PeerJ: Could it Transform Open Access Publishing?

Open access publication makes access to research free for the end reader, but in many fields it is not free for the author of the article. When I told a friend in a scientific field I was working on this article, he replied “Open access is something you can only do if you have a grant.” PeerJ, a scholarly publishing venture that started up over the summer, aims to change this and make open access publication much easier for everyone involved.

While the first publication isn’t expected until December, in this post I want to examine in greater detail the variation on the “gold” open-access business model that PeerJ states will make it financially viable 1, and the open peer review that will drive it. Both of these models are still very new in the world of scholarly publishing, and require new mindsets for everyone involved. Because PeerJ comes out of funding and leadership from Silicon Valley, it can more easily break from traditional scholarly publishing and experiment with innovative practices. 2

PeerJ Basics

PeerJ is a platform that will host a scholarly journal called PeerJ and a pre-print server (similar to arXiv) that will publish biological and medical scientific research. Its founders are Peter Binfield (formerly of PLoS ONE) and Jason Hoyt (formerly of Mendeley), both of whom are familiar with disruptive models in academic publishing. While the “J” in the title stands for Journal, Jason Hoyt explains on the PeerJ blog that while the journal as such is no longer a necessary model for publication, we still hold on to it. “The journal is dead, but it’s nice to hold on to it for a little while.” 3. The project launched in June of this year, and while no major updates have been posted yet on the PeerJ website, they seem to be moving towards their goal of publishing in late 2012.

To submit a paper for consideration in PeerJ, authors must buy a “lifetime membership” starting at $99. (You can submit a paper without paying, but it costs more in the end to publish it). This would allow the author to publish one paper in the journal a year. The lifetime membership is only valid as long as you meet certain participation requirements, which at minimum is reviewing at least one article a year. Reviewing in this case can mean as little as posting a comment to a published article. Without that, the author might have to pay the $99 fee again (though as yet it is of course unclear how strictly PeerJ will enforce this rule). The idea behind this is to “incentivize” community participation, a practice that has met with limited success in other arenas. Each author on a paper, up to 12 authors, must pay the fee before the article can be published. The Scholarly Kitchen blog did some math and determined that for most lab setups, publication fees would come to about $1,124 4, which is equivalent to other similar open access journals. Of course, some of those researchers wouldn’t have to pay the fee again; for others, it might have to be paid again if they are unable to review other articles.

Peer Review: Should it be open?

PeerJ, as the name and the lifetime membership model imply, will certainly be peer-reviewed. But, keeping with its innovative practices, it will use open peer review, a relatively new model. Peter Binfield explained in this interview PeerJ’s thinking behind open peer review.

…we believe in open peer review. That means, first, reviewer names are revealed to authors, and second, that the history of the peer review process is made public upon publication. However, we are also aware that this is a new concept. Therefore, we are initially going to encourage, but not require, open peer review. Specifically, we will be adopting a policy similar to The EMBO Journal: reviewers will be permitted to reveal their identities to authors, and authors will be given the choice of placing the peer review and revision history online when they are published. In the case of EMBO, the uptake by authors for this latter aspect has been greater than 90%, so we expect it to be well received. 5

In single blind peer review, the reviewers would know the name of the author(s) of the article, but the author would not know who reviewed the article. The reviewers could write whatever sorts of comments they wanted to without the author being able to communicate with them. For obvious reasons, this lends itself to abuse where reviewers might not accept articles by people they did not know or like or tend to accept articles from people they did like 6 Even people who are trying to be fair can accidentally fall prey to bias when they know the names of the submitters.

Double blind peer review in theory takes away the ability for reviewers to abuse the system. A link that has been passed around library conference planning circles in the past few weeks is the JSConf EU 2012 which managed to improve its ratio of female presenters by going to a double-blind system. Double blind is the gold standard for peer review for many scholarly journals. Of course, it is not a perfect system either. It can be hard to obscure the identity of a researcher in a small field in which everyone is working on unique topics. It also is a much lengthier process with more steps involved in the review process.  To this end, it is less than ideal for breaking medical or technology research that needs to be made public as soon as possible.

In open peer review, the reviewers and the authors are known to each other. By allowing for direct communication between reviewer and researcher, this speeds up the process of revisions and allows for greater clarity and speed 7.  Open peer review doesn’t affect the quality of the reviews or the articles negatively, it does make it more difficult to find qualified reviewers to participate, and it might make a less well-known researcher more likely to accept the work of a senior colleague or well-known lab.  8.

Given the experience of JSConf and a great deal of anecdotal evidence from women in technical fields, it seems likely that open peer review is open to the same potential abuse of single peer review. While  open peer review might make the rejected author able to challenge unfair rejections, this would require that the rejected author feels empowered enough in that community to speak up. Junior scholars who know they have been rejected by senior colleagues may not want to cause a scene that could affect future employment or publication opportunities. On the other hand, if they can get useful feedback directly from respected senior colleagues, that could make all the difference in crafting a stronger article and going forward with a research agenda. Therein lies the dilemma of open peer review.

