27.07.2017

So long, PLOS Computational Biology


Today I resigned from the PLOS Computational Biology Editorial Board. If you are looking for a juicy story about some mini scandal, I am afraid to disappoint. My experience with the journal has been only positive, and it's a step I haven't taken lightly. In this blog post, I'd like to outline my reasons, because they reflect a bit my views on academia, and therefore may be of interest to some visitors of this website.

I've been a big fan of the PLOS philosophy when it started, and I remain a fan and a strong supporter. Let's never forget that when PLOS started, open access publishing was nowhere near mainstream. In fact, PLOS was the weird, nerdy guy that had this crazy idea about what the world should look like. It was the guy with the shirt saying "be the change you want to see in the world". Just a few years later, the tables have turned dramatically. Open access publishing is the new normal, and funders and publishers are slowly but very clearly moving towards making open access publishing mandatory. It's been very disappointing to see good colleagues continuing to publish their papers in closed access journals, putting career thinking ahead of making their findings broadly accessible to the world. But that's a story for another post. PLOS will forever be on the historical record as having decisively changed the scientific publishing world.

Because I loved the PLOS philosophy, I started publishing in PLOS early on, and PLOS Computational Biology seemed particularly relevant for the kind of work I was doing. I always liked sending my work there, and now 3 of my 5 most cited papers are papers published in PLOS Computational Biology. I was then asked to get on the editorial board, and a few years later I was asked to become deputy editor. It started to be more and more work, but working for a good cause was definitely worth the effort.

So why am I stepping down? Very simply, I just don't have the time anymore. In the early days, whenever I got an email from the PLOS editorial office, I felt excited about being asked to edit a paper. But over the years, I started feeling more and more dreadful when I saw these emails coming in. Nothing about PLOS had changed, so I must have changed. And of course, I have. The demands of academic life are quite intense, as almost anyone in academia can attest to. When I moved to EPFL two years ago, I started spending more and more time working on online education, to the point where I began directing a new online school that will launch later this year (the EPFL Extension School). My kids grew up to be small balls of energy - unlike the first few years as a parent, where having kids was about changing diapers and not sleeping, suddenly it was about playing fun games, going on hikes, having interesting discussions. At the same time, my group grew, the projects started working and growing, and funding started coming in. Time just became too short for too many things.

But perhaps one of the most important things that happened is that as an editor who started seeing all the details of the reviewing process, I became disillusioned with pre-publication peer review. This disillusionment has nothing to do with PLOS Computational Biology, but it's nevertheless there where I saw it on an almost daily basis. One can become disillusioned with the peer reviewing process for one's own papers (we all have been there), but when it's about other papers to which one has no emotional attachment, it's a different story. I now believe that pre-publication review is not the best available system, and that we should move to post-publication assessment. Science is about generating and sharing new knowledge, and yet somehow we are putting severe constraints on the sharing part. The world wide web was invented to quickly share scientific know how - and indeed with the preprint revolution, we finally seem to be getting there. So what is the point of a journal in this day and age? To me, the point of a journal is about curation. But it seems to me that the current typical journal is not an efficient way to curate, and certainly, pre-publication review is not an efficient way to achieve that goal. Be that as it may, pre-publication peer review is currently the reality. In an ideal world, I would put in the energy to go and change the system, and in my experience, PLOS Computational Biology is extremely open to new ideas from the community, and its editors in particular. But given the growing demands from other projects, I came to the conclusion that it's best to step down. There is no shortage of talented people that will be able to take over the work I've been doing.

I thank PLOS Computational Biology for the trust it has put in me over the years, and it has been a great pleasure working with the journal and the community. I remain a big fan of the PLOS family and will be looking forward to following the continued journey of PLOS Computational Biology, both as a reader and author. I am also looking forward to the day when the journal moves to post-publication assessment ;-)

Marcel Salathé
Marcel Salathé
Associate Professor

Marcel Salathé is Associate Professor at EPFL and head of the Digital Epidemiology lab. His interest lies in combining machine learning with the broad usage of online mobile technology to build innovative health systems. He is also deeply involved in online education as academic director of the EPFL Extension School.