Interview with Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ

Welcome to the most recent installment in my very occasional series of interviews with people in the publishing/science blogging/computing communities. The latest is with Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ. PeerJ is a new startup in the scientific publishing industry, using a rather unique business model whereby authors will be able to pay one fee and they get a lifetime of publishing their articles in PeerJ.

Please see my post with the PeerJ press release for more details.

I recently had an opportunity to ask Peter and Jason some pre-announcement questions about PeerJ and I've included their responses below. I asked all the questions except for the last one before I saw any of the press release or other information now on the PeerJ website. The press release and responses below were embargoed until today.

Here are the bios I received for Peter and Jason:

Peter Binfield, Ph.D. - Co-founder & Publisher

Pete has worked in the academic publishing world for almost 20 years. Since gaining a PhD in Optical Physics, he has held positions at Institute of Physics, Kluwer Academic, Springer, SAGE and most recently the Public Library of Science (PLoS). At PLoS he ran PLoS ONE, and developed it into the largest and most innovative journal in the world. He is a respected authority in the academic publishing and Open Access worlds and has made numerous presentations to industry and academia. He is currently a member of the International Advisory Committee of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE) as well as being on the Advisory Committee of the MedicineX conferences.

He is passionate about academic publishing and believes that publishing needs to be in service to the academic community to best facilitate the rapid and broad dissemination of research findings.

Jason Hoyt, Ph.D. - Co-founder & CEO

Jason holds a PhD in Genetics from Stanford University where he worked under Michele Calos researching human gene therapy. He developed new methods for non-viral gene delivery into mouse hematopoietic cells using the phiC31 integrase.

Before founding PeerJ, he worked at Mendeley as Chief Scientist/VP of R&D and pioneered the data mining group that scaled Mendeley's growth to crowd source more than 150 million academic documents in just over two years. This firmly established Mendeley as a big data company. Also under his direction, services such as personal recommendations, search, real-time statistics, and the Mendeley API were developed. He has co-written and been awarded several major UK and European grants to investigate new data mining techniques and establish a pilot program with the University of Cambridge to integrate Mendeley with institutional repositories.

Jason strongly believes that research needs to be openly available if we are going to solve this century's biggest challenges.


Q1. Is there a 100 year/perpetual access business plan? It would be nice to have a solid digital preservation plan. In other words, a sense of how deeply the issues around $99 sustainability have been explored.

We completely understand the need for a robust preservation plan and so of course we have one. We will be archiving all our content at PubMedCentral, as well as with CLOCKSS (we have already joined CLOCKSS). As soon as the Royal Dutch Library starts taking publishers again, we will also be archiving there. With these 3 industry standard archives in place we will meet or exceed the archiving levels of the majority of publishers.

As to the sustainability of the actual business -- I am afraid 100 years is a little beyond our planning horizon... What we can say is that given our knowledge of, and experience in, this industry we believe we have a business model which is as self sustaining as that of any other commercial publisher. Although clearly there is a start-up phase where systems and processes need to be built, once we are up and running we will have an ongoing business which can stand on its own under any reasonable expectations of how the future market might develop.

Q2. Do the fees have to be researcher-based? Is there any way institutions could play a role -- or perhaps have lifetime institutional licenses?

Fees are indeed individual based, however we have the facility for institutions (or research funders for example) to "bulk pay" for the individual memberships. We don’t anticipate a lifetime institutional license, but we do expect some institutions to be interested in "automatically" signing up their faculty, or perhaps every new Grad student who starts with them, for example. In addition, we have the facility for people (e.g. a PI) to buy the membership on behalf of someone else (e.g. a co-author).

Q3. What kind of ecosystem of other players do you see sprouting up around PeerJ?

The opportunities to re-use open access content are numerous, but so far they have barely been explored because there simply hasn’t been enough OA content to work on. However, it is also the case that many publishers haven’t done a very good job in helping that ecosystem evolve -- PeerJ will try to encourage these developments by using public APIs, open sourcing much of our content, and providing high quality metadata. We hope to see people take our content and data mine it for new discoveries; provide overlay functionality to semantically mark up articles on the fly; write apps that use our data; develop new discovery services based on our article metrics and so on.

