Open vistas create a 'living body' of work

A low-cost open-access journal aims to modernise the act of publication. Paul Jump reports

June 21, 2012

Source: Alamy

Critical mass: biomedicine, which accounts for two-thirds of scholarly papers, is leading the way as a new flock of paradigm-shifting open-access journals appear on the horizon

Just days before publication of the Finch group’s report on access to research, the announcement of yet another groundbreaking new open-access journal in biomedicine suggests that, in that field at least, the momentum is unstoppable.

As reported in last week’s Times Higher Education, researchers will be able to publish an unlimited number of papers in PeerJ for a one-off fee of $259 (about £165) - rising to $299 in September.

The right to publish a paper every year can be bought for just $99. It will even be granted for free if an author is from a very poor country.

The announcement of the launch came just a few weeks before the first call for papers is expected from eLife, the top-tier open-access biomedical journal founded recently by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society. Initially, authors will pay nothing for publication, but a sustainable business model for the journal will be developed eventually.

The Faculty of 1000, a post-publication peer-review organisation in biomedicine, declared earlier this year that it too would launch a radical open-access journal, F1000 Research, which would embrace outputs such as negative results and replications of previous studies that journals typically reject.

Its first articles are set to go live in the next few weeks, and a formal launch will follow later this year.

Bioscience is also well served by the stable of BioMed Central open-access titles from publisher Springer.

Indeed, Peter Binfield, a co-founder of PeerJ, admitted that the greater understanding and acceptance of open access in biomedicine was one reason why PeerJ will focus on that field - although he noted that about two-thirds of all papers published were in biomedicine.

In contrast to F1000 Research, which plans to impose “highly competitive” article charges, Dr Binfield and his business partner, Jason Hoyt - former chief scientist at Mendeley, the academic reference manager and social-networking site - have concluded that the “perfect publishing operation” would instead embrace a membership scheme.

Doing so will force PeerJ to treat all authors - not just the corresponding author - as “customers” and will allow it to help individuals track, and showcase, their full involvement as authors, reviewers and academic editors, Dr Binfield said.

It can’t be that low

It was the eye-catchingly low cost of its membership scheme that earned headlines when PeerJ was unveiled.

Some observers were quick to highlight the contrast between PeerJ’s $99 membership and the $5,000 open-access fee charged by some highly selective journals, but others have argued that the comparison is unfair, given the costs that top titles incur in handling large numbers of papers that are ultimately rejected - and from which, therefore, they derive no income.

But Mike Taylor, an open-access advocate and a palaeontologist affiliated with the University of Bristol, said PeerJ’s prices “blow out of the water” even the $1,350 article fee charged by PLoS ONE, the giant open-access journal whose policy of accepting every scientifically sound submission - which amounts to about 70 per cent of all those it receives - will be replicated by PeerJ.

To publish a paper in PeerJ, all authors must be PeerJ members, although the requirement stops at 12 in order to avoid penalising submissions with large numbers of authors. Dr Binfield, who is the former publisher of PLoS ONE, noted that papers in biomedicine typically have about seven authors.

Authors may become members after their paper is accepted, but they will be charged fees that are between $30 and $50 higher.

Pricing is not the only means by which PeerJ - which will begin accepting submissions in late summer and start publishing in December - aims to “bring the act of publication into the modern era”.

As well as adopting the article-level metrics and commenting facilities pioneered by PLoS journals, it will also, like F1000 Research, encourage authors to amend their papers in light of feedback.

The idea was to make the scientific literature into a “living body”, Dr Binfield said, although he emphasised that the original version of a paper would remain the citable “version of record”.

And the ‘J’?

A sense that article-level metrics may ultimately render the concept of a journal meaningless explains PeerJ’s name: the “J” is intended to “suggest” the word “journal” without “necessarily” standing for it.

“Article-level metrics is a movement that is really picking up at the moment, but clearly, most authors haven’t switched to that way of thinking yet,” Dr Binfield said.

PeerJ’s pragmatic aim to be “close enough to established publication models that authors can feel comfortable with it” explains its decision not to follow F1000 Research in abolishing external prepublication peer review entirely.

It will instead adopt PLoS ONE-style rapid but “rigorous” pre-publication review. In addition, it aims to publish all reviewers’ reports alongside papers.

Reviewers will be encouraged to reveal their identities - not least so that they can garner credit for their efforts. However, they will retain the right to remain anonymous so that they may review robustly even if the author is more senior figure.

This could be particularly important for students who, like every PeerJ member, will be required to produce at least one review a year in the spirit of “give and take” expected of the PeerJ community. That requirement should not be onerous: Dr Binfield emphasised that even an unsolicited comment on an article would suffice.

What might do most to set PeerJ apart is its incorporation of a preprint server, to which all members may post early drafts of papers for comment.

Such servers have long been common in some disciplines, the most celebrated being, which holds more than 100,000 articles in physics and 10,000 in mathematics.

But in the fiercely competitive world of biomedicine, researchers have shied away from revealing results before formal publication for fear of aiding rivals to “scoop” them by publishing a similar study first.

For this reason, PeerJ members who wish to establish a claim to precedence without divulging experimental details will be able to make only the title or the abstract of their papers available as a preprint. They will also be able to restrict access to their preprints to other PeerJ members or to designated contacts only.

Feeling confident

Although some publishing insiders have questioned PeerJ’s business model, there is much confidence in the pedigree of its founders and in its financial backer: the technology publishing magnate and open society campaigner Tim O’Reilly.

Dr Binfield’s experience at PLoS ONE - which, six years after its launch, is by far the largest scholarly journal in the world - also makes him confident of success. “PLoS ONE shows that if you are respectful of the academic community and understand what [researchers] need from the publishing process, they will come to you.”

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