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A peek into the PLOS ONE review process

Emily Chenette, Editor-in-Chief, PLOS ONE

When PLOS ONE launched nearly 15 years ago, it was the very first multidisciplinary journal that aimed to publish all ethically and methodologically rigorous research, regardless of the novelty of the findings or the perceived impact of the work. We were then – as we are now – immensely gratified by the strong community support for the journal and for accessible Open Access publishing, and were delighted when other publishers took notice and launched Open Access “megajournals” of their own. 

When I meet PLOS ONE authors I’ll often ask why they chose to submit to us and what they think sets the journal apart from its cousins. Often authors will mention the speed of the review process, or our publication criteria, or the calibre of our editorial board members. Some authors say that PLOS’ mission and strong support for Open Science was a major draw. Occasionally, they’ll say that they’ve been encouraged to submit by a member of our editorial board or another past author. 

But what about the quality of the review process? After all, administering high-quality peer review is a fundamental role for any scientific journal. The process at PLOS ONE is quite special, especially given the volume of submissions we receive. I’m really happy to have this opportunity to share a bit more about our review process and why I think it makes PLOS ONE unique.

Detailed initial editorial checks

All new manuscript submissions – and we receive >100 of them every day – are subjected to an initial technical check to ensure that the submission is complete. Once manuscripts pass this stage, they are individually assigned to and assessed by our team of subject matter experts, who have expertise in the study topic. The assessment at this stage focuses on scope, whether the methods are presented in sufficient detail for review purposes, the overall quality of the language and whether the research was conducted with appropriate ethical approval and meets high ethical standards. Manuscripts that do not comply with our standards are desk rejected with a detailed letter explaining why the submission does not meet our publication criteria (we reject around 20% of submissions without review). 

Robust editorial and peer review

Manuscripts that pass these initial screening steps are then sent on to members of our Editorial Board, who administer the peer-review process. Academic Editors assess the manuscript against our seven publication criteria, paying particular attention to whether the conclusions are supported by the data provided, and we work closely with our board to ensure that this process is as efficient as possible. For example, when an Academic Editor agrees to handle a new manuscript submission, we share any concerns that have arisen during our initial screening steps (such as missing details of animal care) and provide information on community standards that might be helpful in the review process (such as STRENDA guidelines for enzymology studies and PRISMA for systematic reviews). Additionally, if a manuscript has been posted as a preprint, we share the preprint link with the Academic Editor so that they can consider any comments that have been made. We also partner with initiatives like Review Commons and Peer Community In to weave pre-submission commenting into the review process and further streamline decision making. 

Once the full complement of required feedback has been received, the Academic Editor issues a decision. We ask Academic Editors to justify their decisions in detail, which is especially important when there is discordance between the reviewers’ comments. Rejection decisions are sent straight to the authors at this point. However, if the Academic Editor submits a revision decision, additional journal requirements are added to the decision letter before it is transmitted to the authors. This can include reminding authors to deposit their software or code, provide their original gel or blot data, amend their competing interests or financial declaration disclosures, or to indicate where their data are available or can be obtained. The complete decision letter is then sent to the authors, after which the Academic Editor and reviewer(s) also receive a copy. 

Aligning with our publication criteria and policies

On resubmission, the revised manuscript undergoes another technical check to ensure that the rebuttal letter is present and that concerns around ethics, language or reporting that were identified by our subject matter experts have been addressed. The revised manuscript is then sent back to the original Academic Editor, who determines whether it can be accepted for publication or requires further review. When the Academic Editor is satisfied that the manuscript meets PLOS ONE’s publication criteria, it is provisionally accepted for publication. 

At this stage, we perform one final series of checks, including ensuring that there are no copyright concerns, all relevant data have been made available, and that no apparent conflicts of interest arose during review. We also ask authors whether they would like to publish the peer review history of their submission. Once these checks are complete, the manuscript is formally accepted for publication, typeset, and published. 

Partnering with our Editorial Board for efficient, rigorous review 

What makes this process at PLOS ONE unique? In my experience, the partnership between our subject matter experts and Academic Editors, and the way we work together to focus on rigor rather than glamor, is rare. It’s all the more incredible given that we collaborate to assess tens of thousands of submissions every year. This relationship aims to make peer review as smooth and rapid for authors as possible, while still ensuring that only robust, reproducible science is published. Partnering with our board in such a way also ensures that the publication process is efficient, that authors understand the basis for editorial decisions, and that all publishable research is open and accessible to all. We are grateful to our Academic Editors and to the reviewers they recruit for making this process work so well.

We will continue to seek ways to refine and streamline the review process at PLOS ONE in a way that best serves the needs of our communities. Please do get in touch if you have feedback on the review process or ideas for how we can further improve it.

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