Megajournal mismanagement: Manuscript decision bias and anomalous editor activity at PLOS ONE

Author : Alexander M. Petersen

Since their emergence just a decade ago, nearly 2% of scientific research is now published by megajournals, representing a major industrial shift in the production of knowledge. Such high-throughput production stresses several aspects of the publication process, including the editorial oversight of peer-review.

As the largest megajournal, PLOS ONE has relied on a single-tier editorial board comprised of ∼7000 active academics, who thereby face conflicts of interest relating to their dual roles as both producers and gatekeepers of peer-reviewed literature.

While such conflicts of interest are also a factor for editorial boards of smaller journals, little is known about how the scalability of megajournals may introduce perverse incentives for editorial service.

To address this issue, we analyzed the activity of PLOS ONE editors over the journal’s inaugural decade (2006–2015) and find highly variable activity levels. We then leverage this variation to model how editorial bias in the manuscript decision process relates to two editor-specific factors: repeated editor-author interactions and shifts in the rates of citations directed at editors – a form of citation remuneration that is analogue to self-citation.

Our results indicate significantly stronger manuscript bias among a relatively small number of extremely active editors, who also feature relatively high self-citation rates coincident in the manuscripts they handle.

These anomalous activity patterns are consistent with the perverse incentives and the temptations they offer at scale, which is theoretically grounded in the “slippery-slope” evolution of apathy and misconduct in power-driven environments.

By applying quantitative evaluation to the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge, we shed light on various ethics issues crucial to science policy – in particular, calling for more transparent and structured management of editor activity in megajournals that rely on active academics.

URL : Megajournal mismanagement: Manuscript decision bias and anomalous editor activity at PLOS ONE

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joi.2019.100974

Quantifying the distribution of editorial power and manuscript decision bias at the mega-journal PLOS ONE

Author : Alexander M. Petersen

We analyzed the longitudinal activity of nearly 7,000 editors at the mega-journal PLOS ONE over the 10-year period 2006-2015. Using the article-editor associations, we develop editor-specific measures of power, activity, article acceptance time, citation impact, and editorial renumeration (an analogue to self-citation).

We observe remarkably high levels of power inequality among the PLOS ONE editors, with the top-10 editors responsible for 3,366 articles — corresponding to 2.4% of the 141,986 articles we analyzed. Such high inequality levels suggest the presence of unintended incentives, which may reinforce unethical behavior in the form of decision-level biases at the editorial level.

Our results indicate that editors may become apathetic in judging the quality of articles and susceptible to modes of power-driven misconduct. We used the longitudinal dimension of editor activity to develop two panel regression models which test and verify the presence of editor-level bias.

In the first model we analyzed the citation impact of articles, and in the second model we modeled the decision time between an article being submitted and ultimately accepted by the editor.

We focused on two variables that represent social factors that capture potential conflicts-of-interest: (i) we accounted for the social ties between editors and authors by developing a measure of repeat authorship among an editor’s article set, and (ii) we accounted for the rate of citations directed towards the editor’s own publications in the reference list of each article he/she oversaw.

Our results indicate that these two factors play a significant role in the editorial decision process. Moreover, these two effects appear to increase with editor age, which is consistent with behavioral studies concerning the evolution of misbehavior and response to temptation in power-driven environments.

URL : https://arxiv.org/abs/1701.04906