Over the past decade, the open access movement has grown by leaps and bounds, with increased awareness and a slew of institutional, funder, and government mandates. But the real sign of maturity may be in how the business models associated with open access publishing have evolved. And this week comes a fascinating new entry into the field: PeerJ.
Founded by scientists and academic publishing and technology professionals Jason Hoyt (formerly v-p, R&D and chief scientist for the desktop and Web organizer Mendeley), and Peter Binfield (former publisher of PLoS ONE), PeerJ offers a new twist on open access publishing.
“PeerJ is an Open Access journal publisher which, for a single low price, gives researchers the ability to publish future articles with us for free,” explains cofounder Peter Binfield. “Basic membership allows members to publish one ‘private’ preprint per year,” he explains, meaning they can restrict who can access it, “with higher tiers allowing members to publish unlimited ‘private’ preprints.” The privately held company will launch with two publications: a peer-reviewed journal, PeerJ, and a preprint server called PeerJ PrePrints.
If it sounds ambitious—it is. But the company has captured the attention of leaders in the open access movement. Jan Velterop, a pioneer in open access publishing with BioMed Central, says he has no doubts the company will succeed. “PeerJ is more than just an innovative publishing initiative,” he says. “It pulls scientific publishing back from the career-advancing service it has primarily become, restoring its origins: scholarly communication.”
PW contributing editor Peter Brantley recently caught up with PeerJ cofounder Peter Binfield.
Is PeerJ a new competitive model to existing OA publishers, like PLoS?
We do not see ourselves as competitive with other open access publishers—we simply see ourselves as a new, fresh, attractive venue for academics who want to publish open access articles. Approximately 85% of all academic content is still being published outside of an open access license, so there is plenty of space for all existing OA publishers to push the boundaries of the model.
What kind of submissions is PeerJ targeting?
PeerJ will be publishing research articles in the biological and medical sciences. Taking its inspiration from PLoS One, PeerJ will evaluate articles based only on scientific and methodological soundness, not on any subjective determination of “impact.”
Do you expect to accept primarily text-based submissions, or is there a role for data storage, access, and manipulation?
We are going to take our lead from the academic community. At the moment academia communicates primarily through text-based, traditional articles, so that is what we expect them to submit to PeerJ, which is, after all, a journal publication. However, we also have PeerJ PrePrints, which we see very much as an experimental space, where authors can submit any type of digital content.
Are PeerJ’s published articles “living” and capable of ongoing update, or are they considered static, with updates restricted to online responses?
They are living. The integrity of the scholarly record is a very important concept, so we will be publishing an immutable “Version of Record.” However, we will also allow authors to provide subsequent revisions of their published articles. These will be clearly marked as not having been peer reviewed. At some point, authors may consider that an article has evolved sufficiently that it is now a new article, worthy of a new citation, and so that article can be submitted for formal evaluation and new publication. We will also allow commenting on articles, similar to many other journals.
Is the membership model sufficient to offer sustainable revenue?
Yes, it is. Our cost structure is lower than more traditional publishing companies’, which might have legacy systems or products to deal with, or be aiming to make an excessive profit. We are very much a startup company with a focus on efficiency and proving the business model.
As to the revenue side of the equation, most scientific papers typically have more than one author, and in our model, every author needs to be a paying member. Authors invariably publish new papers with new coauthors, who may not be members, and authors tend to publish in more than one venue over time, so some will publish fewer papers than others. When you combine these factors, the finances work. We are confident of our financial viability.
Remember, there are approximately 10 million publishing academics in the world, and as you say, new academics are born every day. If we manage to saturate that market, then we will have other things to worry about! We actually see the industry, and business models based on author payments, as in transition. We expect to see our author charges go down rather than up, as efficiencies are realized and new business models evolve to take their place.
What type of peer review will PeerJ engage in? Will it be closed or open?
All articles will be assigned to a qualified academic editor, who will be an independent, practicing academic. That person will then seek qualified peer reviewers and make a decision based on their input.
