The Public Library of Science (PLOS) is not accustomed to having spare cash. Founded by scientists in 2000 as a grass-roots organization advocating open scholarly communication, PLOS re­invented itself as an open-access journal publisher in 2003 with the help of philanthropic grants. It has spent much of the decade since then “skating on thin financial ice”, in the words of co-founder and board member Michael Eisen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Now PLOS is part of the establishment: open-access publishing has entered the mainstream. The non-profit operation, based in San Francisco, California, broke even for the first time in 2010; in 2012, it reported a surplus of US$7 million on net revenues of $34.5 million. Its cash-generating engine is the world’s largest journal, PLoS ONE, which is on course to publish more than 30,000 articles this year (see ‘World’s largest journal’), although its growth rate shows signs of slowing. The ‘megajournal’ business model has been mimicked by many others.

PLOS is now seeking a new vision to match its new profitability. In May, it announced the departure of chief executive Peter Jerram and the recruitment of his replacement, Elizabeth Marincola. She says that the future of science publishing is not in branded, highly selective titles. Instead, she sees a world in which article metrics and community judgements help the cream of research to rise to the top. “The packaging of a journal will become less and less important,” she says.

That idea is the opposite of an open-access competitor ofwhich Marincola was previously chair: eLife, an elite journal funded with more than £15 million (US$24 million) from the Wellcome Trust in London, the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “Their appeal is that there is quality inferred from the brand,” notes Marincola.

Credit: Source: PLOS

“We are working to evolve all of PLOS towards a world where papers are only rejected when they are scientifically in­valid,” says Eisen. PLoS ONE already adopts that approach, but the publisher has six more-selective journals, including PLoS Medicine and PLoS Biology. Marincola will not be drawn on whether these might become less selective, although she says that in the longer term, “we would like very much to be able to move away from our current system of peer review altogether”. The organization’s research arm, PLOS Labs, founded this year, aims to develop and test concepts for peer review after papers have published.

Others have different priorities. “One of the areas I would love to see PLOS push is doing open science cheaper,” says Jonathan Eisen, Michael’s brother and an evolutionary biologist who is on the editorial board of PLoS Computational Biology. Reducing the $1,350 author fee for its lowest-cost journal, PLoS ONE, also makes sense tactically, says Joseph Esposito, a publishing consultant based in New York City, because it will make it harder for new entrants to break into the megajournal market. “Right now, PLOS is by far the scale leader. They should play that card now and play it aggressively,” he says. But Marincola says that PLOS has not raised its prices in four years, and waived about $4.3 million in publishing fees last year.

The packaging of a journal will become less and less important.

Making everything as cheap as possible is not a pressing priority, agrees Damian Pattinson, editorial director of PLoS ONE. Like Marincola, he thinks the immediate focus will be on iterative improvements to the publishing process. “For years, journals have got away with treating authors like scum,” he says. Open access focuses publishers’ minds on giving authors services they value, such as faster turnaround, better websites and metrics on who is viewing articles, he adds.

To Michael Eisen, some of the most visible manifestations of innovation are with other publishers — such as F1000 Research in London, which already uses open peer review after papers are published. “They are doing lots of things that PLOS should have done five years ago,” he says. “PLOS has created the landscape that has enabled others to flourish, which is great. The question is, how can it continue to be innovative?”