An interview with the founders of PeerJ, an innovative new academic publishing startup.

We’re very excited to announce today the launch of PeerJ, a fascinating new experiment to find an open access business model which improves upon accessibility, submission time, and the peer review mechanism. One reason we’re excited is that Mendeley and PeerJ share quite a bit of common history. Our former research director, Jason Hoyt, is one of the co-founders, and the other co-founder is Pete Binfield, the former publisher of one of our closest publishing allies, PLoS ONE. This development is also exciting in the context of the massive public support of open access and the other publishing startups in this space, such as eLife and F1000 Reports.

WG:How did you and your co-founder meet and when did you get the idea for PeerJ?

JH: We first met when I was living in San Francisco and working for Mendeley (whilst Pete was working for PLoS) and our first real interaction was when we appeared together on TWiS (This Week in Science) with Kiki Sanford in 2009. Bootleg copies of that appearance can still be found, and Kiki plans on interviewing us again later in June to follow up with us.

The idea really dates back to my graduate school days. PLoS didn’t exist when I started grad school and I was shocked at the “sticker price” for publishing with existing subscription journals. They really aren’t all free to authors if you start including very high charges for color images, page limits, etc. When OA and PLoS did arrive, I thought it was great, but that we could still do better. When I decided to leave Mendeley to start something new I said, “Screw it. Everyone seems to be waiting around for either the government or publishers to drop costs, so why not just do it and see what happens?” The world shouldn’t have to wait any longer than is necessary.

WG: What made you realize the world needs another OA journal?

PB:In some sense it is wrong to think of us as “another OA journal”. What we actually represent is another opportunity to accelerate the move towards Open Access for all content, and a viable attempt to create a new business model to help us get there!

With that said, we are of course, ‘another OA journal’. There are about 1.5 million articles published a year, in 25,000 journals, and even though the academic publishing world is on the verge of flipping to an Open Access model, the number of professionally administered OA journals is still rather small and mostly concentrated in 3 large publishers (PLoS, Hindawi and BMC). In addition, the amount of content being published as OA is still rather small (around 15%). Finally, there has not been a great deal of experimentation with new or radical OA business models. For all these reasons, we feel that there is plenty of room for one more OA journal willing to push the envelope.

The past 300 years has a been an experiment with the subscription model. The OA model is only about 10 years old, so there is plenty of opportunity to improve upon it.

WG:Why would someone publish in PeerJ instead of PLoS ONE or eLife?

PB:eLife will be highly selective (like Nature, Science or PLoS Biology) so it is really in a different category. If an author really wants to be published in a highly selective journal then eLife will probably be a good option for them.

On the other hand, PLoS ONE is the most successful journal in the world. In 2012 it will publish over 20,000 articles, it has an Impact Factor (which is important to some authors) and it is a known quantity. As the former Publisher of PLoS ONE, I have seen a string of PLoS ONE ‘clones’ which have struggled to differentiate themselves from PLoS ONE and this is probably why many of the PLoS ONE clones have not gotten off to a very successful start.

However, PeerJ offers authors a genuine alternative to PLoS ONE (or indeed any other PLoS ONE clone, or any other Open Access journal). Most importantly, we have a very different business model (lifetime memberships for individuals) which means that there is now a clear choice in how authors pay for their Open Access publications. As well as being a fundamentally different payment model, it is also significantly cheaper than most other OA journals, to publish with PeerJ (for example, a paper with 5 co-authors can be published with us for less than $500 and subsequent papers are then free for each co-author). PeerJ will aim to be faster than comparable journals, it will possess superior functionality, and it will provide a rounded publishing experience. Finally, we will also be incorporating a preprint server (PeerJ PrePrints) into our offering – this is something that few other publishers are doing and will be further reason to publish with us.

WG:Besides price, what are your main differentiators?

PB:Putting aside price, the business model is still very different. We provide a lifetime membership to individuals and this differentiates us from almost any other OA publication (which typically charge authors per publication).

We will be encouraging Open Peer Review. Specifically, as with The EMBO Journal, we will encourage reviewers to identify themselves to authors and we will give authors the option of publishing their full peer review history alongside their published article.

In addition, we will be custom building our own software to handle submission, peer review and publication. This means that the author experience will be more integrated and we will be able to provide functionality which is unique to us.

Finally, we will have an integrated preprint server – we believe we have set it up such that academics (outside the physical sciences) will actually want to use it.

WG:Will PeerJ use altmetrics? Which sources and how will you employ them?

PB:Yes – we envision having a similar suite of alt-metrics to those provided by PLoS (who provide their Article Level Metrics software as Open Source). Specifically, we expect PeerJ to at least incorporate online article usage, scholarly citations, tweets, Facebook Likes, CiteULike bookmarks, and Mendeley users. As to how they will be employed – watch this space, the platform is still being built!

