News reached me today on Twitter that Peter Binfield, Publisher of PLoS ONE, is leaving PLoS to found a new company, Peerj.com.
Peerj will be an open access publishing company with a radical new premise: publishing in a scholarly journal can cost a heck of a lot less than the extortionate fees charged by PLoS. If you go to the Web site, you will see, among other things, this statement:
If we can set a goal to sequence the human genome for $100, then why can’t we do the same for academic publishing?
Of course, setting a goal and achieving a goal are not one and the same, but you get the idea.
So now we see the Achilles Heel of the author-pays business model for open access laid bare, and every shrewd archer of the OA movement will be pointing an arrow at it. Whether or not toll-access publishing is too expensive is one thing, something we can argue about; but author-pays OA is definitely too expensive. After all, an author-pays service is essentially a hosting service with a PR department and some Web 2.0 tools. I think they’re great, but let’s not pretend that they are something more than this.
I mentioned that I became aware of Binfield’s move on Twitter because it says something about the kind of company that Peerj plans to be. Peerj will play in the pool, deep or shallow, of the social Web. Among its plans are to raise money on Kickstarter, a new source of start-up financing. This will be a company that pushes the metaphor of information technology as far as it can, automating whatever can be automated, and much more besides. This means there will be a small number of talented software developers and not much more (but don’t forget the evangelist for social media). That means a low cost basis, an essential part of the strategy to drive down costs. Low costs translate into lower author fees. We have seen this strategy before. (See Wal-Mart.)
So the OA price wars have begun. What will this mean to the new eLife, the OA ventures of Wiley and Sage, and so many others? And let’s not forget the massively overpriced PLoS ONE itself. At some point, even Peerj’s proposition of lifetime publishing services for $100 may come to seem expensive.