Building a home for the Physical Sciences at PLOS ONE

Historically, PLOS ONE is best known in the life sciences and biomedical fields. However, as a multidisciplinary journal, we have always welcomed research from all subject areas, including the natural and medical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and social sciences and related humanities.  

Two years ago we formed a set of dedicated editorial teams in different subject areas across the PLOS ONE scope, with the aim of facilitating stronger interactions with our authors and our editorial board, as well as improving how we handle individual manuscripts. In this blog post, I’d like to outline how the team that I’m part of, Physical Sciences and Engineering, has been working to engage with researchers across physical sciences communities and to advance the PLOS mission by helping scientists and engineers to publish exciting research that is open, transparent and reproducible. 

Crossing disciplinary boundaries

In the last year alone we have published exciting papers in core physical sciences fields from climate change and natural language processing to fluid dynamics and statistics. What makes a multidisciplinary journal special, though, is the opportunity to provide a home for research which does not naturally sit in one traditional discipline or which forms previously unexplored connections between subject areas. 

Two recent papers we have published in recent months nicely highlight this interdisciplinary focus. 

First, a study authored by Braun and colleagues brought together chemists and archaeologists interested in the prospect of using isotopic ratios to provenance iron objects. The authors carried out a series of smelting experiments on Levantine iron ore samples, then used mass spectrometry to show that the ratio of osmium isotopes was preserved from ore to metal. This observation is notable because it means the Os isotopic ratio can be used to identify the source of iron in objects found in the Levant region, since ore from different sites has a characteristic isotopic ratio, and therefore as a promising tool for understanding the economic, social and geo-political aspects of iron production in the ancient world.

An iron bar is smelt on an anvil.

A study authored by Lawley and colleagues from the mathematics and biology departments at Duke University used a mathematical model of oxygen uptake in insects to gain insight into the role of spiracles, small openings in the tracheal wall. It was previously known that spiracles alternate between closed, open and ‘fluttering’ states, the latter when they open and close rapidly, but the benefits of fluttering remain unclear. By defining a diffusion differential equation model, the authors found that a rapid fluttering state allows for comparable oxygen uptake to the open state but with much less water loss. This result suggests that insects can achieve both high oxygen intake and low water loss by keeping the spiracles closed most of the time and fluttering while open.  

Open spiracles on a Cluentius Sphinx Moth caterpillar. Image from Wikimedia Commons

We have also recently launched a call for papers programme in order to build dedicated collections of research on different themes from across the physical sciences and engineering. Collections we have published so far have covered topics as diverse as Machine Learning in Healthcare, Open Biomaterials Research, Open Quantum Computing and Simulation, Science of Stories and Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Disease Dynamics, providing an opportunity for readers and prospective authors to see the broad range of interdisciplinary research we publish at PLOS ONE. Right now we have an open call on Cities as Complex Systems, encompassing complex systems and networks research applied to questions in urban science.

Getting to know you

Our team has enjoyed meeting researchers from across the globe at conferences, workshops and other events. In 2019 we attended meetings on ubiquitous computing and wearables, quantitative biology, geology and geochemistry, robotics, complex networks and materials science, learning about what matters to researchers when it comes to sharing their science with other researchers and the broader public. One highlight for us was NetSci 2019, where our Associate Editor Deanne Dunbar participated in a spirited ‘Meet the Editor’ panel discussion on the current challenges and future directions of publishing in the (relatively) nascent subject of network science. Our Associate Editor Hanna Landenmark also had the chance to connect with early career researchers at the organic bioelectronics meeting Orbitaly2019, where she ran a workshop on authorship and reviewing. 

Conversations we have had at meetings have also led to us significantly expanding our editorial board, with more than 800 scientists from physical sciences fields becoming PLOS ONE Academic Editors since 2018! This depth and breadth of expertise means we ensure that our editorial and review process is fast and thorough, led by experts in the scientific community.

Supporting reproducible research

Reproducibility is a key pillar of open science and the PLOS ONE mission. For all research we emphasise the importance of reproducibility by making it one of our core publication criteria, and via our open data policy. Within individual subject areas in the physical sciences, however, we often hear demand from researchers for additional guidance or editorial policies so that reported research can better meet community standards. Working with our academic editors we have recently developed new policies to support the reproducibility of studies reporting data from NMR spectroscopy and crystallography experiments, with plans to develop specific author guidelines in other areas in 2020. 

Electron density map of nucleotide binding at the active site of T. thermophilus methylenetetrahydrofolate dehydrogenase.

Get in touch!

We have a number of other exciting projects planned for 2020 at PLOS ONE and we are always keen to hear from you! We regularly highlight new physical sciences and engineering papers every fortnight on the PLOS ONE homepage, on this blog and via our Twitter account @PLOSONE. You can also get in touch with us via the form below to share your ideas on how to make publishing physical sciences research easier and accessible to all!

Featured image: Jill Hemman, CC-BY 2.0, Flickr

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