The future of Ecosphere the journal: a suggestion
As some may be aware, ESA has launched a new journal: Ecosphere. ESA describes Ecosphere as “… the newest addition to the ESA family of journals, is an online-only, open-access alternative with a scope as broad as the science of ecology itself. “
The description is vague - is it a new incarnation of Ecology? Or is it an ecologically focused equivalent of PLoS One? I’m not the only one who is confused, as illustrated by a comment by Jeremy Fox from Dynamic Ecology. I recently had an interesting experience with Ecosphere that both clarified Ecosphere for me, and also what I think its potential is. I’ve been meaning to post on this for a while, but seeing that Jeremy and I are having similar thoughts finally encouraged me to get off my butt and write the post.
What is Ecosphere? If you’ve ever reviewed a paper, you know that part of your decision is based on the paper and part is based on the journal itself. For journals like Ecology, Am Nat, and Ecology Letters, you are judging both the rigor of the science and its potential impact. For PLoS One, the potential impact is not supposed to be part of the review decision, just whether the science is sound. I recently reviewed a paper for Ecosphere that was sound but not broadly interesting. What to recommend? The editor made it clear to me that Ecosphere is an ecological PLoS One and that what mattered was the scientific soundness. Often I hear these components of the review process conflated – but interesting and rigorous are not actually the same thing. So when Ecosphere talks about maintaining the same ‘rigorous peer-review standards’ as Ecology, it means that it is focusing on the soundness, not the interest component.
Future of Ecosphere? I have no insights into whether Ecosphere is performing as ESA had hoped but I think Jeremy’s view on Ecosphere is probably common. I suspect public relations outreach to clarify the role of Ecosphere in the journal pantheon would help. I also suspect that it could greatly benefit from an incentive to publish there. But what is an easy incentive that doesn’t undercut the economic benefits of Ecosphere for ESA? Jeremy nails it in his comment and it’s the same thought I had after I reviewed for them: make it easy to have solid but rejected papers from Ecology be rapidly accepted in Ecosphere. You see, the paper I reviewed for Ecosphere was also a paper I had just reviewed for Ecology and recommended rejecting based not on any issues with the science, but based on its importance. How much easier would it be if there was a button on the Ecology reviewer form that says “Is this paper suitable for Ecosphere? If yes, is it acceptable as is, with minor revision, with major revision?” Essentially, reviewers can review for both journals at the same time. Then if a paper is rejected from Ecology but recommended for acceptance at Ecosphere, the author can get a letter saying – so sorry about your Ecology rejection, but (if you would like) congratulations on your acceptance to Ecosphere!
I think this is a good idea for Ecosphere because it provides a mechanism whereby really good papers can still end up inthat journal, thus helping improve its impact (used generically, though I suppose it might also help its impact factor). Let’s be honest, when only 3 people are judging whether a paper will be ‘interesting’ to the broader field, bad things can happen to good papers. The direct tie between Ecology and Ecosphere increases the probability of getting those papers into Ecosphere because a guaranteed acceptance can be hard to turn down. If a paper has been ‘making the circuit’, it can be tempting to just take that acceptance, even if it’s not the “quality” of journal you might have been hoping for.
I also think this is a good thing for science. Perhaps you’re review process experience is always smooth sailing, but many of us are spending a lot of time revising and resubmitting papers that are technically sound but that reviewers dislike because they don’t like the topic or are uncomfortable with the take home message, or (my favorite) this isn’t the paper that they would have written themselves. Science slows down when sound science is rejected based on ‘interest’ and not on technical reasons, because papers may take an additional year or more to be published as they are repeatedly submitted to multiple journals. The big journals have the right to judge on interest, and there is some value to this in that they can help serve as filters for the deluge of new papers, but I think having quick avenues for publication of sound science is good for us all. Tying the big ESA journals to Ecosphere provides the benefits of both – the time cost of taking a shot at Ecology is minimized because if judged sound it would still get an acceptance into Ecosphere, even if rejected from Ecology because it ‘wasn’t interesting enough’.
Finally, it’s good for ESA to have Ecosphere capture more of the ecological literature through its open access model. Right now, if rejected from Ecology, the next step for most papers is probably not Ecosphere but some Elsevier or Wiley-Blackwell journal (or maybe PLoS One). Each scientifically sound paper that does not end up at Ecosphere is $1,250 that ESA doesn’t get (based on page charge cost for members). The more papers that end up at Ecosphere, the more $$ goes to ESA, which can then use that money to do all the great things it does both for its members and for ecology in general.