“PeerJ can’t possibly last because the numbers don’t add up.”

March 27, 2015

I had an email out of the blue this morning, from someone I’d not previously corresponded with, asking me an important question about PeerJ. I thought it was worth sharing the question, and its answer, more generally. So here it is.

Do you have any insight into the PeerJ business model? When I try to persuade people to publish in PeerJ, a very common response is that the journal can’t possibly last because the numbers don’t add up.

And indeed PeerJ’s financial model does seem too good to be true: rather than charging an APC of $1350 (as PLOS ONE does) or $3000 (as the legacy publishers do for their not-really-open hybrid articles), PeerJ charges just $99 per author — which buys not just the right to publish one article, but one per year for life. (Or you can pay $300 for the right to publish any number of papers forever.)

PeerJ is a privately owned company and does not disclose its internal financial details. Since I have no connection with PeerJ (other than being a very satisfied customer), I know nothing of the financials.

But here is what we do know.

1. PeerJ is run by Pete Binfield, who has more experience of running open-access megajournals than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked his own livelihood on it.

2. The principal outside investor in PeerJ is Tim O’Reilly, who has more experience of making money from free-to-read content than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked a seven-figure sum on it.

3. Most importantly, the content in PeerJ is safe forever, because it’s fully, properly, BOAI-compliant open access, licenced using CC By, and archived at PubMed Central. So even if the worst happened, if PeerJ went bankrupt, everything published in it would live on.

4. Since CC-By documents cannot be re-enclosed if their publisher is acquired, even if PeerJ were acquired by a predatory barrier-based publisher such as Elsevier, the articles would remain safe.

5. We have got into the habit of paying far too much for publishing. On average paywalled papers cost the world more than $5000 each. Legacy publishers typically charge APCs of $3000 or so. Yet born-digital publishers such as Ubiquity Press need charge only $500, and show the breakdown of that cost. (And note that $80 of that is set aside to cover waivered articles for which no fee is paid.) Against that analysis, PeerJ’s fees don’t look crazy. The truth is that, as well as their 35% profit-margins, legacy publishers’ costs are sky-high because they are dragging around the carcass of print-based publishing.

6. Numerous universities are confident enough of the PeerJ model that they have signed up for institutional plans. You know, little universities like Cambridge, UCL and Bristol (UK), and Harvard, MIT and Cornell (USA).

Putting it all together, we see that the PeerJ financial model is roughly in alignment with other new-model publishers, that the details are persuasive enough to convince the world-leading experts who know about them, that the open-access papers published in PeerJ will be freely available to the world forever, whatever happens — which is more than we can say for articles “published” behind paywalls, and that the world’s leading universities are on board.

In short, there is no rational reason not to publish in PeerJ (unless you’re statistically illiterate enough to think that its lack of an impact factor is of any scientific significance).


21 Responses to ““PeerJ can’t possibly last because the numbers don’t add up.””

  1. Mike, I am always amazed by the APCs. Even $500 is too much. There are many problems with the publishing industry. Perhaps the best (or worst) example is to look at any of the 1000s of “Author instructions” for submitting a paper. Most have not changed for decades probably.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Note for anyone who doesn’t know: Kaveh runs River Valley Technologies, which does typesetting for publishers (i.e. the actual work of publication). If he thinks publishers can get by on less revenue, which will likely mean less revenue for him as well, you can take it as gospel.

  3. Thanks for the support, Mike!

    Like any organization, PeerJ needs to reach a certain level of growth to ensure sustainability. Long before we ever launched we did the maths to figure out where we need to get to for that sustainability. And it really is simple – publish N per month and we’re sustainable. That number can fluctuate of course based on staff overhead, etc but that’s also predictable. This is true for any publisher, PLOS, BMC, Elsevier, societies, etc.

    So, how close are we to that magical ‘N’ today, and when will we pass it? With very conservative growth (inferred from two year’s of data so far) we should be hitting ‘N’ within the next year.

    And the important thing as you mention – the Open Access articles will live on in official archives regardless.

    One technical point – PeerJ is in fact due to receive an early Impact Factor this Summer. As an early IF it will count just one year’s worth of citations instead of the usual two years (so it is suppressed by ~half until next year’s IF). I only bring this up because it is important in answering the question of visibility – i.e. it is ONE measure that people do read and cite what is published in PeerJ. Beyond that, PeerJ is of course a signatory of DORA, and we believe the merits of individual scientists and papers should not be based on just the Impact Factor – more info https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Declaration_on_Research_Assessment

    Jason Hoyt
    CEO & Co-founder, PeerJ

  4. Frosted Flake Says:

    From here, I can see the future.

    No, really. When it is publish or perish it is very important to the professional that it be easy to do. Naturally, the professional can very easily see that. But there is also the point of view of the consumer, and the subset, the casual consumer. These find it much easier to approach material that is not defended behind a paywall. The “Pay me now!” model has the effect of slapping peoples brains away from new information. “G’won, you! Beat it! Lousy bums.” The new way of doing things should radically improve the flow of high quality information. By making it literally visible. As opposed to theoretically.