Q4. For arXiv the fact that a good chunk of the articles end up published in journals or conferences ends up acting as a kind of post-publication peer review and you could almost see the journals acting as kind of an overlay on arxiv. Do you foresee creating some kind of “journal” overlay on peerj or there being an aftermarket for creating these overlays? (in PLoS lots of stuff ends up in their topical journals versus the stuff that ends up in PLoS ONE, for example...)

PeerJ will be a journal (and we will also have a PrePrint server -- PeerJ PrePrints), and it will publish a wide range of content in a manner similar to PLoS ONE -- therefore we expect to develop navigation and filtering tools to help users make sense of that content (for example, the paleontologists probably don’t want to see the articles about oncology). It is an open question whether these new functionalities might evolve to eventually look or feel like a separate "journal" to a user.

However, it is also worth mentioning that because of our open access license, anyone will be able to build their own "overlay" on top of our content (and that of other OA publishers), and provide any kind of other services, for example further layers of discovery or of peer review. These are exciting possibilities which we will definitely encourage.

Q5. The Scholarly Kitchen has already likened your approach to that of Walmart conjuring up images of abandoned downtown commercial districts. Or even as a kind of predatory OA journal, a ponzi scheme almost. How do you respond to this type of criticism?

As a general rule, the Scholarly Kitchen is not a great fan of Open Access publishers, and in addition they were commenting before any real information was yet available. Now that we have formally launched, we believe our actions will speak for themselves, and we expect people to form their own opinions based on the facts of our business model.

With that said, your question does beg some specific responses:

One of the complaints in the first post you reference was that if you remove a lot of the important functions from a company you have nothing worthwhile left. That post misses the point -- if you look at a subscription publisher, then they maintain a lot of "important" functions simply because those functions are essential to their specific business model. If you remove the business model (i.e. selling copyright-protected subscriptions, with a hardcopy component, to university libraries) then you remove the need for all sorts of "essential" functions such as warehousing, distribution, a legal dept, a sales force, a billing and collections group etc etc. This is actually what open access publishers such as PeerJ are doing -- we have a new type of publication model which allows us to knowingly strip out what is extraneous to the process of publication, allowing us to pass those savings back to the customers (the authors). If PeerJ can provide a high quality, professional, publishing service that authors value (which we will) at a price that authors feel is fair, then that is what counts, not whether we are providing irrelevant services that add no value in order to maintain an outdated publication model.

The implicit complaint in that post was that making a service cheaper was in some way a bad thing. It is only bad if the ultimate service which is delivered is not valued by the customers or is regarded as substandard (in which case you will quickly lose customers). In our mind, we would like to drive the cost for an author as low as possible, while still providing the highest possible standards of professional publication, in order to deliver a service which is genuinely valued. Unlike some publishers, we are willing to be judged by the marketplace.

As to being predatory -- we can absolutely assure you that this is not the case. Pete used to run PLoS ONE and Jason was the head of R&D at Mendeley. We both know how to run "respectable" businesses, and we both have reputations that we would like to maintain! PeerJ is in the service of the global academic community (not the other way round), and we believe that they will see the value in what we are providing.

Q6. I see from the press release that you will be concentrating primarily on articles in the biological and medical sciences. Any plans on moving beyond articles into data or other types of research objects? As well, any plans to expand into other disciplinary areas?

PeerJ is a journal and as such we expect it to publish "regular" journal articles (albeit with considerable additional functionality, such as multimedia etc). However, PeerJ PrePrints is a preprint server, and so it is not constrained in the same way. Although we expect authors to mostly submit draft articles into PeerJ PrePrints we do expect it to become a somewhat "experimental" publication venue where people can submit things which don’t necessarily look and feel like a "normal" article. Only time will tell what the future publication needs of the academic community are going to be, but we hope and expect that PeerJ will be able to accommodate them.

As to other disciplines, we need to concentrate on one thing at a time of course. Therefore, there are no plans to move outside of Biological and Medical sciences at the moment.

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