PNAS envy

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Last week, Nature published a news item analyzing the use of the so-called "contributed" track at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (also called PNAS). For those who aren't aware, members of the National Academy of Sciences "can submit up to four papers per year to [PNAS], through the 'contributed' publication track. This unusual process allows authors to choose who will review their paper and how to respond to those reviewers' comments."

Yup, senior scientists get to bypass peer-review, or at least use a version of it unavailable to the steerage of the research world. 98% of contributed papers are accepted at PNAS, compared to 18% of "direct" submissions, and attract fewer citations. The contributed tracks' "power users" (who have submitted at close to the maximum allowable rate for the past decade) claim that this version of peer-review is not a "free ride", although the lack of transparency in the publication process in general makes this a hard claim to verify. But there are also noble reasons for choosing the contributed track:

[M]any of the contributed track's power users believe that increased competition for space in high-profile journals has allowed editors and reviewers to become more demanding. “Being able to publish four high-profile papers with much less grief than the usual high-prestige journal — that's worth something,” says Snyder. Some of the power users, including Snyder and Mak, add that the contributed track benefits postdoctoral researchers or students in their laboratories who are searching for jobs and need high-profile publications more quickly than the review time at Nature or Science would allow. Complaints about nitpicking reviews at Nature and Science go hand-in-hand with the charge that the editors at these journals are in thrall to trendy areas of research. “Very often what seems to be fashionable is not very good science,” says Croce.

And all this time I'd been thinking that the greybeards are protecting the publication status-quo because they're experienced enough to navigate it. But it turns out: they're just as frustrated with the peer-review system as everyone else is! So they publish in PNAS. How do we expect change when the people in power are insulated from the problems of everyone else? And are any of these "power users" as concerned about the pain of publishing in a glam journal for non-NAS members as they are about how it might affect their own postdocs? And lastly, how do you defend the claim that this is not an old boys club?