PeerJ's $99 open access model one year on

Will a low-cost, user-friendly open access journal steal the traditional publishers’ lunch?

March 13, 2014

Source: Getty

Mirror moves: PeerJ, an open access biomedical journal, is breaking the publishing mould by doing more for less; will others go on to ape its low-cost, multi-featured, user-friendly model?

When, in 2012, a new open access biomedical journal with a peculiar name and a smirking blue monkey for a mascot announced that it would let academics publish a paper a year for a one-off fee of just $99 (£59), some observers checked that it was not April Fool’s Day.

One goal of the open access movement had always been to slash the amount of money universities transferred to publishers’ coffers. Yet even Plos One, the previous “darling” of open access advocates, felt the need to charge authors $1,350 per article. Yet here was that journal’s former publisher, Peter Binfield, proclaiming that PeerJ could do even more for vastly less.

Kent Anderson, chief executive and publisher of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, wrote in a Scholarly Kitchen blog soon after the announcement that “after scooping my brain back into my skull once I’d absorbed this apparently foolhardy approach to cash flow and sustainability…it began to dawn on me that perhaps what PeerJ is headed toward is more akin to a freemium model, like WordPress, where you can publish for free if you accept limited functionality and some Google ads, or you can pay premium fees to get rid of the ads and get more robust functionality”.

PeerJ did announce higher fees of $199 for the right to publish two papers a year and $299 for unlimited publishing rights. And the fact that the papers it publishes average four and a half authors also pushes up the average cost of publishing a first paper to nearly $450, even on the cheapest plan. But Mr Anderson’s expectation that the journal would charge extra fees for everything from peer review to search engine optimisation has not been realised.

Speaking last month on the first anniversary of the publication of PeerJ’s first article, Dr Binfield also pointed to the rave reviews that its publication platform and customer service had received. A recent author survey indicated that 91 per cent of authors had had an “above average” publishing experience, with 42 per cent rating it “one of the best I have ever had”, he said. “We are proving that it is entirely possible to have a world-class publication experience at a rock-bottom price.”

Game changer

Michael Taylor, an open access advocate and research associate in earth sciences at the University of Bristol, is among the Anglo-American journal’s early fans.

“The astonishing thing about it isn’t just the 21st-century platform, the speed and quality of the editorial handling [the median time for a publication decision is 24 days], the care taken over proofing, the design, or the absence of limits on paper length, figure count and so on. It’s that they somehow combine all these things at a price that’s literally an order of magnitude less than the more established open access publishers. It’s a complete game changer. At this point, when I have work ready to go, the question is no longer: ‘Where shall I send this?’ It’s: ‘Is there any reason not to send it to PeerJ?’ ”

PeerJ also incorporates a free preprint server, to which researchers can upload early versions of papers for comment. Received wisdom suggested that biomedical researchers would eschew such a service for fear of being scooped. But of the approximately 500 papers PeerJ has published so far, about half have been pre-prints. And the fact that a similar service, known as bioRxiv, has since been launched by the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US suggests that the time may indeed be ripe for such an approach.

PeerJ co-founder Jason Hoyt said that the journal had fulfilled its year-one aims of “staying alive”, starting to grow and “laying the groundwork to show this business model could be sustainable”. It is on track to be self-sustaining by early 2015, and there are no plans to raise prices. “If anything we would like to lower them if we can figure out some other revenue stream,” Dr Hoyt said.

The journal’s path to sustainability has been smoothed by the 20 prominent universities that have so far taken out institutional payment plans. According to Dr Binfield, the demand for this option came from the universities themselves.

“Some of it is about recognising and supporting an innovative model trying to change the system,” he said. “But, ultimately, they see it as a much more cost-effective way for their faculty to publish open access. It was a fantastic validation to have the likes of the University of Cambridge, University College London, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley beating down our door. It improves our standing and reputation in the world.”

The ‘cool kids on the block’

The trick will be to convince researchers to trust their careers to PeerJ. Dr Binfield is well aware that many institutions require their researchers to publish in journals with a certain impact factor, and PeerJ will not receive its first rating until the end of its second year of publishing. But he insisted that the journal was already publishing some “great science”, with some of its articles receiving more than 20,000 views.

“We have clearly convinced the cool kids on the block. Everyone in the library world and Twitterverse understands and appreciates us. Now it is matter of getting our message understood more broadly.”

One barrier to wooing more traditional academics may be the journal’s left-field branding (in his blog piece, Mr Anderson took particular issue with its “silly” monkey). Dr Hoyt said that the point had been to show the journal’s distinctive modernity. “But maybe we will grow tired of the monkey and release him into the wild at some point,” he added.

So will PeerJ grow to one day rival Plos One, which published 31,000 articles in 2013?

“Not necessarily,” Dr Binfield said. “But Plos One still only publishes around 3 per cent of the entire global output of papers, so there is plenty of opportunity to grow into a very significant influence.”

According to Dr Hoyt, if all scholarly articles were published in PeerJ, the global academy’s annual STM (scientific, technical and medical) publishing bill would decline from $10 billion to less than $2.5 billion. “We obviously aren’t going to become a $2 billion company, but there are an awful lot of savings that it would be great to make for researchers and industry,” he said.

Dr Taylor, for one, is convinced that PeerJ will eventually “eat the lunch” of traditional publishers.

“I can’t think of anything they can do to stop it,” he said. “PeerJ (and other new publishers) simply do a better job in every respect at a fraction of the price. It’s as if Ford had to compete with a car manufacturer that was selling Rolls-Royces at £2,000.”

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