PLoS: Revolution, or Mere Brand?

Late last week I spoke with Dr. Danielle N. Lee about having a paper rejected from a scientific journal—from the policy section of a scientific journal—on the grounds that it wasn’t considered sufficiently interesting. The topic was a US government process examining the risks and benefits of “gain-of-function research resulting in the creation of potential pandemic pathogens.” My paper was an examination of the ethical issues associated with the process, including the issue of representation in the governing bodies that framed, pursued, and answered the policy process.

The publication that rejected this paper was PLoS Medicine.

The editorial committee of that journal noted that my article:

provides useful insight into topics, such as competing interests and how they might be managed…Unfortunately, we do feel that your article will be of most interest to those currently involved in debates around [dual-use research of concern] and not the wider audience that reads PLOS Medicine.

The abstract of my article, which included mention of competing interests, and explicitly noted the ethical focus of the paper, received a favorable presubmission inquiry. I was faithful to the limits the editor assigned to my paper provided, but at the end of the day it was decided that the article simply wasn’t relevant to the PLoS audience.

I’m not terribly upset about the rejection: it is part of the business of writing for journals. And I have no problem with a journal’s disinterest in my topic—that happens all the time. The issue, however, is that PLoS has, and does publish articles on this topic, written by scientists, (not bioethicists, or policy analysts) just this month. So it isn’t the topic that is uninteresting. Rather, it is a close examination of the topic, from a perspective that isn’t already enmeshed in the dominant narrative of science, that isn’t interesting. Scientists, according to PLoS, aren’t interested in a critique of representation and ethics in science and science policy—especially, I gather, if that critique comes from outside the scientific establishment.

This presents a conflict of interest for scientific publications. Journals have very little incentive to challenge the government and funding agencies that are responsible for the research that fills their pages. They have even less incentive to publish work that challenges the commitments of their readership. It is a more or less heroic act for a journal to publish an article that takes its readership to task; the first example that comes to mind is the New England Journal of Medicine publication authored by Henry Beecher (paywall), calling out unethical medical expeiriments that occured in the twenty years following World War Two.

Instead, the bioethics and health policy articles that reach the scientific community are largely situated as op-eds (reinforcing the opinion that bioethics and health policy are “mere opinion”), privilege scientists and physicians as authors, are limited in their scope, and are likely to be conservative relative to the values of the scientific community. Everything else is likely to be relegated to journals that the scientific community don’t read. That’s not exactly a recipe for progress.

PLoS has the capacity to change that, but I fear that it won’t. For all that it is marketed as a revolution, open access doesn’t change scientists, and thus is unlikely to change science. Changing an access barrier doesn’t mean that the culture embedded within that system must necessarily change.

I wasn’t planning on publishing this until I’d finished a couple of other projects, but today it was revealed that a peer reviewer—a single peer reviewer—caused a paper under review in the PLoS family to be rejected on sexist and inappropriate grounds. The article, authored by Fiona Ingleby (University of Sussex) and Megan Head (Australian National University) , investigated gender differences in Ph.D.-to-postdoctoral transitions. The charming review had this to say:

It seems that more than just having a problem with ethics and ethicists, PLoS isn’t capable of holding a sustained conversation about the social, ethical, and political structure of science. Its editorial process allowed a paper to be rejected, under peer review, because there weren’t enough male authors. In many ways, PLoS’ open-access policy allows those historically excluded from science to see what is going on. Getting in and providing a substantive critique of that exclusion, however, faces significantly higher access barriers than a paywall.

That’s a blow to an organization whose authors—and, I presume, readership—describe its business model as a revolution. Other journals don’t promote the same image of their efforts changing the way science is done: if you want to call Nature an embodiment of science today—flaws and all—that’s more or less consistent with how Nature purports to operate.  PLoS claims a different status, but I fear it is more a rhetorical device than a substantive change in the way business is really done in science.

One of my doctoral supervisors, Seumas Miller (who I can almost guarantee will never be published in PLoS) noted that for a system to possess integrity, it needs more than simply the right set of top-down regulations. It also needs a commitment to ethics, and it needs to put that front and center. It has to structure its regulatory framework—and peer-review and editorial are both regulatory frameworks—in a way that promotes and reflects the ethical commitments of the institution and its members.

I’m not sure that an editorial-driven, non-anonymised review process can do that. A journal family that doesn’t establish a commitment to the social and ethical issues in its own field, and designs its journals and review processes around that, won’t succeed at generating substantive changes in the way science gets done. PLoS is a political project within science, but it needs to operate on a basis of reform that is more developed than a mere commitment to open access. The revolution won’t be complete until that happens.

I don’t expect a PLoS Ethics and Science Policy to happen any time soon. Researchers in that domain rarely have the $2900 on hand for publication in PLoS, and I don’t expect the journal family will fund such an endeavor at a loss. But if there is room for that kind of venture—and the Eisens still want to talk to me after this—I think it would be truly revolutionary.


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