Something very innovative has arrived again from Silicon Valley, but it isn’t technology.

It’s not a new handheld device or social media app promising to revolutionize the way we connect with each other. Nor is it about a company started by young, penniless hipsters from their parent’s garage. Rather, this one was started by a bunch of middle-aged guys and a lot of venture capital. That, and a blue monkey-scientist as a company mascot.

And if we cut through the formulaic journalism cobbled together from press-releases and old recycled material, this has really nothing to do with open access, Elsevier’s profits, or boycotts.

This post is about PeerJ; not about how its founders wish to make the world a better place through open access publishing, but what their new venture says about the changing values of academic publishing. But first, a short digression through the cloistered colleges of Oxford University.

Several years ago, as part of a paid tour of several of Oxford’s oldest and most beautiful colleges, I was chastised by a docent who saw me stand upon the college green — the perfectly trimmed grass that often forms the center of each quad. “Didn’t you see the sign, sir?!” he barked. I had. I had also seen a similar sign preventing all but college dons from entering the garden. I removed my foot, and shifted back to the pea gravel walkway. Later, as our group dispersed, I asked the docent why only dons were permitted such luxuries. At my undergraduate college, I was often found bare-chested throwing a frisbee or kicking a Hacky Sack on our green. “Tradition,” he responded, thrusting his index finger to make his point, as if that one word could explain the Great Wonders of the world, the secret ingredients in Pimm’s and why Oxfordians and Cambridgians punt from opposite sides of the boat. Tradition explains them all.

Tradition is also what explains most academic publishing. Remember, I’m not talking about technology here: the publishing technology that PeerJ is using is available to every other publisher irrespective of where they are located. I’m talking about the culture of publishing, and the culture of publishing for most academic publishers is one of tradition.

Tradition is what keeps most publishers automating, rather than innovating. Staid, European publishing houses like Oxford University Press, with histories that date back to the first printing presses, are not the only publishers influenced by a culture of tradition. Tradition equally affects our modern (by contrast) American society publishers, many of whom take pride in uninterrupted journal publishing throughout the Great Depression and World Wars. Every morning, the publishing executive walks down the long hallway, past the framed photographs and oil paintings of former publishers, beginning with the bearded gentleman with the pince-nez and ending with himself — albeit a more youthful version — staring back through the glass. No publishing executive wants to be known as the one who ended the lineage, which is why so few are willing to tamper with tradition.

Silicon Valley is a different matter altogether. The West coast of the United States lacks the history and tradition of many institutions located on the East coast, let alone Europe. West coast institutions are largely unencumbered by the chains of tradition that weigh most of us down, make us seek the safer route of automation over innovation.

Innovation is also expensive and risky. One may ask why a middle-aged publisher with a steady job and kids in school would leave the most successful venture from another West coast innovator to take a job at a new start-up? I have no doubt that his work will be hard, but this is not the typical garage startup where someone takes a second mortgage on his house or borrows money from his parents. Risk is much easier when you are playing with someone else’s money.

Silicon Valley venture capital is behind PeerJ and Tim O’Reilly, who has taken great interest in open access recently, has a place on its governing board. Nevertheless, venture capitalists like to get paid –not dividends, like shareholders of a public commercial publisher– but huge profits when they cash out. Reuters seems to have forgotten this little detail when talking about publisher profits.

The closest we’ve seen with the Silicon Valley spirit in the UK is Vitek Tracz, who does not appear to be burdened by the weight of success and tradition. Innovation that spurs a profitable company is sold off to a staid publishing house and Tracz is free to start other ventures, such as F1000 Research, which includes many of the same attributes as PeerJ. Open access advocates should give daily thanks to this innovator, who showed the rest of the world that open access can make viable economic sense.

In the end, PeerJ is not about technology. It is about a culture that is unencumbered by tradition, has money, and is willing to take risks. Most of all, it is populated by people who are willing to walk away from both their failures and their successes.

(Also see, Part II: Is PeerJ Membership Publishing Sustainable?)

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


8 Thoughts on "PeerJ: Silicon Valley Culture Enters Academic Publishing"

This seems to prolong rather than resolve the debate over the siphoning of research funding out of the academic community and into the pockets of private shareholders. Presumably, savvy venture capitalists aren’t going to invest unless they see a way to generate significant profits. Is it better for academia to keep those profits in academia or if a valued service is provided, is it acceptable for that money to go into the bank account of an investor? This would seem to be at the heart of many of the arguments against Elsevier’s profit-taking.

Exactly. I don’t see why PeerJ should be given a free pass by the academic community just because it operates under the mantle of OA. Money going out the door to profit-seeking enterprises, whether TA or OA, is still money not available to the scholarly community. Librarians may rejoice that their budgets aren’t under as much pressure if more OA ventures like this succeed, but there will be screams of pain from other parts of the university, for sure. And OA, in some ways, has a potential to suck even more money out of the academy than TA.

Phil, I am puzzled by your slogan “innovation versus automation.” Surely the transition from paper print to digital print is a huge innovation. Nor are start ups the only measure of innovation. I have helped implement dozens of innovations at OSTI, some quite large. So what are you getting at here? Tradition is not why existing systems persist.

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