Members of the US National Academy of Sciences have long enjoyed a privileged path to publication in the body’s prominent house journal. Meet the scientists who use it most heavily. The building for the National Academy of Sciences was completed in 1924 as a “home of science in America”. The academy’s house journal was established a decade earlier, in part, as a home for members’ papers. In April, the US National Academy of Sciences elected 105 new members to its ranks. Academy membership is one the most prestigious honours for a scientist, and it comes with a tangible perk: members can submit up to four papers per year to the body’s high-profile journal, the venerable Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), through the ‘contributed’ publication track. This unusual process allows authors to choose who will review their paper and how to respond to those reviewers’ comments. For many academy members, this privileged path is central to the appeal of PNAS. But to some scientists, it gives the journal the appearance of an old boys’ club. “Sound anachronistic? It is,” wrote biochemist Steve Caplan of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, in a 2011 blogpost that suggested the contributed track could be used as a “dumping ground” for some papers. Editors at the journal have strived to dispel that perception. With PNAS currently celebrating its centenary, the news team at Nature decided to examine the contributed track, both to assess its scientific impact and to see which members use it most heavily and why. After analysing a decade’s worth of PNAS papers, we found that only a small number of scientists have used the track at close to the maximum allowable rate. The group includes some of the biggest names in science, and six are past or current members of the journal’s editorial board. These scientists say that the main motivator for using the contributed track is an intense frustration with the peer-review process at other high-profile journals, which they argue has become excessive and laborious.
Our analysis also suggests that the efforts by PNAS to prevent abuse of the contributed track and to boost the quality of papers published by this route are bearing fruit. Although contributed PNAS papers attract fewer citations than those handled through the journal’s standard review process, the gap has narrowed in recent years. “We have worked really hard at this,” says Alan Fersht, a biophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, one of PNAS’s associate editors and a heavy user of the contributed track. An inside track to publication for academy members rests deep in PNAS’s DNA. The journal was established in 1914 with the explicit goal of publishing members’ “more important contributions to research” in addition to “work that appears to a member to be of particular importance”. That remit led to the creation of two publishing tracks: contributed and ‘communicated’ papers (manuscripts sent by non-members to colleagues in the academy, who would shepherd them through review). These two tracks were the only ways to get a paper into PNAS until 1995, when biochemist Nicholas Cozzarelli of the University of California, Berkeley, took over as editor-in-chief and introduced ‘direct submissions’, which are handled more like papers at other journals. Direct submissions must pass an initial screen by a member of the editorial board, after which they are assigned to an independent editor — either an academy member or a guest editor — who organizes peer review. Starting in 1972, the journal placed limits on the number of contributed papers that an academy member could submit, and the current annual cap of four was imposed in 1996. Then in 2010, PNAS abolished the communicated track, which was already declining in popularity. Today, more than three-quarters of the papers published in the journal are direct submissions. These papers are much less likely to be accepted than those contributed by academy members. Only 18% of direct submissions were published in 2013, whereas more than 98% of contributed papers were published, according to figures on the journal’s website. (The one caveat is that PNAS has no data on how many papers intended for the contributed track receive negative reviews and never get submitted.)
Despite the impressive acceptance rate for contributed papers, the data collected show that many eligible scientists choose not to submit papers through this track. Of the more than 3,100 academy members who could have used the contributed track between 2004 and 2013, fewer than 1,400 scientists did so. (This might in part reflect where researchers from different fields prefer to publish their work; the academy draws its members from all disciplines, including researchers from fields such as astronomy and mathematics, who rarely send their papers to PNAS.) Most members who used the contributed track did so sparingly: the majority published on average fewer than one contributed paper per year. Only a small group consistently used the track at close to the allowable maximum: from 2004 to 2013, 13 scientists each contributed more than 30 of their own papers. This roster includes some of the best-known people in contemporary science.
July 22, 2014
http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-publishing-the-inside-track-1.15424 Original web page at Nature