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As we announced earlier this week, the new vision for PLOS Biology brings the process of scientific inquiry into stronger focus by increasing the emphasis we place on the research question being addressed during our assessment. This is an important shift in our selection criteria, and one that we feel is essential in support of scientific curiosity and the advancement of academic research. So we wanted to provide some background for this decision.
Staying true to the roots of science
PLOS Biology has always tried to empower researchers, to work individually with authors to nurture promising papers and publish research that matters. The partnership between our staff editorial team and our editorial board made up of leading scientists in the field assures consistency, rigor, and fairness in our decision making. From policies like complementary research to contextualized peer review we’ve always been interested in surfacing rigorously conducted research for it’s potential to inform and advance future discoveries.
“Welcome to PLOS Biology. We would like to introduce you to your journal, one that is run by and for the scientific community…We aim to publish original articles that address an important question, that challenge our assumptions, that drive science forward…Our goal is to create a potent scientific and public resource.”
From the Editorial “PLOS Biology–We’re Open” October 13, 2003
Our vision expands on these themes, and more closely reflects the research process in our publication offerings. By refocusing assessment of research on the process of scientific inquiry –from the relevance of the research question to the quality of execution– we hope to take this one step further.
Fighting Publication Bias
Results have historically played a huge role in the assessment of research, determining how (and if) scientific discoveries get shared. There is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, bias to favor the publication of studies with positive results, which may seem to make a broader impact. But in many cases, null and negative results play an equally valuable role in the creation of a complete and transparent scientific record of new knowledge, which, in turn, advances scientific progress.
When researchers obtain negative results they worry that the publication of those findings may not have value for others, when often the opposite is true. Of course, there is also the very real potential that some publishers will not be interested in the findings. In an environment that puts pressure on academics to produce a high volume of research in prestigious journals, many researchers may feel a need to be selective about the data they choose to publish. Each of these concerns can affect future career and funding opportunities, so it’s no wonder that some may hesitate before sharing negative and null results.
By focusing on the relevance of the research question, we want to free researchers from the stigma surrounding negative and null results and encourage them to pursue important lines of inquiry– even where the expectations are less clear. Rather than asking whether the results are exciting or headline-worthy, we want to know: What is the contribution to the scientific process? Are we learning something that will significantly advance its field, independent of the outcome? Are the approaches used adequate to answer this question in the best possible way? Has the research been executed to a high standard? The option to preregister research at PLOS Biology — which we’ll be revealing more about soon — takes this work a step further by guaranteeing publication based on the evaluation of the research question and study plan alone.
Of course, PLOS Biology will remain a highly-selective journal, surfacing the most significant advances across all areas of biology– with a broader view of what that means. Editor-in-Chief, Nonia Pariente said it best in her recent Editorial:
“At PLOS Biology, we consider that significant advances are those that push science forward in a sizeable, meaningful way, also when they report, for example, exciting but preliminary findings, null or negative results. We will thus shift the focus of our initial editorial assessment from the perceived importance of the final results reported, to increase the emphasis on the research question being asked, the approach undertaken and the quality of execution, regardless of outcome.”
From the Editorial, “The Future of PLOS Biology” March 31, 2020
We hope these changes encourage more researchers to pursue the work that inspires them, with the confidence that it will be considered fairly at PLOS Biology.
Tell us what drives you as a scientist: What is your research question?