The Public Library of Science -- PLoS -- was a pioneer in the field of open access science, making high-quality scientific research results available for free (through a Creative Commons license) to readers around the world. Part of the strength of the PLoS effort was that, aside from the publishing model, the Public Library of Science journals were otherwise standard, rigorous research publications. It turns out, however, that this was just a way of getting its foot in the door of science publication; today, PLoS unveiled PLoS ONE, and has made clear its real agenda -- nothing short of a revolution in science communication.
PLoS One will be a multi-discipline online journal offering rapid publication, interactive papers, a selection method that focuses on rigor instead of novelty, and -- most importantly -- an ongoing reader review system that changes the peer review process from a gateway to a conversation. Readers will be able to annotate papers, and to share their commentary and links with other participants. The authors, in turn, will be able to update their work, bringing in additional experimental data and improving the language of their papers for greater reader comprehension (the original version will always remain available, however).
For me, the most exciting aspect of the PLoS ONE project is its inclusiveness:
The boundaries between different scientific fields are becoming increasingly blurred. At the same time, the bulk of the scientific literature is divided into journals covering ever more restrictive disciplines and subdisciplines. In contrast, PLoS ONE will be a venue for all rigorously performed science, making it easier to uncover connections and synergies across the research literature.
The era of the siloed, isolationist scientific disciplines is finally passing. The more that biologists understand physics, that climatologists understand demography, that chemists understand epidemiology (and on and on), the better. We can no longer afford for scientists to be functionally illiterate across disciplines.
Although many of the features of PLoS ONE are familiar mechanisms for readers of blogs, wikis and other web-citizen media, this is pretty radical stuff for the world of scientific publishing. With high-end journals such as Nature or Science, the legitimacy of the research published comes from the high barriers to entry; you don't get into Nature if your work doesn't meet some pretty serious requirements. PLoS ONE will have much less restrictive barriers to publication; the legitimacy of the research will come instead from the community of readers evaluating, testing, challenging and arguing the findings.
It's unclear, as of now, whether readers will have some way to rate the contributions of other readers, building up a Slashdot-style reputation score for participants. I expect that it will. Ideally, participants would evaluate the claims and observations made during the discussion by looking closely at the ideas. Realistically, however, good rhetorical skills and a powerful online personality can cover up gaps of logic or methodology, and new participants should be able to see at a glance who they should watch closely.
PLoS ONE will begin active publication later this year, but interested readers can sign up now for progress reports and submission guidelines.