Has there ever been a business more ripe for disruption than academic publishing? For anyone who's not been following along, the business model of academic publishers, built on solving 18th century distribution problems, incarnates the Shirky Principle: that "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." Far from making research public, as the name "publisher" suggests, their business now works by accepting researchers' donations of manuscripts, refining them by other researchers' donations of editorial services and peer review, assuming copyright, and locking up the results -- work that they neither wrote, edited, reviewed or paid for -- behind paywalls. By artificially causing a scarcity problem, they're able to sell solutions to that problem: subscriptions.
But publishers are monopoly suppliers of the journals they publish, and, like so many monopolists, have been unable to resist gouging their customers. Between 1996 and 2010, journal subscription prices rose at four times the rate of inflation. The result is that each published paper now costs the academic world more than $5000. Prices are so extreme that even Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, recently declared that it can't afford to keep paying all its subscriptions. Not only can the public which funded the work not access it: often, neither can the researchers who need it as a basis for new work. It's insane. Academic publishers have made themselves the enemies of science.
The solution to the ludicrous satus quo is open-access publishing. Researchers (or more realistically their funders or institutions) pay publishers an up-front fee for their services, and the resulting papers are then freely available to anyone in the world. Everyone outside of profiteering publishers agrees that this is a much better approach, but lots of researchers balk at the prices of article processing charges (APCs). For example, Elsevier, the biggest of the established academic publishers, asks authors for $3000. Newer open-access-only publishers, such as the non-profit Public Library of Science (PLOS) charge a less shocking $1350 for publication in their main journal, PLOS ONE, and offer a no-questions-asked waiver for authors without funding for this charge. But there is still a feeling that $1350 is a lot of money to charge for Internet publication, especially when peer-review is done by volunteers.
Against that backdrop, Pete Binfield, the managing editor of PLOS ONE, left what had become the world's largest journal to launch a new publishing startup with Jason Hoyt, late of social reference manager Mendeley. High on the list of their goals was to bring down the price of open-access publishing.
I think a lot of people would have been impressed had PeerJ managed to bring the APC down below the $1000 mark, or certainly had they managed to hit $500. Instead, they've gone for the jugular on pricing: as the web-site says, "If we can set a goal to sequence the human genome for $99, when why not $99 for scholarly publishing"?
PeerJ's pricing system is different from the approach other publishers have taken, focusing on membership. Your $99 buys you lifetime membership, which gives you the right to publish one paper a year with them at no further charge. (All co-authors on multi-authored papers need to be members.) Alternatively, $299 buys an all-you-can-eat membership: publish as many papers as you want, whenever you want, for life.
The audacity of this pricing model is rather a shock. I have to admit that I was skeptical that it could work -- that PeerJ could take enough money to survive on this model. What swayed me was learning that the seed capital had been put up by Tim O'Reilly, who probably knows and understands more about the commercial realities of publishing in the 21st century than anyone alive. Throw in Pete Binfield, whose experience in editing mega-journals is literally second to none, and you have a true dream-team.
But what impresses me most is that PeerJ's low APC is not what most excites its founders -- in fact, it doesn't even make the top four. In an interview published a few days ago, Binfield and Hoyt answered the question "what do you think makes PeerJ an attractive publishing target for scholars?" in an unexpected way:
First of all, we intend to make rapid first decisions, and publish articles as promptly and effectively as possible... Secondly, we will be integrating a pre-print server into our offering ... Thirdly, we believe that the act of submitting a paper should be as pain-free as possible ... Fourthly, we are encouraging reviewers to provide their names when reviewing, and we are encouraging authors to publicly reproduce their peer review history on the published paper ... Fifthly we are significantly cheaper than a 'typical' OA journal.
It's not enough for PeerJ to drop prices by an order of magnitude. They're also out to speed up the famously slow publication process, make in-review manuscripts visible, smooth authors' path through the whole process and, most crucially, open up the opaque and mysterious process of peer-review. The importance of this last goal can hardly be overstated. At most journals, the acceptance or rejection of articles is done behind closed doors by referees whose reviews are never seen except by a select few, whose identities are often hidden, and who are insulated from the consequences -- positive or negative -- of their contribution. That has to change, and it's great that PeerJ is taking it on.
PeerJ launched in June 2012 and opened for submissions in December. Today, the first batch of articles is published. I submitted a paper, co-written with Matt Wedel, on the day PeerJ opened, and I am pleased to say that it made it into the initial batch. We're delighted that our work is now available to the world; but also privileged to have had a preview of the PeerJ process.
Because if we thought that the low price meant corner-cutting, we were dead wrong. As others have noted, the submission process is a joy in comparison to hacking through the late-1990s-themed submission systems of most journals. Our paper was handled by an academic editor of the highest reputation, efficiently and fairly. It was reviewed swiftly by two referees, one of whom gave particularly detailed and helpful feedback. When we got the proof PDF we were taken aback by how good it looks compared with the printed-page facsimiles most journals produce. And when we sent the proof back with numerous changes, they got a second proof out to us within days. In fact, the whole process from submission through to publication has taken only ten weeks -- unheard of in academic publishing.
So where next for PeerJ, now that its up and running? It's perfectly obvious that it's a much better choice than traditional journals in every rational respect. But so much depends on that slipperiest of beasts, prestige. While young researchers are certain to flock to PeerJ, some more senior academics are likely to look down their nose at the new kid on the block, not quite trusting it and preferring to stick to the venues they've become used to.
If we're going to sort out the absurd mess that academic publishing has got itself into, much depends on the reputation of innovative open-access journals like PeerJ. PLOS ONE has won itself some standing, but it took several years to reach this point after a launch that was met with a lot of skepticism. Hopefully PLOS ONE's success will have opened up a trail for PeerJ to follow, and its intrinsic quality will be recognized more quickly. Certainly PeerJ has the necessary names behind it: not just Binfield and O'Reilly, but an academic advisory board with five Nobel laureates and a huge editorial board packed with respected researchers.
Harvard's memo about being unable to pay subscriptions included a list of nine things its staff, students and librarians could do to change the current publishing system. The second is key: "submit articles to open-access journals ... move prestige to open access". PeerJ, along with PLOS ONE and other new open-access initiatives such as eLIFE and The Open Library of Humanities offer top-quality options for publishing research. Now it's up to researchers to use them.