Why PLOS ONE needs page proofs

Note: I prepared this posting in August 2015, when PLOS ONE was due to publish a paper by us and I wanted to make sure they’d avoid the stupid typesetting errors they made in our 2013 paper. I used the numbers to convince them to show us proofs beforehand. To my surprise, they did, and I never got around to finishing the draft piece I had in the making. This week the issue flared up again following a comment by Dorothy Bishop, so I’ve decided to unearth my draft blog post and put it online.

Update: thanks Retraction Watch for giving some attention to this issue: PLOS ONE’s correction rate is higher than average. Why?

PLOS ONE notoriously and astonishingly does not have a proofs stage: authors do not get to see how their work is typeset until the very day it appears. If they spot typesetting errors then, it is too late: PLOS ONE has a policy of not correcting formatting errors (recent example here). Note that I’m not talking about typos but about typesetting errors: problems introduced by the publisher deviating from the authors’ proofed manuscript. In the most egregious cases, they will republish the article, slapping a correction notice on it. The correction notice may mention that the errors were “introduced during the typesetting process” and that “the publisher apologizes for this error” (as for our 2013 paper). But nobody reads correction notices, while everybody gets to see the article was corrected. For many readers a correction is an index of sloppiness at least and bad science at worst. Unnecessary corrections hurt authors.

Let me be clear: Corrections can be useful and important. If there are true errors of fact in a publication, a correction is an important way to set things straight while also keeping the scientific record intact. Readers can trace an earlier version, but the new version is designated as the definitive one. However, at PLOS ONE, that useful function of corrections is fast being diluted by many corrections that simply fix errors introduced in the typesetting stage. PLOS ONE thereby punishes authors for errors not introduced by the authors and makes the publication record unnecessarily messy.

Many corrections are for publisher errors

In the period May-July 2015, PLOS ONE published a total of 474 corrections.1 Over a quarter of these (132) indicate that the error was introduced at the typesetting stage, i.e. beyond the control of the authors.2. The remainder did not include that phrase, but most were trivial errors that would have been caught by the authors if there had been a proofs stage: missing information from Funding sections, swapped figures, and incorrectly typeset equations. Actually some of these may also be publisher errors. Here is a correction of a correction noting, “This article was republished on July 27, 2015, to change the byline of the correction, which should have been The PLOS ONE Staff, and to note the publisher as responsible for the error.” The original error was one of omitting Funding information.

In the same three-month period in 2015, PLOS ONE published 8466 articles whose title does not include “Correction:”.3 Ignoring for a moment that some corrections in this period may be for articles that go further back, we see that in this quarter of 2015, PLOS ONE issued corrections for over 5% of its publication output. That seems rather a lot. Was this a special period? In the first six months of 2015, there were 925 corrections, 193 (or 21%) of which indicate publisher error. In that period, the rate of corrections to real publications is 7% (925 over 14252). The rate of publisher errors seems to be rising. In 2014, 13% of corrections indicate publisher error (and the ratio of corrections to publications was 6%). In 2013, 4% of corrections indicate publisher error (and the ratio of corrections to publications was 5%).4

Update Aug 2016: Here are the numbers for the whole of 2015: 30970 research articles across all PLOS journals, 1939 corrections (6.3% of publication output), of which 415 acknowledge publisher error (21.4% of corrections). And here’s 2016 so far: 15162 articles, 794 corrections (5.2%) of which 154 are publisher error (19.4% of corrections). So over the last 1.5 years, a full 6% of all PLOS publication output has received corrections, and at least one fifth of these are due to publisher errors beyond the control of authors. Keep in mind authors are essentially powerless and many don’t request corrections, so the problems are likely much worse.

Authors deserve better

PLOS ONE asks publication fees “to offset expenses—including those of peer review management, journal production and online hosting and archiving”. It seems to me that for a fee of $1495, authors can expect to get a modicum of quality control in typesetting, which would fall under journal production. They haven’t been getting it so far. This ought to change.

I love PLOS ONE for its visionary publishing model and its open access philosophy. Though some have pointed out quirks in its editorial processes (e.g. “Creatorgate”), for the papers I’ve had under review, editors were fast and reviewers tough yet fair. It pains me to conclude that they are letting authors down when it comes to the final stage of publication. Our work deserves to be published according to the same standards of rigour that hold prior to publication. By not exercising due diligence in the journal production process, PLOS ONE is hurting its authors and ultimately damaging its own reputation.

Footnotes

  1. Search query: (publication_date:[2015-05-01T00:00:00Z TO 2015-07-31T23:59:59Z]) AND title:Correction
  2. Search query: ((publication_date:[2015-06-01T00:00:00Z TO 2015-09-02T23:59:59Z]) AND (title:”Correction”) AND ( body:”typesetting” OR (body:”apologizes”)
  3. Search query: ((publication_date:[2015-06-01T00:00:00Z TO 2015-09-02T23:59:59Z]) NOT (title:Correction)
  4. Please note that these numbers were obtained in August 2015 using PLOS ONE’s advanced search interface, and I don’t know how accurate that is. If I wanted to waste more time I would try and redo them using the rplos package in R. Go ahead if you feel like it!

5 thoughts on “Why PLOS ONE needs page proofs

  1. Just to say thanks for writing this.
    Until I had a moan about my own experiences this morning I had no idea this was such a widespread problem.
    It is simply disrespectful to authors to tell them that they have to just put up with errors introduced by editors. Most papers represent the work of many months if not years and authors expect to have a final version that they can take pride in.

  2. Having published a paper in PLOS ONE, I agree. The typesetters were evidently unfamiliar with the widely used convention to put a question mark at the beginning of a word to indicate doubt about it – so they systematically moved it to the end of the preceding word! Already in the abstract, “the Miocene ?Ichthyosaura randeckensis” became “the Miocene? Ichthyosaura randeckensis” – but the age of that species is not at all in doubt, what we doubt is its assignment to Ichthyosaura!

    It never occurred to me to ask for a correction to be published. I just published a comment that probably very few people have read.

  3. @David: We had the same thing with Unicode-compliant phonetic characters in our 2013 paper: they messed with something they shouldn’t have needed to touch.

    The weirdest thing is the inconsistency of it all. If PLOS ONE asks authors to treat their final document as proofs, then they shouldn’t mess with any aspect of it and reproduce it as faithfully as possible. Instead, nameless typesetters do stuff that we’re given no say in and still the editors say we have to put up with it. This is the highest degree of disrespect for serious and hard-working scientists.

  4. The weirdest thing is the inconsistency of it all.

    Quite so. I expected the text to be published as-is, as you describe…

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