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PLoS Medicine’s 5th anniversary competition

PLoS Medicine turns 5 years old on October 19th, 2009. To highlight the crucial importance of open access in medical publishing we’re holding a competition to find the best medical paper published under an open-access license anywhere (not just in PLoS) since our launch.  We originally launched the competition with 6 competing papers, but a few days into the voting, we realised that one of the shortlisted papers was free access, not open access, and we had to temporarily suspend voting. We decided that the fairest solution would be to relaunch the competition with the 5 original open access papers. Please note voting will close on 15th October, 2009, 12 noon Pacific time.

This just goes to show how tricky it can sometimes be to find out whether a ‘free access’ paper is actually an ‘open access ‘paper.  Open access is a core principle of PLoS; this problem therefore serves to remind us about the key difference between free and open access that we’re seeking to highlight. Although free access is of course a step in the right direction, it differs from open access, because true open access means that you can not only read articles for free, but can download, copy, distribute, and use (with attribution) any way you wish.  Many journals have a free access option for articles, but it’s important to realise that articles published using a Creative commons license are truly open access — and fishing around through several pages of a specific journal is often required to find out exactly which license applies to a ‘free access’ article.

Vote for your choice from the 5 competing papers, detailed below — nominated and then shortlisted by our editorial board.  Winners will be announced during Open-Access week (19-23rd October 2009).  If you’re interested in how we came up with this shortlist of top-quality open-access medicine papers, please read on below the poll.

Papers can be accessed and read using the links below but please use the poll (which has simplified article titles for ease-of-use) to cast your vote.

[polldaddy poll=1998031]

Emergence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis with extensive resistance to second-line drugs — Worldwide, 2000–2004
Wright, A. et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. (2006) 301-305

The preventable causes of death in the United States: comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors Danaei, G. et al. PLoS Med. (2009) 6(4): e1000058

Randomized, controlled intervention trial of male circumcision for reduction of HIV infection risk: the ANRS 1265 Trial. Auvert, B. et al.  PLoS Med (2005) 2(11): e298.

Identification and characterization of transmitted and early founder virus envelopes in primary HIV-1 infection Keele, B.F. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci (USA) (2008)  105 :7552-7557

Projections of global mortality and burden of disease from 2002 to 2030 Mathers, C. D & Loncar, D. PLoS Med (2006) 3(11): e442.

Organizing the competition was quite a challenge, as we were keen for the process to be as fair and transparent as possible. We decided that a good starting point would be to consult our editorial board and ask them to nominate papers. Each board member was contacted personally and asked to come up with nominations for the best open-access medical paper in two categories—public health impact and translational medicine— to be drawn from medical journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals. Altogether 10% of the board responded with nominations of open-access papers; we removed papers that were not truly open access (we define open access as papers published under a Creative Commons licence).

Some board members who nominated papers felt that it would have been easier for them to select their favourites from a short-list drawn up by the editors. Our thinking behind not taking this approach was that we did not want to prejudge the outcomes. In fact, we were so concerned about being biased that we engaged Elizabeth Wager, Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) to oversee the whole process. She very kindly read emails that we sent to authors and scrutinized lists and processes to ensure the editorial team didn’t intentionally or unintentionally bias the outcomes.

•    Most board members found the task of nominating papers daunting, so we simply requested that they point us to a couple of standout papers they would recommend to colleagues or students.
•    Many board members only nominated PLoS Medicine papers so we asked them to think again about whether there were other relevant papers they could nominate.
•    We had plenty of nominations in the public health impact category, but virtually none in the translational medicine section, so we were forced to drop this category.

Initially nominations numbered 40 papers, and these were whittled down to 6 papers by sending the long list to the whole board again. This time almost 20% of the board got back in touch to nominate their three top choices from this list.  Using this to guide us, the 6 best nominated papers (we opted to choose the 3 most nominated PLoS Medicine papers and the three most nominated non-PLoS papers to ensure representation from other journals) were made ready for you to vote on. If we had not selected 3 non-PLoS contenders, the whole list would have been PLoS Medicine papers. After the competition launched we realised one of the contenders was not open access, and this paper was subsequently removed and the competition relaunched.

This process has taught us that providing a choice is far preferable to asking for suggestions where nominations are concerned! The nominations we received, which included content from The Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, in addition to a free access paper we shortlisted, but later realised was not an open access paper, also highlighted ongoing confusion about the difference between free access and open access. Even those of us who are striving to promote open access sometimes have trouble pinpointing the licenses used to publish articles, and the conditions of reuse for the contents of manuscripts.

Please take this opportunity to vote; we’re looking forward to seeing which paper comes out on top!

  1. Dear Jill,

    Thanks for the question — we need to amend the post to include this, but the voting will close on 15th October, 2009, 12 noon Pacific time.


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