In recent years, there has been a number of quality peer-reviewed open access journals launched. Some of them are what I would call “mega-journals”, such as PLOS|One and the newly-launched PeerJ. However, most of those mega-journals which boast broad scope focus in fact only on medicine, biology and health sciences (e.g., PeerJ’s Aims and Scope). Why is that so?

Are there other such open access journals with high-quality, focussing on other topics (Physical Sciences, the Mathematical Sciences, the Social Sciences, or the Humanities)? If not, what is the specificity of biology and related sciences?

5 Answers 5


First, I'm not sure I believe that it is true to say that, "most of those mega-journals which boast broad scope focus in fact only on medicine, biology and health sciences." This might be true of PeerJ but it is not true of PLOS ONE. I have read sociological experiments, physics-based network analyses, and pure computational work published in PLOS ONE. I get the sense that bioscience makes up the core of their editorial board and bulk of their publications, but it's far from the whole thing. Also, there are other "mega-journals" that serve other communities and fields. For example, SAGE Open focuses on the humanities and social sciences. There are others and new ones being created frequently.

That said, it is true that the first and biggest mega-journals are more focused on bioscience than they are on other fields. I think that the reason is because the "mega-journal" model is closely tied to the modern open access movement which has its largest amount of support in biological and health sciences. Basically, I think that PLOS ONE attracts so many biological articles because they have a biological heavy editorial board. They have a biological heavy editorial board because they have leveraged the network that exists for PLOS. PLOS' flagship journal is, of course, PLOS Biology and the organization was started by a group of bioscientists.

Peter Suber's open access timeline is instructive. Although OA has a broader history, folks like Harald Varmus have used institutional support at places like the NIH to push for a set of norms around open access through projects like PubMedCentral and requirements from funders to publish OA. The result is an OA movement that has simply been much more successful and influential in the biosciences than it has been in other fields. There are structural reasons this might be the case. Pay-to-publish models are easier to swallow in fields that are largely grant based. Biological and health sciences makes up an enormous proportion of grant funded research through the NIH, NSF, and other private and public agencies.

But my sense is that, fundamentally, PLOS ONE has provided the inspiration for most mega-journals because it quickly became the largest journal of the world and, through that process, managed to maintain a surprisingly high impact factor (~4 in 2011!). To the extent that PLOS ONE has created the mega-journal model, there may be a bioscience bias — especially early on — that comes simply from PLOS ONE's own roots in bioscience.

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    The "the organized" in the second para should probably be "the organization". Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 8:11
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    I don't think it's accurate to say the OA movement "has simply been much more successful and influential in the biosciences than it has been in other fields". That's true for gold OA, but false for green OA: self-archiving rates on the arXiv are 100% in particle physics and 90% in astrophysics (see councilscienceeditors.org/files/presentations/2009/…), which is much higher than the overall compliance rates for the NIH or Wellcome OA mandates (75% and 55%, respectively; see poynder.blogspot.com/2012/05/open-access-mandates-ensuring.html). Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 12:26
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    That's a good point. The question was about open access journals so that's what my answer referred to. But are correct about preprints.
    – mako
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 18:24

I think one of the major issues here has been the existence of arXiv in all its various incarnations. Since there was already a major open-source distribution network—even if it eschewed important parts of the publishing process like peer review—it made the need for a PLOS|One-like journal much smaller.

A secondary issue is that many of the journals in the mathematics and physics communities have fairly liberal policies on the use of open-source repositories to distribute papers; for instance, the American Institute of Physics and American Physical Society allow publication within their journals, while still allowing authors the right to "self-publish" using their own version of the materials. Similarly, the American Chemical Society, while having slightly more restrictive policies than AIP or APS, still effectively allow open access after one year of "exclusive" access.

So, ultimately, I think the emergence of PLOS|One and similar efforts is an attempt to move more in the direction that already exists in the various physical sciences communities.

Edited to add: One additional issue that may explain the state of activities are some of the recent decisions by the NIH to require that manuscripts published with NIH financing (thereby including the majority of biomedical research in the US) had to be made publicly accessible within six months of publication. This is a development that has not been matched by the NSF and other major funding agencies, nor is it a rule in most of the European Union, as far as I can tell (although I believe the UK is haltingly starting to move in that direction).

As a result, there is a strong impetus for open-access in biology and biomedical science that is not matched by the other fields (which might not have nearly as much money and therefore would not have the clout of the NIH).

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    I completely agree with this assessment: arxiv + liberal policies in math/CS (for example) + completely ILLiberal policies in the medical journals.
    – Suresh
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 18:35
  • I understand this argument for math/CS/physics, but some hard sciences (chemistry and geology) as well as humanities are not “covered” by arXiv…
    – F'x
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 19:15
  • Thanks for the comment. There is a second important line of argument that I forgot in my original post: the role of the NIH's decision to mandate publicly accessible papers. It's not matched in the other disciplines, and there hasn't been the same "push" toward reforms.
    – aeismail
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 21:00

I suspect that this is actually a combination of several co-occuring factors:

  • The lack of an arXiv or arXiv-like service that has been widely adopted means that biomedical research largely relies on journal-mediated access to research.
  • NIH open access mandates have helped drive the acceptance of open access, the tendency to put money into grants to fund OA publications, etc. which creates a market for new journals.
  • The biomedical research field is huge. Consider non-defense R&D spending in the U.S: enter image description here

If you had to pick an audience based on that picture, what would you pick?

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    And moreover the kind of money that biomedical scientists (in countries in Europe and in the US) spend while doing research means that dropping $1000-$3000 on an APC is not big deal. The $3000 APC for PLOS Biology was settled on in part because that kind of figure was at the time being regularly spent on page and colour charges for papers in biomed subscription journals. Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 0:31

There are certainly other examples in the social sciences if you look hard enough, although they may not be as publicized as PLoS ones. For instance I know it is becoming more popular for journals to make back issues freely accessible after a certain time period (see for example Epidemiology, Geographical Analysis before 2004 and Project Euclid journals). Also Springer has there open-access venues (BioMed central), which is mostly biological sciences related but has a few social science journals (also Springer has the option to publish an article open-access for a fee, although the fee is pretty hefty).

So in short, I'm not sure why there is a popularity in the bio-medical sciences (perhaps because of the sheer size?) but it is certainly a trend across academia for both contemporary publishers to open the archives and for new open-access journals to form (and existing ones to become more reasonable and respected alternatives).

Similarly to aeismail's reponse, the SSRN archive is heavily devoted to Law articles, and many of those journals are entirely open access as well (see for one example the Columbia Law Review).


Sage Open covers the social sciences and is also another megajournal. Currently it is Scopus indexed and in the Emerging Sciences Citation Index

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