PLOS ONE has become what it hates

There is a nice quote from Batman: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” And with the events of #Creatorgate it appears PLOS ONE is now the villain.

PLOS ONE was established as a journal which supposedly only cared about the science of the papers it published, and not their potential impact or number of citations. This is in stark contrast to journals like Nature which only publish articles which they believe will be highly cited and highly viewed, thus maintaining the impact of their journal.

Basically, “glamour” journals don’t care at all about science, they just care about their brand. If one of their articles contains scientific flaws do they correct it? Of course not, that would make them look bad and involve actual work. Do they publish articles that contradict papers in their journal? No chance in hell!

I was not really a fan of PLOS ONE before (see my previous post). I liked the idea that they were open access, but was dismayed at the quality of their publications and never for a second thought I would submit a paper there. But with how PLOS ONE handled #Creatorgate I think PLOS ONE revealed its true colors. They don’t have a high acceptance rate because they are only looking at the scientific soundness of the papers, they accept a lot of papers for that sweet, sweet money.

How did I come to this conclusion? Despite not identifying any scientific problems with the #Creatorgate paper, they retracted it faster than sponsors left Tiger Woods during his sex scandal. This was a classic case of a large brand worried that it would lose its customers, so it gave the customers what they wanted.

The problem is PLOS ONE is not supposed to be a brand, each paper is supposed to be judged on its own merits without any implicit stamp of approval except that the science is sound. Readers are supposed to decide for themselves the quality of the paper. And in this case readers decided they didn’t like the language used, which is their right. But readers are not supposed to be able to decide which papers get retracted.

Primarily American readers of the paper reacted hysterically to the appearance of the word “Creator”, claiming that they will no longer submit papers to PLOS ONE or serve as editors or reviewers. I just want to thank these people for giving me credence to the idea that having a PhD doesn’t mean anything. I would also like to thank these people for identifying themselves as PLOS ONE editors. Now I know who to blame for all the shit that gets published there.

Worried about their reputation, PLOS ONE quickly gave in to the growing mob. Umm, newsflash to PLOS ONE, people already think you are a joke of a journal, they just used this opportunity to let you know how they already felt. And now, by retracting the paper under a vague premise, citing problems with the “scientific rationale” of the paper, you’ve somehow become even more of a joke.

You claim the comment section of the article is meant for post-publication peer-review. And in this case peers voiced their concerns, and the authors responded with an apology and said the use of word “Creator” was an honest mistake. Isn’t that post-publication peer-review working? Why wasn’t that enough for you? Oh yeah, I forgot, some obscure “scientific rationale” problem.

Well I’m calling bullshit. All you care about is your bottom line, and you saw that bottom line moving in the wrong direction. You wanted to squelch this story before the angry mob got any bigger and started finding the other bodies you have buried in the woods. The #Creatorgate paper took months to get noticed because you publish so many papers no one has the time to sort through them (apparently not even you). What would happen if people started looking carefully at PLOS ONE papers? How many hashtags would get generated?

It’s clear PLOS ONE no longer believes (or never believed?) in transparency and open access. Why not explain to us what other problems were found in this paper? Why not describe what happened in the peer-review process and let us know what you will be doing differently to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Why keep everything cloak and dagger? Afraid at what we’ll see?

In my mind PLOS ONE is no better than the “glamour” journals that it supposedly hates. Actually, it’s worse. At least the other journals have the balls to stand by their publications in the face of criticism, as wrongheaded as they might be. Those journals have policies and they stick to them. Yes, it’s unfortunate that their policy is “fuck you, we’re Nature”, but at least they stand by it. PLOS ONE’s policy seems to be: “we believe in whatever will result in the highest number of papers getting published in our journal and giving us the largest profit”, basically the Hillary Clinton dogma.

So is PLOS ONE going to retract any paper that gets highly criticized? I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out. I never planned on submitting papers to a PLOS journal, and now I definitely never will. I have a strict “no little bitch” policy, and I stand by it.