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.

UPDATE: Click here to read discussion re: Ecosphere on ECOLOG back in March (thanks to @JJVenky for pointing this out)

28 Comments on “The future of Ecosphere the journal: a suggestion

  1. Thanks for catching that. The link should be fixed now!

  2. Hi Morgan,

    Whatever you heard from the Ecosphere editor you dealt with is emphatically *not* what I heard from Don Strong a couple of years ago when I corresponded with him about Ecosphere. Don told me that Ecosphere had “the same editorial standards as Ecology”, which he clarified to mean that any paper that was rejected from Ecology would be rejected from Ecosphere. When I replied that I’d had a paper rejected from Ecology, accompanied by a suggestion from the handling editor to send it to Ecosphere, Don said that that they’d stopped doing that, that that was something they only did in the very earliest days of Ecosphere to help get the journal off the ground.

    I leave it to you and other readers to decide for yourselves whether the published content of Ecosphere is on a part with the content of Ecology. Personally, I don’t think it’s even close, and I can’t fathom why Don Strong and the ESA try to claim otherwise. It would seem from your post that even their own handling editors don’t believe their rhetoric! I mean, if a journal is going to exist at all, it has to publish some papers. So it can’t be *that* much better than the average level of submissions it receives, because you can’t reject *everything*. So if nobody thinks your journal is as good as Ecology, and nobody submits their Ecology-level stuff there, your journal will not be as good as Ecology, and there’s no point in claiming otherwise. I really wish ESA would just make Ecosphere part of an explicit review cascade, with an explicitly PLoS ONE-type editorial standard, in an attempt to capture author-pays revenue that will otherwise go to PLoS ONE or Wiley’s Ecology & Evolution.

    And they’ll need to undercut PLoS ONE on price, because they’re not offering the (admittedly little-used) comment services or article-level metrics that PLoS ONE provides.

    In passing, I’ll note that, from a purely revenue-maximizing perspective, it was clear before Ecosphere started that it wouldn’t succeed if it was highly selective. PLoS already tried that with PLoS Biology–a highly selective, author-pays journal. They lost money. PLoS ONE–an unselective, author-pays journal–was invented in response, and to this day continues to subsidize PLoS Biology, IIRC. I have no idea what the net effect of Ecosphere is on ESA’s revenues, but I would be surprised if it’s substantially positive, and wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s negative.

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    Don Strong’s email to Ecolog (from March of this year) suggests that his viewpoint has evolved a bit since talking to you. In it, he talks in two different places about Ecosphere being somewhere for rejected Ecology papers to go:

    “Before Ecosphere, the ESA had to say to all of the submissions rejected following editorial review, “we can’t help you.” Now, with Ecosphere, the ESA says, “Welcome to Ecosphere.”

    “Repeating from above… Before Ecosphere, the ESA had to say to all of the reject-without-review submissions, “we can’t help you.” Now, with Ecosphere, the ESA says, “Welcome to Ecosphere.”

    Having said that, there are also some confusing bits in his email where we refers to the review processes being the same, except when he states they’re not. My opinion is that this is still due to many of us conflating the interest component and the soundness component of the review process. The view of Ecosphere from the editorial side may still be evolving. My interaction with Ecosphere was only a couple of months ago, and I gave them two recommendations: one based on whether Ecosphere was a PLoS one, and the other on whether it was Ecology. That is when I had the exchange with the handling editor who was clear that that they were going after the PLoS One model. Now having said that, I cannot completely rule out your fun scenario of revolution in the ranks! I think some strong messages from ESA about Ecosphere’s role and goals are needed at this point.

    I’m 100% with you that the model Strong laid out to you is simply not viable. For Ecosphere to help ESA through the publication revolution that is going on, it needs to be high volume – which can happen if the review emphasis is on technical quality and the scientific community is allowed to make the ‘interesting’ judgement. In ESA’s defense, the open-access revolution and financial model is probably pretty foreign to them. I’m impressed that they’re even trying. Having said that, I think Ecosphere could use a ‘creative consultant’ from the tech savvy open access contingent to help shape it into something that will be competitive with PLoS One. As you point out, Ecosphere doesn’t have the commenting or alt-metrics added value (yet), but also as you point out they aren’t used much (yet). I’ll think they’ll become more important as we go on, but Ecosphere has a window where I think they aren’t neccessary for success. In their favor, I think if Ecosphere can get really established, many people would be more comfortable submitting their work to an “Ecology Journal” than the free for all of PLoS One. If they can use that to their advantage, add on some of the new generation bells and whistles, and provide some easy ways for manuscripts to slide from review at the ESA big journals over to Ecosphere, I think this could be reasonable profitable for them and be a good contribution to the changing publication landscape.

    Out of curiosity, Strong says that Ecosphere gets above 30 submissions a month. Does anyone know how many the big journals like Ecology, Am Nat, Ecology Letters, or Oikos get in a month? How about PLoS One. I’d love to know what Ecosphere’s submission rate is that context.

