It is common for phone and Internet companies to charge customers a flat rate for service. Now, an unusual new open access scientific journal is offering researchers the ultimate publishing flat rate: Pay $259 once and publish as many papers as you want for the rest of your life. The founders of PeerJ, a peer-reviewed biomedical journal unveiled today, are aiming to start accepting submissions in August and to publish their first articles in December.
"I have been waiting for things like this," says Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, and an advocate for open access. "We need publishers who experiment."
Peter Binfield, co-founder and publisher of the new journal, concedes that it is an experiment. "We really flip the whole business model from one where the author pays for a publication to a membership model where they pay just once," he says.
"We wanted to experiment and see if things can be done better." Binfield ran the successful open access journal PLoS ONE until recently. For PeerJ, he teamed up with Jason Hoyt, who worked in data mining at Mendeley, a company that sells a program for managing and sharing research papers.
PeerJ will offer three membership plans: A basic plan, for $99, allows researchers to publish one paper per year; an enhanced plan, for $169, allows two papers annually; and an investigator plan, for $259, allows authors to publish an unlimited number of papers during their career. The fees are slightly higher if an author joins only when submitting their first paper or when it has been accepted. The journal will also follow an open peer-review strategy, allowing reviewers to decide whether they want to remain anonymous and allowing authors to decide whether they want to publish reviewers' comments along with their paper.
Although all authors on a paper will need to join PeerJ to publish, the journal's founders predict that fees for publishing a typical paper will still be less than those charged by other open access journals. (Publishing a paper in one of the PLoS journals costs between $1350 and $2900 per manuscript.) Savings could be especially big for researchers who publish many papers, they say. But how the model will fare in the long run is unclear, say outside observers. "They are not going to make a lot of money with this," predicts Eisen.
Binfield says PeerJ's business model does put an emphasis on "front-loading"—collecting the initial fees paid by authors to join. But he expects that there will be a constant flow of new members, such as co-authors who need to join to publish. In addition, he says, some researchers do not publish that many papers, curbing the journal's costs. "When you throw all that in, the finances work out," he says.
Binfield also suggests, however, that PeerJ, which is being backed by venture capitalist Tim O'Reilly, may be "a transitionary model." Journals that rely on author payments might disappear in a decade or so, he speculates, as research funding agencies and universities adopt new ways of financing the publishing and sharing of information. "If you imagine a world where all the content is open access," he says, "there are new services that need to evolve, such as filtering and aggregating" information. Publishers may end up generating income by offering those services, he says, rather than relying on publishing alone to pay the bills.