PLoS ONE needs new subjects

I like the PLoS journals, including PLoS ONE, a lot. But it drives me a little bit crazy that the list of PLoS ONE subjects includes things like Non-Clinical Health, Nutrition, and Science Policy, while perfectly respectable subjects like Psychology, Economics, and Political Science are nowhere to be found (note: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Nutrition, just that there’s also nothing wrong with Psychology).

I can sort of understand the rationale; PLoS ONE is supposed to be a science journal, and I imagine the editors feel that if they opened up the door to the aforementioned categories, some of the submissions they’d start receiving would have tenuous or nonexistent relationships to anything that you could call science. But in practice, PLoS ONE already does take articles in all of those subjects–and many others. And what then happens, no doubt, is that the editorial board has epic battles over which of the 40-odd existing subjects is going to become the proud beneficiary of a completely unrelated article.

I imagine it goes down something like this:

Editor A: Look, “Patriarchal principles of pop music in a post-Jacksonian era” is clearly an Epidemiology article. It’s going under Public Health and Epidemiology.

Editor B: Don’t be a fool. There isn’t a single word in the paper about health or disease. You’d know that if you’d bothered to read it. It obviously belongs under Mental Health.

Editor A: Absolutely not. Infectious Diseases, Pediatrics and Child Health, or Anesthesiology and Pain Management. Pick one. Final offer.

Editor B: No. But I’ll tell you what. Send it back to the authors, ask them to add a section on the influence of barbiturates and opiates on modern composition, and then we’ll stick it under Pharmacology.

Editor A: Deal.

Lest you think I’m making shit up exaggerating, witness exhibit A: a paper published today by Ara├║jo et al entitled “Tactical Voting in Plurality Elections”. To be fair, I don’t know anything about tactics, voting, plurality, or elections, so I can’t tell you if the paper is any good or not. It looks interesting, but I don’t understand much more than the abstract.

What I can tell you though with something approaching certainty is that the paper has absolutely nothing to do with Neuroscience–which is one of the categories it’s filed under (the other is Physics, which it also seems to bear no relation to, save for the fact that the authors are physicists). It doesn’t mention the words ‘brain’, ‘neuro-’, ‘neural’, or ‘neuron’ anywhere in the text, which is pretty much a necessary condition for a neuroscience article in my book. The only conceivable link I can think of is that it’s a paper about voting, and voting is done by people, and people have brains. But that’s not very compelling. Really, it should go under Political Science, or Economics, or Applied Statistics, or even a catch-all category like Social Sciences. Except that none of those exist.

Pretty please, PLoS ONE, can we get a Social Sciences section?

4 thoughts on “PLoS ONE needs new subjects”

  1. That’s a fair point Tal! I’ve been freelancing for PLoS ONE and I’m about to start as a full time editor. Part of PLoS ONE moving to a new editorial manager (http://blogs.plos.org/everyone/2010/07/26/new-plos-one-manuscript-submission-and-peer-review-system-is-live/) is a more finely grained subject classification – it has hundreds of categories, including economics, sociology and psychology. It’s being used in-house to help with assigning manuscripts to academic editors, but I believe it is going to be rolled out publicly too.

  2. Thanks for the post Tal

    Just to clarify – we ask authors themselves to classify their articles (we don’t do that for them and so discussions such as the one you mention above don’t happen I am afraid). However, we cannot lay the blame for poor classifications solely with the authors, as often we simply did not have (until 7 weeks ago) suitable categories for authors to use when describing their papers.

    I can confirm that as part of our recent move to new peer review software, we took the opportunity to increase the number of taxonomy terms from approx 750 to about 6,000. What this means is that authors are now able to classify their papers more accurately, and that in the near future we will be able to display those new categories better on our platform.

    However, it is important to note that although we may now have categories for social sciences that does not necessarily mean that a paper which is (predominantly) social sciences will be considered for publication. We look at every paper that comes in and often have to make a judgment call as to whether a paper is ‘in scope’ (e.g. humanities and most of the social sciences are considered out of scope). Clearly some papers may be very much ‘in scope’ but still have an element of a social science to them, and those authors will now be able to show this fact by selecting both areas.

    One final note: as the determination of what is ‘in scope’ is a human judgment we will occasionally make mistakes (or make decisions which others might disagree with).

    Hope this helps to clarify what happens behind the scenes.

    Pete

  3. Hi Pete and Matt,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment; I love what you guys are doing with the PLoS journals!

    The post was mostly tongue-in-cheek; I recognize it’s tricky to provide a comprehensive list of categories while maintaining the same scope for the journal. It sounds like the new system will do a better job of balancing those needs; I look forward to using it at some point!

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