That said, we believe in open peer review. That means, first, reviewer names are revealed to authors, and second, that the history of the peer review process is made public upon publication. However, we are also aware that this is a new concept. Therefore, we are initially going to encourage, but not require, open peer review. Specifically, we will be adopting a policy similar to The EMBO Journal: reviewers will be permitted to reveal their identities to authors, and authors will be given the choice of placing the peer review and revision history online when they are published. In the case of EMBO, the uptake by authors for this latter aspect has been greater than 90%, so we expect it to be well received.
Will peer review be primarily placed only to satisfy PubMed indexing requirements?
Absolutely not. Although we are well aware of the criticisms and limitations of pre-publication peer review, we strongly believe in the value of it. So, we are not doing peer review just to tick a box on a requirement at PubMed—we are doing it to improve the quality of our process, to improve the quality of the published articles, and to provide a service the academic community can trust. As we go forward, we will be experimenting with additional ways to improve the process of peer review.
Arguably, the trend of academic publishing is toward distributed authoring systems operating at very low cost, coming ever closer to the point of production. Will there be a need for PeerJ in, say, five years’ time?
Yes, and actually we believe we will be at the forefront of the developments you just mentioned, helping to drive down the costs for authors. We believe that the need for PeerJ, or any other publisher, in the future will be to provide tools and services that genuinely add value to the end-to-end publishing process—to provide professional publication services and to facilitate the dissemination and amplification of published research.
What kind of social interaction and community features will PeerJ support?
First of all, we have no intention of becoming a social network, or any kind of “Facebook for Scientists.” But clearly our membership base does constitute a group of peers who will have various interactions that we can track and encourage. For example, a member might simultaneously be an author, a reviewer, a commenter, and an academic editor—and we will facilitate all these interactions and will provide “reputation” systems that will track and display an individual’s activity in each respect.
To what extent does PeerJ adhere to traditional journal publishing standards. For example, will it have an ISSN/ISTC, and will each article have a unique DOI or other identifier?
We are going to take the best aspects of traditional publishing and marry them to the best aspects of modern Internet-era publishing practices. Therefore, yes, we will have an ISSN—in fact, both publications already have one—and, yes, we will use DOIs. We have already joined CrossRef. And, yes, we will adhere to community standards bodies such as COPE [the Committee on Publication Ethics]. At the same time, we will be facilitating a wide range of technical and conceptual improvements that will build on the more traditional model, like semantic tagging, machine readable metadata, etc.
Will you integrate support for ORCID and other contributor identifiers?
Yes, and we are already a participating member of ORCID [Open Researcher & Contributor ID]. We think unique author identifiers are one of the most important developments that this industry is crying out for, and so we fully expect to integrate ORCID as soon as it is up and running.
How will you ensure preservation of PeerJ’s corpus? Are you forming agreements with preservation effort like CLOCKSS, Portico, or other preservation systems?
We take preservation very seriously and there are several industry standard programs that address this problem. In real-time, we will be archiving our content at PubMed Central, and we will also archive with CLOCKSS. In fact, we have already joined CLOCKSS. As soon as the Royal Dutch Library starts taking publishers again, we will also be archiving there. With these three industry standard archives in place, we will meet or exceed the archiving levels of the majority of publishers.
PeerJ is disruptive, but what kinds of disruption do you think might force an entirely new pivot in the scholarly communication marketplace in, say, five years?
Clearly the movement toward open access is now unstoppable. Governments, institutions, and funders across the world are increasingly mandating and encouraging open access, and it is clear to all that it is only a matter of time until the vast majority of academic content is published under an open access license. PeerJ aims to accelerate this trend by lowering the financial barriers, by experimenting with new technical solutions, and by encouraging the active participation of publishing academics. However, although PeerJ will be pushing this revolution, the real disruption is going to happen when the wider community recognizes and accepts the direction that academic publishing is moving in. At that point there will be a Cambrian explosion of experiments acting on an increasingly large corpus of open content.
Peter Brantley is director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, and a PW contributing editor.