Scientific publishing, with a twist

By Fabiana Kubke 13/06/2012

Every now and then something happens that gets me all excited about what comes next.

Today, it is the launch of PeerJ

Image provided by Peter Binfield

Over 10 years ago I was approached by someone at a scientific conference who told me they were launching something that was to be called the Public Library of Science (PLoS), where people could publish their results and make it freely available to anyone, anywhere. The catch: authors paid for the publication cost. I wasn’t sure what to think of it. Yes, I would be totally behind it, and thought the ethos rocked but was not sure how they would get authors to pay for things they would otherwise be able to publish for ‘free’*.

Soon after that I moved to New Zealand and PLoS fell off my radar. Until 2006 when we decided to submit a paper to PLoS Biology. We got a letter back saying that we should instead submit to a new Journal they were launching: PLoS ONE, and that is where the paper got published. I immediately fell in love with PLoS ONE. But I had to wait over 3 years to become an Academic Editor, after meeting I think Steve Koch at Science Online 2010.  Another decision I am proud of.

Image provided by Peter Binfield

In 2009 I was visiting family in Minnesota, and decided to delay my return to New Zealand to attend SciBarCamp in Palo Alto. I had just been to my first unconference (KiwiFoo) and decided to give SciBarCamp a go. Best decision I ever made. It was there I first met Peter Binfield (0f PLoS ONE fame) and Jason Hoyt (who are responsible for PeerJ). There were many things that were said at that un-conference, but I vividly recall Jason’s session on Mendeley and Peter’s session on the future of publishing.

Well, it has been 3 years since then and now is the time for PeerJ.

What is special about it? It does not seem to be ‘another Open Access Journal’ but rather a completely different way of thinking of how authors and journals work together to put scientific results out there. It appears, to me and from what information I have access to, as a partnership. Scientists pay a membership fee and that allows them to publish there. For Free**. In return they commit to providing at least one review a year. Seems like a fair deal. I still find it amazing that at this time and age the majority of published science is ‘read only’. (Shocking, I know!) so I am keen to see how the post-publication interaction with the article (and the pre-publication record) will look like.

It is the sense of ‘partnership’ that I am also attracted to (and got me all excited). I have for some time been thinking whether there should be an ‘Open Science Society’ with its own journals, similar to other societies. A membership fee would subsidise the journal, and everything would be open access. Well, PeerJ is not exactly that, but it comes quite close. I actually like the idea of membership (with its perks) because it makes me the scientist care about that journal in a slightly different way. I am not sure whether Peter and Jason had this ‘partnership’ in mind, but it might just end up becoming that. And that might be a huge game-changer.

Well, we’ve come a long way since the first scientific journal was published back in the 1600’s, and not much had changed since then, other than the font. PLoS changed the game, and they did that so well that they are now one of the biggest scientific publishers. And it is now the turn of PeerJ.

I have a lot of respect for both Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt (since I first met them in 2009). And I also see that they have Tim O’Reilly in their governing board (someone that deserves an un-interrupted series of hat tips as well).

So, paraphrasing a SciBarCamp question…

What would scientific publishing look like if it was invented today?

We might just be about to find out.

*Well, we still pay to see the article. And in many cases we pay costs of publishing like colour figures, etc. But we tend to not think too much about that. Oh, yes, and of course we transfer our copyright – lest Wikipedia make something interesting with them.
**Different membership levels have different publishing privileges. But you can visit the site to get that nitty gritty.