PeerJ is entering its fourth year of operation, which may not sound like a long time for a new publisher, but in the world of start-ups, four years is often when its founders begin to seriously evaluate their future.

The cheese stands alone. Image via Dota 2 The International.

In my last post, I reported that PeerJ was growing, publishing more papers and attracting more authors, although it was not clear whether the company was moving toward financial stability. In a crowded market of multidisciplinary open access journals, I argued that the success (or failure) of PeerJ would be determined when it received its first Impact Factor, which will be announced in mid-June with the publication of Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Report. The purpose of this post is to estimate PeerJ‘s first Impact Factor and discuss its implications.

As of this writing, PeerJ has not been indexed in the Web of Science‘s Core Collection–the dataset from which the Journal Citation Report (and the Impact Factor) are derived. However, it is still possible to estimate PeerJ‘s first Impact Factor by searching the references of other papers indexed in the Core Collection. This called a Cited Reference Search, and it is one of those amazingly powerful tools that is largely overlooked by most Web of Science users. For publishers, cited reference searches can reveal how authors cite your journals, and how sloppy and error-prone some authors can be.

Most journal Impact Factors are calculated by summing the number of citations made in a given year to articles (or more precisely, “citable items”) published in the two previous years, for example, citations in 2014 to articles published in 2012 and 2013. For PeerJ, which began publication in 2013, their 2014 Impact Factor will be based on just articles published in 2013.

Based on my search, I retrieved 402 citations made in 2014 to PeerJ papers published in 2013. These citations included papers “in press” but excluded PeerJ Preprints. As expected, some papers were cited more frequently than others. The most-cited paper in PeerJ wasn’t about biology or medicine but about science publishing (“Data reuse and the open data citation advantage” by Heather Piwowar, one of the cofounders of ImpactStory), which received 12 citations, many of which were from editorials and news extolling the benefits of open access data publishing.

So how is PeerJ going to perform? If we include 402 citations in the numerator and 231 citable items in the denominator, we arrive at a base score of 1.740. This figure doesn’t include self-citations (citations from PeerJ in 2014 citing other PeerJ articles published in 2013), since PeerJ articles are not yet indexed in the Web of Science. While self-citation rates can be particularly high in specialist journals for which there are few other journals publishing articles on the same topic, multidisciplinary biomedical journals generally have low self-citation rates. For PLOS ONE, self-citation rates affecting their Impact Factor calculation range from 8% to 14%. If PeerJ is comparable, we are looking at a first Impact Factor between 1.879 and 1.984.

How does this compare to PLOS ONE? If citation rates in 2014 are similar to those in 2013, we can expect PLOS ONE’s next Impact Factor to remain around 3.5.

What happened with PLOS ONE will not likely happen for PeerJ

Why does this matter? Advocates of open access, article-level metrics, and membership model publishing will argue that a poor Impact Factor should have nothing to do with the future success of the journal. If we are realistic, however, and understand that most authors are very sensitive to the citation standing of journals to which they submit their manuscripts, a poor initial score is unlikely to trigger a deluge of new PeerJ manuscripts. In other words, what happened with PLOS ONE in 2010 will not likely happen for PeerJ.

Why this is significant comes down to the business model of PeerJ, those who invested in bringing this new publication model to market (venture capitalists), and what we can expect from PeerJ given that it may not meet the scale necessary to transform this company from an expensive new venture into a profitable, self-sustaining publishing model. (Those who are interested in some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the scale PeerJ needs to achieve to reach sustainability should read Michael Clarke’s comment to my last PeerJ post).

I need to state upfront that it is not necessary for every journal to be financially self-sustaining. Publishers support money-losing journals all the time, either because they hope the journal will eventually return profits, or because the journal serves some strategic function for the publisher. A publisher may support a journal in order to build a larger portfolio of titles or to provide another publication option for its authors. For open access journals that charge article processing charges (APCs), a publisher may need to keep APCs artificially low because of competition, or simply because there is no market of authors, funders or libraries willing to pay the true cost of publication.

While the Farmer in the Dell is successful enough with his agrarian pursuits to take on a wife, a child, a nurse, a cow, a dog and a cat–none of which add to the farmer’s bottom line–PeerJ (and the cheese) stands alone.

A diversified publisher may see real strategic value in keeping a venture like PeerJ going, even if it doesn’t make money in the near future, or perhaps, at any time at all. But PeerJ is not owned by a large diversified publisher. While the Farmer in the Dell is successful enough with his agrarian pursuits to take on a wife, a child, a nurse, a cow, a dog and a cat–none of which add to the farmer’s bottom line–PeerJ (and the cheese) stands alone.

