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The Evolution of Scientific Dissemination: PeerJ Rises

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

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In case you didn’t know, academic publishing is undergoing a major upheaval. Again. It used to be that original discoveries could only be disseminated on paper, published in books and journals, which were mostly found in university libraries because their cost was so high. Then the internet was invented and things began to change, but surprisingly slowly. The big journals still ruled the roost—and even now they still really do, though future of this is uncertain—but paper and libraries eventually started to become less popular among readers. Readers wanted their science to be indexed on the Web and they wanted instant PDF downloads. Journals obliged and competed to add these features at no extra cost. But you still needed a subscription to the journal—or your university library did—to get access to the article for less than $30/article at the major journals. This is still the typical state of affairs with most journals that predate the internet.

But then something new started happening: first online journals (never on paper) and then so-called open-access journals (online journals that were accessible to readers for free) started to pop up. You may be surprised to learn that these journals are not much cheaper to produce than hardcopy magazines and books—despite the lack of paper—because most of the cost producing a journal is in the editorial services (copy editing, peer review, formatting, layout, marketing, etc). Whereas online journals having the traditional subscription-for-access model charged the reader, open access models charged the authors. Either way, a huge portion of the governmental science budget went towards paying for science publication, though funding agencies tended to prefer open access because the public could access the materials for free.

PeerJ is the next evolution of the journal. It’s open access, but instead of charging the authors an arm and a leg, it’s relatively cheap to publish: a one-time payment $99 gets you one paper published per year for life, and $299 gets you unlimited publications for life. They can do this because they will have advertisements (as do the other journals), and they expect everybody to subscribe in the first few years, giving them a large pile of cash to invest, which will then pay for staffing, peer review, and editorial services from investment interest in the future. So Wall Street pays for it. I like it!

I’m guessing funding agencies will like it too. Why should they pay out thousands of dollars to cover the publication of each paper when they can be assured of peer review and open access for a fraction of the cost?

Since it launched a few months ago, PeerJ had continued to innovate and they’ve recently announced some new initiatives.

PeerJ is now being indexed by PubMed, PubMed Central, Scopus and Google Scholar. This means that scholars will have an easier time finding the research they need.

PeerJ is now free for undergraduate authors. When publishing with at least one paying senior author, undergraduates publish for free.

Only time will tell if this new discount model of publishing catches on, but as an academic editor and author of  PeerJ myself, I see no reason it shouldn’t one day become the dominant model in academic publishing.


Susana Martinez-Conde About the Author: Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are laboratory directors at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Follow on Twitter @illusionchasers.

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

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  1. 1. MikeTaylor 3:21 am 04/30/2013

    Thanks for this post! Just one quibble:

    “You may be surprised to learn that these journals are not much cheaper to produce than hardcopy magazines and books—despite the lack of paper—because most of the cost producing a journal is in the editorial services (copy editing, peer review, formatting, layout, marketing, etc).”

    Actually, the evidence says that online-only is significantly cheaper — hence the average article-processing charge of $906 (reported from a detailed survey by Solomon and Björk 2012), compared with an average cost to the community of $5000 for a traditional article.

    The issue here is that legacy publishers have a strong financial interest in having people believe that there are not great cost savings to be made, so that they can continue to charge high fees and continue to feed profits in the 32%-42% range.

    The simple truth is that there is no way for big, slow-moving legacy publishers to compete on a level playing field with born-digital market entrants like PeerJ, F1000 Research and eLife. That’s why they’re doing everything they can to persuade keep the playing field tilted.

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  2. 2. samlehmanwilzig 8:34 pm 04/30/2013

    Am I missing something? I assume that PeerJ is double-blind refereed as are all serious scholarly journals. So if I pay the $99 I am guaranteed of one article per year being published — even if they are total garbage? Or the “guarantee” is only if the article passes the refereeing process? Either way, isn’t there a huge incentive to pressure the referees to write “passable” reviews? Or worse, the editors of PeerJ journals would look “kindly” on middling referee reviews. This article completely ignores the fundamentals of scholarly publishing. Some explanation, please!

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  3. 3. antistokes 11:23 pm 04/30/2013

    Hi Mike:

    As someone who has published in “legacy journals” (JACS, in my case), I agree with you. And I would just *love* to see a full, transparent breakdown of publication & production costs. (There are production costs!! See my pub, PLoS ONE did a wonderful job typesetting & ethics checking! Link: )

    I am … ahhhh …. Working on it Through Proper Channels. They’ll come around, publishing must be about “communication”, not whatever “prestige” means nowadays.

    Here’s my PeerJ Preprint: “How to turn USA science degrees into science careers”
    Abstract: This essay discusses the current situation in USA Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) higher education. Possible solutions to the current “skills gap” facing an entire generation of young Americans are considered. It is put forth that an “Industry PhD” may be helpful for guiding the next generation of scientists into stable careers in the sciences. Discovery science, wherein one discovers natural laws of the universe, requires a different toolkit than one needs for doing applied science. This is the proposed “Academic PhD” track. Applied science is usually focused around a three to five year targeted plan, with a directly patentable application as the “end product”. Discovery science usually takes longer, and is by its very nature uncertain. However, one must discover natural laws before one can apply and patent them. Both “Academic PhD” and “Industry PhD” tracks are required for healthy economic growth in industrial nations.

    And whooo boy were they Quick.

    Dr. Allison L. Stelling (@DrStelling)

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  4. 4. Susana Martinez-Conde in reply to Susana Martinez-Conde 8:49 pm 05/1/2013

    Your manuscript must be accepted by peer review to be published.

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  5. 5. antistokes 10:52 pm 05/1/2013

    Hi samlehmanwilzig,

    Double blind is starting to become a barrier to communication in narrower fields. It worked in the “olden days” of the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s a bit silly now we have the “internet”.

    Here’s my suggestion, as posted on PeerJ’s feedback section (

    Hi Carsten, I completely understand your dilemma — so much to read, not enough hours in the day! And don’t get me started on the plethora of formatting styles one can find in the ACS journals, let alone medical journals. (I do brain tumor diagnostics nowadays, and the field has a much higher publishing rate than the photophysics I did my PhD work in!) One solution I was discussing with a theoretical physicist is to publish everything that passes basic checks for ethics & not being complete malarkey, and then have devoted Editors who are paid by an independent scientific society to be completely focused on weeding out the “good stuff” on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. (One would have to take care that they are independent and have no conflicts of interest.) After this, respected and established experts in the various fields could weed through those on a monthly basis, pro bono (or as a part of faculty duties within a university department)- and perhaps put together a yearly report on the state of the field and promising future directions. Cheers, Allison (@DrStelling)

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