  4. Thanks Morgan, I’m glad to hear Don is facing up to reality.

    Re: submission rates, just look at the editorials the leading journals publish every Jan. They’ll either give the annual submission rate, or other data that would let you infer it.

  5. Pingback: The future of the Ecosphere journal | Dynamic Ecology

  6. I still wonder, if we got 100 Ecologists (or more) to stop submitting to Ecology for a year, and just submit to Ecosphere, what would happen? We’d support ESA and support Open Access all at once!

  7. Interesting idea. I think part of the challenge would be that since ESA hasn’t exactly been presenting itself as a force for good in the OA world, it may be difficult to convince OA oriented folks to submit to Ecosphere instead of something like PLOS ONE or PeerJ. That said, I’m open to signing on to something if we can get a decently large group of folks involved. It would be easier if we could get some real, official, clarity from ESA as to the goals and approaches of the journal (and I think Morgan and Jeremy are right on here – they need to be shooting for the PLOS ONE of ecology). It would be even easier to motivate participation if they could make some minor pro-OA changes (preprints are OK, CC-BY on the main ESA journals open access papers, etc.). In fact, if the current preprint policy applies to Ecosphere, which it appears to, then I think we’re probably looking at a no starter.

  8. Sorry, but I think that’s an intractable collective action problem, Jarrett.

  9. Ok, I have two questions. 1. How do you think you would get everyone to suddenly stop submitting to Ecology and start submitting to Ecosphere? 2. (a broader question, and perhaps not what you what you were trying to get at, but something old farts like me wonder about): in a hypothetical future in which everyone submits everything to one, or a very small number, of author-pays open-access journals, what filters do you use to find the best content and how well do you think they’d work? Because I have to say, I find that my current filters–like “pay attention to what’s in the leading journals, mostly ignore the others”–work pretty well. A world in which we all publish everything in PLoS ONE or Ecosphere would break my filters, and as an old fart I have no idea how I’d replace them.

  10. I let someone else answer 1. As for two, you only think your current system works because you don’t know what you’re missing elsewhere! I’m using the same method you are for keeping up with the lit, and I’m pretty sure it’s not working for me!

    Seriously, though i think things like Googles new ‘updates’ on google scholar are the wave of the future. Googles updates uses more advanced methods (like citation of and in your papers, etc) than journal name to figure out papers what might be relevant to you. Go check it out. The top 50 suggestions were pretty relevant to me and many of them I hadn’t seen through my old school approach.

  11. 1. How do you think you would get everyone to suddenly stop submitting to Ecology and start submitting to Ecosphere? Seriously, I think we start an online movement. Start a petition, get people to sign it, and advertise the heck out of it on listervs. If we can get 10 high profile people or so – like you Jeremy – and advertise it as ‘Trying to Change the Culture of ESA to be Pro-Open Access’ I think we could get a lot of folk signing on. If we even get 100 people to say yes, that sends a huge signal. If 20 of them are big names (or even as few as 10) and we ask them to be vocal about it – again, huge. As we learned with #SciFund, having vocal supporters with a reputation behind them can buy you a lot of additional support.

    It’s a challenge, but it can be done.

  12. Reality check, Jarrett: Owen and I tried *exactly* that with PubCreds. We didn’t get 100 people to sign up to our petition–we got almost 250, including more than 10 big names. We put out a paper in the ESA Bulletin that was, according to Don Strong himself, the #1 thing people wanted to talk to him about at the ESA that year. Aaron Ellison got me a meeting with the ESA Publications Committee that year. I was invited to speak at a scientific publishing conference sponsored by Allen Press. We wrote to the editor of literally every ecology journal we could identify, pushing our idea and asking for data to help us make the case for it. I blogged a lot about it on the Oikos Blog and the petition-associated blog, and corresponded with a lot of people about it.

    And the effect of this quite considerable amount of effort was…zip.

    I’m not saying it can’t be done. Open access has more pre-existing backing than PubCreds. But I think you are greatly underestimating how difficult it would be. Far more difficult than getting SciFund off the ground, I should think.

  13. I don’t think so, and here’s why not. Implementing PubCreds will take a significant investment on programming a good efficient backend. The implementation of such a system would take significant effort to have it done right – or, if not done right the first time, at least done well enough that it could be tweaked to right. It’s a non-trivial task that someone would have to take the time, effort, and willingness to be harassed about to do. Getting folk to pledge to submit all of their papers for the next year, or somesuch, just asks folk to do what they would have done anyway – submit papers – but to do it at Ecosphere – something they again might have even done anyway. So, I think it would actually be easier in terms of activation energy to make it happen.

