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic."

They apply shade-tree-mechanic economics principles to support their idea of the distortion. There is an "extreme imbalance," they say, between the abundance of supply (science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact to be valuable to the authors - let's come back to that part later). Scientific information, they say, is an economic commodity and the 'consumers' are other scientists, patients, funding agencies, etc.

The result of the imbalance, they note accurately, is that only a small proportion of all research studies are chosen for publication in the best journals, and these results are unrepresentative of scientists' overall work.

They're interested primarily in biomedical research but they broaden it out and use the general term 'science' and so shall I. They argue that there is a 'moral imperative' to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.

Unclear on why any business has a 'moral imperative' to sell its product in a way all people like? Me either, else the cigarette business has a brilliant new marketing campaign. And what do moral imperatives have to do with science? Well, not much, but it's an essay ... in PLoS ... so scientific scrutiny is not mandated here. But it will get attention because AAAS Eurekalert will seemingly print anything PLoS throws into a press release, which may mean that science press release distribution needs fixed just as much as publishing in journals.

They make a good point, despite the fellow traveller appeal to moral imperatives and being published as much as they want - namely that while published articles have risen in quantity, they have not kept pace with the sheer amount of data produced. This does not mean all studies are great; a few times per month we make fun of the more ridiculous peer-reviewed studies here. But journals, they say, have the luxury of only publishing true impact studies and a lot of other research gets less attention. I'll come back to that too.

The error they seem to be making is one of methodology. They say that 'consumers' (other scientists) are somehow hurt if studies are not published in the very best journals. Since they seek to use an economic justification, I will also. It's like saying customers are hurt if they can't buy Cheerios at Niemann-Marcus, though they can buy them at Wal-Mart just fine. If studies are good, yet they don't get cited because they're not in the best journals, then it's the fault of the other researchers (the 'consumers' supposedly being hurt by not having everything in impact journals) for being elitist and shallow, not the fault of the journals.

In true economics, a preponderance of quality research going into other journals would make the other journals the new place to be read. The market would adapt. Seattle once had good music but then Omaha had good stuff instead. The authors of this essay seem to be arguing that distribution should be nationalized so output will increase - and they think quality will not go down.

Indeed, with so much quality research not getting published in the high impact journals, true economics says more journals will come into existence. Any time there is high demand and high supply but poor distribution a new distributor will appear. And if their economic model is true, journals are simply that - a distributor. This isn't the diamond industry, where one supplier can constrict supply artificially to keep demand high, the supply is already there.

PLoS came into existence because they wanted to make science open access and because of the volume they publish they had a lower threshold for peer review, but two of their publications became quite well respected and the bar is now higher to get published there. Unlike Nature or other print journals, though, they have no print costs so they can literally publish everything that researchers willing to spend $2500 will send them. That isn't so easy when there is paper and ink involved.

It also has to be considered that there is an agenda in their essay. 'Artificial scarcity' that can be solved by an online competitor to print journals is an obvious answer (PLoS) though they seem to be striving to remain neutral on other ground.

Heck, they are so middle of the road they even manage to cover both the science and religion segments of society when they write; "Some may accept the current publication system as the ideal culmination of an evolutionary process. However, this order is hardly divinely inspired;"

That's middle of the road, folks.

So what say you? Is more competition for a few spots making better scientists get the best rewards? The NBA and baseball and all sports tend to think that way. Being the 26th player on a baseball team makes you really good, just not good enough to get a baseball card.

Or are journals selling the sizzle and not the steak by just choosing the studies that get publicity and generate profitable reprint sales?

If they are, I don't see why someone doesn't start a new journal. Scientific Blogging is doing quite nicely though no one said two years ago there was any huge demand for another science publication. So I see no reason why a new print journal publisher can't come into existence. I see no reason why it can't be us.

Citation: Young NS, Ioannidis JPA, Al-Ubaydli O (2008) Why current publication practices may distort science. PLoS Med 5(10): e201. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050201