Wednesday, June 13, 2012

PeerJ—What Does It Mean for Paleontology?

For those following open access issues, the arrival of PeerJ has been hotly anticipated (see this link round-up). We all knew Pete Binfield--someone with years of experience in academic publishing and, until recently, publisher of PLoS ONE--was associated with the project, so it wasn't likely to be a half-baked scheme. The big day of announcement finally arrived yesterday, and things look even more innovative than expected. So, what does this mean for us paleontologists?

First, a little background on PeerJ. It's a new journal, falling squarely in the online and open access (CC-BY) categories. Editorial criteria are similar to those for PLoS ONE (scientific and methodological soundness count; perceived impact or splashiness don't). All of this is pretty typical; but the rest ain't.

One of the most common fears of open access publishing is that it can cost a lot of money for authors, a particularly big concern in an underfunded field like paleontology. Free open access journals (like Palaeontologia Electronica) and fee waivers (as for PLoS ONE) can fill the gaps, but most mandatory open access fees are otherwise unaffordable for the typical paleontology lab budget (assuming there is a budget for the lab). PeerJ attempts to fill in this gap, while paying for the costs of open access. Things get pretty interesting as a result.

The conventional open access model is to pay per publication; once a paper is accepted, you pay the $2,000 or $1,350 or whatever to subsidize production costs. PeerJ front-loads this in a unique way; each author pays a one-time membership fee, which is then good for life! Depending on what category of membership you buy, you then can publish one, two, or an unlimited number of publications yearly. These lifetime membership fees are quite reasonable, too. They start at $99, and culminate at $259 (fees go up slightly after September 1). Fee waivers are available for those in developing countries.

So what's the catch? Members are expected to review one paper yearly (either as a full-blown peer reviewer, or as a post-publication commenter). Additionally, each author on a paper (up to the twelfth author) must be a member. How does that translate financially? Let's say I want to publish a paper, and have three co-authors. Assuming each of us is only publishing in PeerJ once a year, that translates to $99 per person. With four total authors, the cost is $396. If one of my co-authors and I later publish another paper, the cost for that one is $0. Same cost for the third paper. That's three open access articles for $132 each. This is definitely an encouragement to continue publishing with PeerJ.

Other good things
PeerJ is pretty savvy, and has covered its electronic bases (see their FAQ). The journal will be edited by an independent academic editorial board, an author's membership category doesn't factor into decisions, and content is archived via CLOCKSS. The journal has plans to get an impact factor (which will take three years) and to get indexed in the major services. These are all carefully thought-out, and within (or exceeding) professional standards for publishing.

As another incentive, PeerJ offers a preprint service (free if you only post one a year). Physicists have arXiv, where they can post unpublished manuscripts for community commentary. However, there isn't really such a central repository for the biosciences (especially since the demise of Nature Precedings). Thus, PeerJ is filling a community need (even if we paleontologists don't yet realize the advantages of preprints).

What's needed now?
This journal is surely within the realm of interest for paleontologists, and those of us who support open access publishing will follow it pretty closely. Because the journal has yet to officially launch, some details are still hazy. In order to be of maximum use to paleontologists, I hope to see the following things (in roughly ascending order of difficulty):
  • Clear guidelines for nomenclatural acts. These should follow recommendations from the ICZN and ensure that any new species erected within PeerJ are valid.
  • A clearly designed, paleontology-specific ethics policy. Standards should be in line with those used by organizations such as the Paleontological Society and Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and ideally would mandate that all specimens discussed in PeerJ are reposited in appropriate institutions. The last thing the journal needs is to be filled with papers on illegal Chinese specimens or thinly-veiled advertisements for fossils on the commercial market.
  • A strong editorial board with a respected paleontologist (or paleontologists). In order to get community buy-in, we need to see that the person who handles our manuscripts is qualified, trustworthy, and fair. Paleontologists are also rather skittish; we won't publish in a new venue unless someone else tests the waters first (judging by the pattern in PLoS ONE).
  • Strong impact factor and community perception. We all hate impact factors (or at least say we do, right before hitting the submit button on that article for Nature which we know will be rejected but hey we have to try anyhow just in case), but it's sadly a reality for those who want to get jobs and grants. Early-career scientists are likely to be a little wary of submitting their very top stuff to PeerJ, at least until the journal is a little more established. It sucks for the researchers and for the journal, but that's just the way it is. PLoS ONE faced a similar hurdle (and still does, to some degree), and only time can defeat it. Positive word-of-mouth will also help immensely.
Given the experience of the staff at PeerJ with academic publishing, I have all confidence that these issues will be addressed when the formal editorial guidelines are announced. Open access is changing the way paleontologists do business; whether directly or by influencing other publishers, PeerJ will surely push that change a little more in the right direction.