Who pays for open access?

A related problem for junior scholars exists in open access funding models, at least in STEM publishing. As open access stands now, there are a few different models that are still being fleshed out. Green open access is free to the author and free to the reader; it is usually funded by grants, institutions, or scholarly societies. Gold open access is free to the end reader but has a publication fee charged to the author(s).

This situation is very confusing for researchers, since when they are confronted with a gold open access journal they will have to be sure the journal is legitimate (Jeffrey Beall has a list of Predatory Open Access journals to aid in this) as well as secure funding for publication. While there are many schemes in place for paying publication fees, there are no well-defined practices in place that illustrate long-term viability. Often this is accomplished by grants for the research, but not always. The UK government recently approved a report that suggests that issuing “block grants” to institutions to pay these fees would ultimately cost less due to reduced library subscription fees.  As one article suggests, the practice of “block grants” or other funding strategies are likely to not be advantageous to junior scholars or those in more marginal fields 9. A large research grant for millions of dollars with the relatively small line item for publication fees for a well-known PI is one thing–what about the junior humanities scholar who has to scramble for a few thousand dollar research stipend? If an institution only gets so much money for publication fees, who gets the money?

By offering a $99 lifetime membership for the lowest level of publication, PeerJ offers hope to the junior scholar or graduate student to pursue projects on their own or with a few partners without worrying about how to pay for open access publication. Institutions could more readily afford to pay even $250 a year for highly productive researchers who were not doing peer review than the $1000+ publication fee for several articles a year. As above, some are skeptical that PeerJ can afford to publish at those rates, but if it is possible, that would help make open access more fair and equitable for everyone.

Conclusion

Open access with low-cost paid up front could be very advantageous to researchers and institutional  bottom lines, but only if the quality of articles, peer reviews, and science is very good. It could provide a social model for publication that will take advantage of the web and the network effect for high quality reviewing and dissemination of information, but only if enough people participate. The network effect that made Wikipedia (for example) so successful relies on a high level of participation and engagement very early on to be successful [Davis]. A community has to build around the idea of PeerJ.

In almost the opposite method, but looking to achieve the same effect, this last week the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3) announced that after years of negotiations they are set to convert publishing in that field to open access starting in 2014. 10 This means that researchers (and their labs) would not have to do anything special to publish open access and would do so by default in the twelve journals in which most particle physics articles are published. The fees for publication will be paid upfront by libraries and funding agencies.

So is it better to start a whole new platform, or to work within the existing system to create open access? If open (and through a commenting s system, ongoing) peer review makes for a lively and engaging network and low-cost open access  makes publication cheaper, then PeerJ could accomplish something extraordinary in scholarly publishing. But until then, it is encouraging that organizations are working from both sides.

  1. Brantley, Peter. “Scholarly Publishing 2012: Meet PeerJ.” PublishersWeekly.com, June 12, 2012. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/52512-scholarly-publishing-2012-meet-peerj.html.
  2. Davis, Phil. “PeerJ: Silicon Valley Culture Enters Academic Publishing.” The Scholarly Kitchen, June 14, 2012. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/06/14/peerj-silicon-valley-culture-enters-academic-publishing/.
  3. Hoyt, Jason. “What Does the ‘J’ in ‘PeerJ’ Stand For?” PeerJ Blog, August 22, 2012. http://blog.peerj.com/post/29956055704/what-does-the-j-in-peerj-stand-for.
  4. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/06/14/is-peerj-membership-publishing-sustainable/
  5. Brantley
  6. Wennerås, Christine, and Agnes Wold. “Nepotism and sexism in peer-review.” Nature 387, no. 6631 (May 22, 1997): 341–3.
  7. For an ingenious way of demonstrating this, see Leek, Jeffrey T., Margaret A. Taub, and Fernando J. Pineda. “Cooperation Between Referees and Authors Increases Peer Review Accuracy.” PLoS ONE 6, no. 11 (November 9, 2011): e26895.
  8. Mainguy, Gaell, Mohammad R Motamedi, and Daniel Mietchen. “Peer Review—The Newcomers’ Perspective.” PLoS Biology 3, no. 9 (September 2005). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201308/.
  9. Crotty, David. “Are University Block Grants the Right Way to Fund Open Access Mandates?” The Scholarly Kitchen, September 13, 2012. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/09/13/are-university-block-grants-the-right-way-to-fund-open-access-mandates/.
  10. Van Noorden, Richard. “Open-access Deal for Particle Physics.” Nature 489, no. 7417 (September 24, 2012): 486–486.

One Comment on “PeerJ: Could it Transform Open Access Publishing?”

  1. [...] ACRL TechConnect blog post looks at PeerJ, an OA publisher which seeks to introduce a new model of OA. PeerJ offers a [...]


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