    Soon,and then forever, popular science in the ordinary press will have linked the actual paper for the public to read instead of just the abstract. I greatly appreciate the advantages of this step in the cultural evolution.

  5. Tim Vines Says:

    I wrote a post about why APCs are so high here: http://www.molecularecologist.com/2015/02/why-is-science-publishing-so-damn-expensive/

    The root cause is that each round of review costs about $300 to administer – this money pays the professional editorial office staff to look after the process. Selective journals with a 10% acceptance rate conduct 8-12 rounds of review (including re-review but excluding editorial rejects) to get one accepted paper. The cost of doing all that work is piled onto the authors of the single accepted paper. There’s also $700-1000 worth of fixed admin, typesetting and hosting costs associated with each accepted paper.

    The same logic applies to selective subscription journals. So, if you want science publishing to be cheaper, raise acceptance rates to 100%.

  6. Thomas Munro Says:

    Highly selective commercial OA journals don’t have to charge high APCs. A better alternative is to charge for submission.
    The “Journal of Clinical Investigation” charges a $75 submission fee. With an acceptance rate of ~8% (1), that’s roughly 11 rejected papers subsidising each one published, reducing the APC burden by over $800. If they increased the submission fee, they could make much deeper cuts in the APC.
    Kent Anderson of all people, dogged opponent of author-side charges that he is, nonetheless
    “implemented a submission fee of $250 in May of 2013. It immediately cut our submissions back to a level we hadn’t seen in years, but they rebounded fairly quickly to a level that’s more than healthy but not nearly as burdensome. At the same time, the basic quality of the manuscripts we’re receiving … has improved” (2)
    So even a toll-access journal can survive with a whopping submission fee.
    Michael Eisen estimates even Science’s costs at around $1000 per submitted paper (3). At that price, charging a submission fee only, Science could be cheaper than PLoS ONE for accepted authors. There is no need for high APCs, only a lack of courage and initiative from publishers. Props to PeerJ for pioneering an alternative.

    1. http://www.iss.it/binary/publ/cont/ANN_10_04_14.pdf
    2. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/08/27/instruction-junction-the-ballooning-lists-of-editorial-policies-and-the-burdens-they-create/
    3. http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1673

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Thomas, good points. But I think selective journals are idiotic anyway. the only winning move is not to play.

  8. dsolomonmsuedu Says:

    Mike, as another satisfied customer of PeerJ I agree completely with what you said above.

    As for paying the added cost of peer review in highly selective journals, the meta analysis below should give anyone who feels this is a good idea second thoughts.


  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, that PLOS ONE paper is new to me, and terrifying. I covered similar ground before on this blog, in well, that about wraps it up for peer-review. But this meta-analysis means there’s no way to write it off as an aberration.

  10. Marcin Says:

    Have you yet seen the Elsevier’s PLOS One…?

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes. I blogged about it here.

    And also about their previous PLOS ONE clone, back in 2011.

  12. […] Valley Technologies, et auteur de l’article précédemment cité, pense quant à lui que cette estimation est presque quatre fois trop élevée (certes il est basé en Inde et ses coûts de production doivent s’en ressentir). A ce titre, […]

  13. […] of the typesetting company River Valley Technologies who wrote the article cited above thinks that this estimate is almost four times too high (Ok, he is based in India, which must have effects on his production costs). Speaking of […]

  14. David Marjanović Says:

    In short, there is no rational reason not to publish in PeerJ (unless you’re statistically illiterate enough to think that its lack of an impact factor is of any scientific significance).

    Well, it depends on what “rational” means. As far as I can tell, I need to increase my impact factor to improve my chances at financial security; therefore, I currently have a manuscript in review at PLOS ONE rather than PeerJ.

    My next manuscript, however, is going to PeerJ. That’s first of all because it’s way too long for PLOS ONE. :-)

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, David. In your case, you work within a system that is irrational, which compels you to make decisions which, while they are rational from that perspective, make no sense in the wider world. You have my sincere sympathy.

  16. dsolomonmsuedu Says:

    David, I sympathize with you. I actually got turned down the first time I went up for full professor largely because most of my publications in the previous couple of years were in on line only OA journals. At the same time I agree with Mike it is incredibly silly. PeerJ will have an impact factor later this year, probably about 2.

    You might be interested in this article.

    A survey of authors publishing in four megajournals


  17. Andy Farke Says:

    As a note re: David’s comment on manuscript length, PeerJ does now have potential extra charges for manuscripts over 50 typeset pages. This is a recent change, but not an unreasonable one (in my view).

  18. Good to hear because I just submitted a manuscript to PeerJ last week.

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m hoping to submit two within the next month!

  20. EMC Says:

    Reblogged this on Erik Champion and commented:
    But it is predominantly for the sciences I believe?

  21. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, I am afraid it all science. But for the humanities, I highly recommend The Open Library of Humanities.

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