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New and exciting kid on the block: PeerJ

As many of you know, before accepting a job at Scientific American, I worked at PLoS for three years (and became a vocal Open Access Evangelist even before that). While there, I worked closely with Pete Binfield who replaced Chris Surridge as managing editor of PLoS ONE shortly after my arrival there. Pete and I became friends, bumped into each other at meetings, he came to ScienceOnline at least a couple of times, and we remained in frequent contact after my move.

I am sure I was just one of many who was taken completely by surprise by the announcement that Pete is leaving PLoS to start a new project. His partner in this project is Jason Hoyt, up till now Chief Scientist and VP of R&D of Mendeley, also a ScienceOnline veteran.

If these two people, some of the best in the business, decide to leave cushy jobs in respected organization to start something new, one sits up and pays attention! This is not one of your run-of-the mill start-ups that come and go. So, I talked to Pete soon afterward, and today the cat is out of the bag - press release and all the details are now public.

So, what is it?

PeerJ is a new Open Access journal, as well as a new Open Access PrePrint service (see their blog for updates). PeerJ will open for submissions in Summer 2012, and will publish its first articles in December 2012.

Peer Review

Just like at PLoS ONE, reviewers will not be distracted by the superficial question of "is this sexy, earthshaking, Nobel-worthy, paradigm-shifting stuff" and will be forced to actually dig in and review the paper for the quality of science in the manuscript.

Where does money come from?

Its source of start-up funding is Tim O'Reilly with an initial infusion of $950,000. After that, the journal will support itself from membership fees. What are membership fees? They replace publication fees that many TA and OA journals currently charge authors for the publication of their manuscripts. Instead of paying for publication of each paper, authors pay only once and have a lifetime to keep publishing with PeerJ.

There are three levels of membership, suitable for people in different institutions, countries, scientific fields, or career stages. The basic $99 plan allows for publication of one paper per year, the $169 price-tag applies to those who expect to publish twice per year, and $259 membership fee is designed for more frequent authors. Each of the three levels also includes unlimited publication on the PrePrint server. If you are confused, yes, those are not annual fees, but once-only lifetime fees (as someone quipped: Publish 'till you Perish)

What's the catch?

Very wisely, PeerJ is starting out by targeting the (bio)medical community first. It is this area of research in which the frequency of publication has reached levels best described as 'madness'. Pressure is enormous to publish, publish often, and then publish some more. Can you imagine paleontologists being under the same pressure - poor Earth would be dug up three times over by now!

Think for a moment - how many papers is one, on average, an author on? While PIs of big labs in big institutions in big countries rake in many publications per year, one can imagine quite a steep slope on that curve with most of the authors residing in the very long tail of the "one-hit-wonder" authors. How many postdocs, technicians, graduate, undergraduate and high school students will publish more than one or two papers in their lifetimes? How many will 8-year old kids who happened to be in that class which published the famous bumblebee paper? How many citizen scientists will co-author a paper more than once? How many PI's cats (yes, those were authors in the past) will write more than one paper?

Yet, each one of them will have to pay membership dues if a paper is to be published in PeerJ (there is an exception and a limit - papers with more than twelve authors will only have to have twelve paying authors, so PI's cat may be off the hook if enough students and technicians sign on).

Cost of publishing a few papers by over-producers will be offset by thousands of single-paper authors who will also pay the fee. And even the hyper-frequent authors will not publish all of their stuff in PeerJ - they tend to like to spread their seed around, publishing some stuff in GlamourMagz for reputation, some in the Society journal to appease the friend the editor, some in PLoS ONE for speed when in fear of scooping, and perhaps one or two per year in PeerJ. Not that much work and cost typesetting PDFs for PeerJ after all, right?

Now imagine a person who starts publishing as an MS student, moves to a different lab for PhD, another one or two labs for postdocs, then gets hired for a temp job, then finally gets a tenure-track position somewhere else. At each one of those steps, this person persuades collaborators, students and others (including cats) to also sign on in order to publish together. Thus the circle spreads until every scientist on the planet, professional or amateur, old or new, is in the system. And new people keep coming into the system all the time. After all, $99 is a reasonable sum that most can afford to pay and will not resist too hard.

Oh, and think about the above paragraph again - does not this process require building and having a, gasp, community? And being able to sell the concept to one's friends and collaborators? And the pre-print part is open to experimentation - not everything in there needs to look like a traditional paper from the time of print, opening up a possibility that creative people will use the platform to come up with novel ways of reporting their findings, more suited for the 21st century.

Brilliant, right? Now let's hope it works! Time will tell...

There has already been quite a lot of coverage of PeerJ in various places, some content to summarize the press release, but others speculating about the future developments. See Scientific American, ScienceInsider, Confessions of a Science Librarian (part 1), Confessions of a Science Librarian (part 2), Gavia Libraria, The Library Journal, csid, Publishers Weekly, Reciprocal Space, Ars Technica, Huffington Post Science, Uncommon Ground, PandoDaily, Reuters, Mendeley and for early examples.

It also shows how their usual focus on money and a strangely elitist view of "what good science is" led the Scholarly Kitchen guys on a totally random walk away from what this is all about into wild speculation. Heh.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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