  14. Ok, but we never got close to the point where “how do we program this and who will pay for it?” came up in conversation with decision makers. At the ESA Publication Committee, the worries were things like “This would keep Steve Pacala from submitting to Ecology, and we don’t want that because his papers get cited a lot”. Do not underestimate the ability of your colleagues to find reasons to not do something they do not want to do.

  15. p.s. Insofar as the motivation for getting people to publish everything in Ecosphere is to support the ESA, why try to get them to switch away from Ecology? Why not try to get them to switch away from Ecology Letters?

  16. Jarrett nicely covered my point with respect to #1. As we’ve seen recently there are quite a few people willing to go against their own short term self interests to improve (in their view) science more broadly. I suspect that 100 people is pretty doable here, if you can overcome the draw to just support more mainstream OA journals. There is no doubt that influencing anything big is difficult. Jeremy is certainly right in that regard and my experience with ESA on OA related topics has been less than inspirational to date. So, I think getting the 100 people is doable, getting ESA to change is definitely more of a challenge.

    I agree with Morgan on point #2. We don’t keep track of the web just by reading our favorite websites and we shouldn’t be doing that for journals either. A combination of algorithms, targeted searchers, and personal recommendations are a better solution and Google has proved that the algorithms can work well in this case. The filtering challenge looms increasingly large as the scale of the literature grows rapidly, I don’t think that relying on the old way of doing things is going to work.

  17. Umm, I actually do mostly keep track of the web by reading my favorite websites. But I am old.

  18. I’m with Jeremy – I do find some papers by google scholar, ISI and following citation trails. But my #1 source is to receive e-table-of-contents from journals and scan them for papers I want to read. When the hit rate of worthy papers (to me) falls too low I stop reading/delete/unsubscribe. PlosONE hit this category some time ago for me. There is a firehose of papers out there and I don’t have to do barely any work to have more good papers than I can read come across my desk. So I don’t.

  19. To be clear, I basically do the same thing as both of you. The problem is that I don’t think it works very well. The journal as filter is highly stochastic at best, biased at worst. We didn’t have a way around that until recently but now we do. This also saves us (if folks buy in) from the science slowing process of separately evaluating impact and rigor. If either of you haven’t checked out Google’s new recommendations you should. They are quite impressive – way, way better than sifting through the top 500 articles per week in the best journals to get a hit rate of (for me anyway) less than 5%.

    Of interest are some… um… slightly over the top in terms of tone… thoughts over at Drug Monkey.

  20. That Drug Monkey post is laughable. I’d be fine with the tone if it was at the service of a decent argument. So Drug Monkey is claiming that he reads every published paper because That’s. What. Scientists. Do.? [derisive snort] And that everybody else just takes for granted that everything published in Science and Nature is awesome? [second derisive snort] Maybe in some parallel universe. But here on Planet Earth, every normal scientist uses “what’s published in leading journals” as a *first cut* when deciding what to read, and then uses his or her own judgment to evaluate what he or she has read.

    Man, I hope that when I roll out my own rhetorical cannons (which is often), that it’s at the service of something other than demolishing such laughable straw men.

    p.s. Ok, you’ve convinced me to try out Google’s recommendations. Still not sure it will suit my way of reading, but I’ll give it a go.

  21. Yeah, I thought you’d like that one 🙂

    Something with a little more meat on it that is actually worth a read is the paper by David Wardle in Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, which basically suggests that quantitatively these filters don’t work all that well and that therefore the process of rejecting on predicted impact slows down science. I’m not sure if you’ll be convinced, but it’s got data.

  22. Yes, I’ve seen the Wardle piece. I sympathize with Dave’s point of view to an extent, but only to an extent, and I also think his analysis is pretty crude. Citations are such a crude measure of “impact”, for reasons both widely-recognized and hardly recognized. Dave’s analysis just takes for granted that “citations”=”impact” or “importance” or “quality” or “something”. I don’t mean any criticism of Dave here, he was working with the most readily-available data. But I think that just shows the limits of the readily-available data.

    I also wonder if Dave’s comparison of selective ecology journals with PLoS ONE will be out of date soon. I have the impression that the early adopters of PLoS ONE in ecology were a non-random sample biased towards good, established ecologists. Like Phil Davis over at Scholarly Kitchen predicted, I wonder if PLoS ONE’s impact factor will come down as it grows, at least relative to selective journals. But this is pure speculation on my part.

  23. One of the main points of Ecosphere – not mentioned in the commentaries above – is rapid review and publication. This is how top journals like Ecology Letters made their mark. Think about it…when someone has a scientific study of great quality and potential impact, why would a scientist want to wait up to 2 years to see it published in Ecology when it could be in print in a few months in Ecosphere? This should be Ecosphere’s niche, admittedly if successful it would overtake Ecology down the road. Maybe that’s the plan….

  24. Pingback: Some alternative advice on how to decide where to submit your paper « Jabberwocky Ecology | Weecology's Blog

  25. Pingback: Bioquote otw #3 « Seeds Aside

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