Is PeerJ Just Another Game-Player or Is It a Game-Changer?

Scientific American
In 2009 I had the pleasure of interviewing two luminaries in the Open Access publishing world, Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt. Back then, Peter was the managing editor of PLOS ONE, the world's largest scientific journal and arguably the leading academic Open Access journal, and Jason was the Chief Scientist and VP of R&D for Mendeley, a social reference manager that enhances the way scientists share information. We talked about the Open Access movement and the roles of both PLoS and Mendeley in it. The companies were still in their infancy, and their futures still hazy. I don't think any of us realized where that one-hour interview would eventually lead.

Fast forward to 2012, when I saw a tweet from Peter announcing that he was leaving PLOS ONE for a totally new publishing adventure. Knowing Peter and his track record, my interest was immediately piqued. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Peter confirming what I had seen, and informing me of PeerJ, "a privately held Open Access publisher of scholarly scientific content, which offers researchers a lifetime membership, for a single low price, giving them the ability to publish all future articles for free."

Of course, I wanted an interview.

When asked about what led to the inception of PeerJ during the interview, Jason, now the CEO and Co-Founder of PeerJ, had this to say, "You know, for me, it goes back... to the grad school days and feeling the frustrations even then when I couldn't get access, even at Stanford, to information about some articles. Stanford, as rich as it is, along with Harvard, doesn't have access to everything... So, I've been feeling this for several years, and sometime last year I felt like the frustration had just built up enough. The waiting game: waiting for either government or other publishers to take the lead to do something different just was not happening."

It was time to make something happen. Jason took his frustrations, and started PeerJ, bringing Peter into the startup early on as Co-Founder and Publisher. Together, and with the support of board member Tim O'Reilly, a top-tier team of engineers, an editorial board of over 800 academics, and a 20 person advisory board that includes five nobel laureates, they managed to go from a formal announcement of their company to launch in approximately 8 months. The rapidity of their development is a testament to their business model and policies, which are unique in the world of internet publishing.

First, PeerJ is a tech oriented publishing company, not simply a publishing company. They employ modern methods that allow them to streamline everything from the look of the website to their publishing processes to the number of people they need to hire.

Second, the PeerJ membership model means that its business is inherently based on the individual. The company will always care about each author as a member. Additionally, each member can impact and encourage innovation in interactivity enabling a back-and-forth that can create real relationships.

Third, putting these modern methods together with the real-time member feedback and interactions will allow PeerJ to react quickly to problems and member needs, and to innovate more often than traditional publishing companies. According to Jason, this will allow them to stand out from the pack as they gain credibility through their publications. He says, "If most publishers are going left, we go right."

However, not everything about PeerJ is totally new and modern. Jason and Peter like to think that they are combining the best aspects of traditional systems developed over hundreds of years with modern technology in a way that marries the best of both worlds. Even the pairing of Jason and Peter as Co-Founders displays a bit of the "new school" versus "old school" attitude that is intrinsic to the company's operations. Or, as Jason stated, "[in] everything from pixels to policies."

Of additional interest to potential authors, perhaps, is this tantalizing tidbit. PeerJ has adopted a newly developed approach to formatting references, which is very author friendly. From their instructions for authors:

We want authors spending their time doing science, not formatting.

We include reference formatting as a guide to make it easier for editors, reviewers, and PrePrint readers, but will not strictly enforce the specific formatting rules as long as the full citation is clear.

Styles will be normalized by us if your manuscript is accepted.

The hope is that removing formatting requirements will lead to greater creativity and innovation by authors in the way that they share their work. When authors aren't spending time worrying about commas and italization, they are freed to be more productive.

PeerJ isn't the first to adopt this stance on formatting. Other publishers include the Open Access publisher eLife and some Elsevier journals. Given time this could become the norm rather than the outlier. But, for now, digital-only publication does have more freedom to try new things than traditional publishing simply because it isn't tied to the paper format.

I realize that I probably sound like a bit of a PeerJ cheerleader, and I admit upon thinking about it that I am. I want them to succeed. But, it's not just because I know and like both Jason and Peter. I want Open Access to succeed, and every experiment in this publishing movement, whether or not it is financially viable in the long-term, will give us insight into how it can be made better - what will work, what won't work.

Tim O'Reilly, board member and investor, has been quoted as saying, "It's easy to forget that technological revolutions also demand business model revolutions. Open access is transformative for science publishing, not only because it spreads knowledge more efficiently, but because it slashes the cost of producing and consuming that knowledge."

I tend to agree with Mr. O'Reilly. We need more experiments in publishing business models. Some will succeed, and most will fail, but the Open Access publishing movement will benefit incredibly. I, personally, hope that PeerJ will be more than a game-player, and have serious impact on the publishing ecosystem.

Jason told me when we spoke last week that he'd "like to make science journals more interesting to the general public... Bring back browsing, [make] it more inviting." He doesn't think they are there yet, but it is something they will strive for. Open Access doesn't just mean access for academics. It means access for everyone, everywhere. I think making a monkey their mascot might be the right kind of invitation to put the public at ease. We just have to wait to see how academics respond.

At the time of this article, the open access publishing movement continues to gain momentum. We've seen great advances, like the UK's Open Access Mandate, which is set to begin in April of this year, and the successful Open Access "We the People" petition that collected over 60,000 signatures. We have also seen terrible tragedy in the death of Aaron Swartz, an internet activist best known for his roles in developing RSS, the Creative Commons license, and Reddit.

Today, PeerJ launches with the publication of 30 peer-reviewed scientific articles that are freely available to the public. I'm sure that both Peter and Jason will breathe a sigh of relief when the PeerJ servers survive the initial onslaught of requests. But, the real test will come in the following days and months, as we all see the public reaction to the newest experiment in Open Access publishing. As Peter told me in a recent phone interview, "This is the real launch of the journal. This is when we become real to the world."

Images: PeerJ, License: CC-BY 3.0. Author profile photo: Daniel Metrikin

Related at Scientific American: New and exciting kid on the block: PeerJ

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