WG:Do you have a strategy to compete with the brand prestige of Nature/Cell/Science, or do you plan to take an orthogonal approach? What is that strategy/approach?

PB:Nature, Cell, Science have world class brands that they have built up over many many years, and these specific brands really originate from their high level of selectivity (to be selected by Nature is a rare event). We will not be selective in the same way (other than to select for correctly performed science) and so we do not expect to gain a similar level of brand prestige. However, as we grow, we do expect to become an instantly recognizable brand name within academia. Ultimately, we want to become known for attributes such as innovation; high ethical standards; respectful interactions with authors; genuine added value for a reasonable price and so on.

WG:When a tenure and promotion committee or grant review board sees a PeerJ citation in a CV or Bio sketch, what do you want them to think?

PB:We don’t want them to think anything. We want them to look at the quality of the research that was published, and not pay attention to the publisher. With that said, we expect them to then visit PeerJ and check out the review comments that were made on the original submission and see what alt-metrics the article might have accrued since publication. We hope they will notice that they can do that because the article was published at PeerJ, but that they wouldn’t be able to do so if it was published in Cell, Nature or Science.

WG:Is PeerJ non-profit or for-profit?

PB:We are for-profit. We believe that this makes us a healthy company with an incentive to build a long term sustainable business model.

WG:Is there an incentive scheme for peer reviewers?

PB:We appreciate that providing a peer review represents an important contribution to the publication process; that it is often hard to find reviewers; and that reviewers are rarely credited for their work. Therefore, we hope to put processes in place which will serve to improve the overall peer-review process, for the benefit of the entire community.

Specifically, if you are a member, you need to perform one review per year in order to retain your membership status. A review is very loosely defined as a comment in PeerJ PrePrints; a formal review for PeerJ; or a comment on a published PeerJ paper. In addition, because we will give reviewers the option of revealing their identity, they can build up public credit for their reviews (should they choose).

WG:Will PeerJ be indexed by Pubmed? Google Scholar? How will you ensure your articles are easily discoverable by readers?

PB:We will be indexed by all major indexing services. On day of launch we expect this to at least include Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic Search, and PubMedCentral. Where indexing services are selective (for example MedLine or Web of Science) we will apply to be indexed as soon as we are eligible. As to discovery, our articles will be tagged with high quality metadata and we will be adhering to community standards for disseminating these data. And of course, our own site will have sophisticated search and browse functionality – look out for some new ideas in that respect!

WG:Great, I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with! What will the title of the first rejected PeerJ paper be?

PB:“The inevitability of the Subscription Model in Academic Publishing”

WG:On the more librarianly side, what are your plans for preservation?

PB:We will be archived via our own failsafe backups; via deposition in PubMedCentral; via deposition in CLOCKSS (an industry standard archiving solution, which we have already joined);  and via the distributed local storage of the thousands of users who will be free to download our content without restriction. As soon as the Royal Dutch Library starts accepting new publishers we will also be archiving our content there. This level of preservation is equivalent, or superior, to any other publisher in the world.

WG:Is perpetual access included in the $99 fee?

PB:Absolutely. The business model is sustainable, and we fully expect to be in business for as long as any other publisher.

WG:Will PeerJ articles have DOIs?

PB:Yes. We understand the importance of adhering to community standards, and the services provided by CrossRef (one of the organisations that issues DOIs) are some of the most important to integrate. We have already joined CrossRef.

On that note, we will also have ISSNs (in fact we already have one for both publications), we will join relevant industry bodies (such as OASPA), and we will adhere to relevant ethical standards (such as those defined by COPE, or the ICMJE requirements for authorship). PeerJ will be a high quality publishing operation, run by professionals who know what is required and how to make it happen!

WG:Do you expect individual researchers to pay the $99 personally, or do you expect institutions to have a fund for this, like the OA fee funds some have?

JH:Given the price point, we expect the majority of people will pay personally, however we are also providing functionality for institutions, funders, or research labs to sign up multiple members as a group. In addition, we allow individuals to purchase memberships on behalf of others (so, for example a wealthy relative could buy you a membership on the day you start grad school!)

WG:Both you and Jason have science backgrounds, but science isn’t featured strongly in the branding. What is your branding trying to say?

JH:Scientists appreciate beautiful design (which we intend to provide) as much as the next person – just look at all the iPads and iPhones they use. They don’t need to have ‘science’ pushed in their face to appreciate the fact that we are a science publisher, run by ex-scientists, for the benefit of current scientists.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s their press release, bios, and their FAQ.

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