Asking Authors to Buy 'Memberships' for Open Access

Kim Binfield

Jason Hoyt
April 29, 2013

Jason Hoyt thinks scientific publishing can be faster, sleeker, and a whole lot cheaper. The Stanford-trained geneticist is a fan of open-access journals, which make scholarly articles freely available online rather than put them behind paywalls. But he argues that having authors shoulder big publishing fees—a popular model for open access—burdens researchers with costs that are too high, often thousands of dollars per article.

So he left the world of research and started his own open-access, peer-reviewed publishing platform, which brings a lean, start-up mentality to scholarly publishing. Called PeerJ, it charges authors far less than many other publishing options do, and it offers a submission-to-publication timetable measured in weeks instead of months.

PeerJ works on a lifetime-membership model. "Pay once, publish for life," the site advertises.

A basic individual membership begins at $99 and entitles a researcher to publish one article a year in PeerJ. (The base price goes up a little if you wait to pay until you have an article accepted.) Membership doesn't guarantee publication; articles must make it through peer review, handled by a board of almost 800 academic editors who are established researchers in science and medicine.

THE INNOVATOR: Jason Hoyt, PeerJ

THE BIG IDEA: An open-access, peer-reviewed publishing platform offers a cheaper and faster alternative.

The advisory board includes five Nobel laureates, as Mr. Hoyt and PeerJ's co-founder and publisher, Peter Binfield, will happily tell you. As a start-up without the name recognition of, say, Nature, PeerJ counts on the reputations of its editors and reviewers to help persuade other scientists to give it a try. PeerJ authors and reviewers frustrated by the traditional closed-review approach can opt for open peer review, a feature that Mr. Binfield says has already proved popular.

Beyond the basic membership level, there's an "Enhanced" option—$199 for two articles a year—and an "Investigator" level ($299 for unlimited articles per year). At all levels, publication depends on successful peer review.

Memberships also include the option to take advantage of a preprint service, which enables researchers to distribute drafts before publication. And PeerJ has just begun offering an institutional option to allow colleges or academic libraries to pay their faculty authors' way. All co-authors on a paper must have PeerJ memberships.

Will enough institutions and individual authors sign on to sustain PeerJ? The open-source advocate and publishing guru Tim O'Reilly must think so. O'Reilly Media and his "seed-stage" investment group O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures are PeerJ's chief sources of start-up capital. Mr. Hoyt and Mr. Binfield think that cheap, open-access publishing with a user-friendly design will appeal to researchers, especially as the site becomes more tailored to individual authors' contributions.

PeerJ offers authors profile pages where they can pull together relevant information about themselves and their work. Although PeerJ won't become a "Facebook for scientists," Mr. Binfield says, the site will make it possible to follow what happens to specific articles, and how active contributors are as commenters on other articles.

The platform went live in February. As of April 23, PeerJ had published 70 peer-reviewed articles. It has about 600 paying authors so far.

Keith Crandall, director of the Computational Biology Institute at George Washington University, serves as one of the start-up's academic editors. In an interview on the PeerJ blog, he explains what he sees as the problem with traditional scientific publishing. "Paying to do the research, writing the paper, and then paying to publish seems like a crazy model," he says, adding that "even supposed 'open access' models require payments of $1,500-$3,500 per publication." That makes PeerJ's low-cost, pay-once system very attractive, he says.

Mr. Hoyt grew up in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. When he was 6, his family got an Atari 400 computer and he started programming. "It was just a fun thing to do," he recalls. When the online service Prodigy came along, "I really knew I was hooked on computers." Eventually, he says, he got "sidetracked by science." But an interest in technology is "just in my blood, I guess."

While working on his Ph.D., Mr. Hoyt joined the Stanford lab run by researcher Michele Calos, where he worked on nonviral gene therapy. He liked the research but missed the pace of programming, how quickly things could be tried and reworked. With programming, "I found the feedback loop was much, much faster," he says. "It was a lot more satisfying than many failed experiments."

In 2006 he built an online reference manager that let researchers store scientific literature. That caught the eye of the founders of the start-up Mendeley, which was doing something similar. Mr. Hoyt completed his doctorate in 2008 and went to work for Mendeley as chief scientist and vice president for research and development. After a couple of years, though, he found that he had regrets about not pursuing his own start-up idea. "I had a desire to go out on my own," he says.

He thought about the possibility raised by some of the researchers working on the human genome: What if we could sequence an individual's DNA for as little as a hundred dollars? And if we could dream of pulling that off, Mr. Hoyt asked himself, why not a hundred-dollar article?

"I knew that the margins were way too high in publishing, and they could come down," he says. It didn't make sense to him that it had to cost thousands of dollars to get a paper into print. And as a believer in open access, he "was always against subscription paywalls."

"It seemed to me that there was a gap in the whole publishing market," Mr. Hoyt says. "Nobody was taking a lean start-up approach to publishing."

To float the idea, he created a landing page on a Web site that anonymously suggested the idea of $99 scientific publishing. Word spread fast in open-access circles. One person who took notice was Peter Binfield. Trained as a physicist, Mr. Binfield was then publisher of the PLOS One community of open-access journals, one of the highest-profile open-access publishers.

"It doesn't have to cost $1,350 to publish every paper," Mr. Binfield says, referring to what the journal PLOS One charges. "PeerJ is an attempt to put that statement into the real world and see if it works."

Correction (4/29/2013, 12:45 p.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Peter Binfield, formerly of PLOS One, "might one day bring back" ideas from PeerJ "to his larger platform." Mr. Binfield has no plans to return to PLOS One. The text has been corrected by removing a sentence.