If it is clear that the cheese cannot stand alone, the best option for PeerJ may be to find a Farmer in the Dell, meaning, a rich publisher who is willing to purchase the journal, not as a financial investment, but because it comes with a feature the publisher could use, such as in the case of Elsevier acquiring Mendeley.

For PeerJ, however, I’m not entirely sure what they have except for a business model, which was a radical departure from the individual APC model, but eventually morphed into something much less radical over time. PeerJ now has a long list of institutional members, who will pay the publication fees of their authors. If this sounds familiar, BioMed Central (now part of the diversified Springer farm) pioneered this model nearly 10 years ago.

[T]he company’s strategic pivot back to institutions for a stable funding model may signal that the model wasn’t sufficient

In sum, PeerJ began its life as a innovative publisher in the true sense of “innovative,” bringing Silicon Valley culture and values to an industry that has reflected publishing traditions of Europe and the Eastern US. For many, it was not clear that a lifetime membership model would be financially sustainable, and the company’s strategic pivot back to institutions for a stable funding model may signal that the model wasn’t sufficient, at least at its current scale.

We don’t know what additional “pivots” may be on the horizon for PeerJ. At a certain point, if the journal doesn’t attract enough manuscripts to become financially self-sustaining, PeerJ will need to begin courting some of the wealthy farmers who can offer PeerJ economies of scale, a place within a peer review cascade, and a slot within a diversified portfolio. What PeerJ has to offer in return, however, is less clear.

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 — A PLOS ONE Contender in 2015?"

In all likelihood the investors want their return. If it is not forthcoming there will either be a fire sale or a shingle on the door – gone out of business!

My gosh! Patience, please. This is an early-stage company with a new idea. It takes time for a company to get all the pieces working. I have no idea if PeerJ will ultimately work, but it’s surely too soon to bury them. Why the glee and the sharpening of knives?

I LOVE it! Looks to me like they were a little too innovative…………..

I think the lesson here is not just for PeerJ, but for all the many new broad megajournals that have been launched. PLOS ONE had a significant “first mover” advantage. They had many years to experiment and improve what they do without having to face a direct competitor offering the same thing they offer, particularly one with a solid Impact Factor.

Now as an author you have your choice of megajournals–each offers something similar, has a similar scope (everything) and similar level of editorial rigor (is the article factually correct, rather than important or interesting?). Given that scope/audience and quality of review are two of the most important factors in choosing a journal (, that leaves things like Impact Factor as the deciding factor. All things being equal, why would I publish in journal X when Journal Y has a higher Impact Factor, and no matter how much I dislike the IF, a higher one will likely help my career and funding more than a lower one (or no IF at all).

For PeerJ, the advantage offered is financial. But it’s not an immediate advantage, it’s a savings on your second paper published with the journal, as you have to pay for the first one (and then pay again for any new authors on subsequent papers). If you think publishing in a journal with a higher IF will lead to a better career and better funding, then that spend might be worth it. Also it’s worth remembering that these funds are frequently coming from institutions or funders, not out of an author’s pockets. Saving the NIH a thousand dollars may be a lower priority for a postdoc than building a strong CV to hit the job market.

I’ve long held that if PLOS ONE does their job well (and every indication is that they are excelling), then you don’t really need a second PLOS ONE from somebody else. It will be interesting to see how many (if any) copycats the market will bear.

I was quite interested to note this paper yesterday –

One point it highlights is that PLOS ONE has the advantages of a good acceptance rate, of course, but *also* a reasonably good time-to-acceptance. This last one, plus time-to-publication (which they didn’t study), might be something a different megajournal can reasonably aim to differentiate itself on – trading off IF/status in return for fast turnaround. It’s not the most significant factor per the Insights study, but it is a reasonably important one for science authors and substantially more so than costs.

One approach towards speed is to offer some kind of pre-review publication – trading time to acceptance in return for early visibility. The Copernicus journals have demonstrated for some years that it can work robustly without bringing down the quality of the final paper. PeerJ is in a position to take a megajournal approach towards this – it has an integrated preprints system, though it’s optional rather than required as with Copernicus.

Venture folks look for a pattern of growth. The next round of financing only comes if the story is solid and there is evidence of performance against the original goals. I think the jury is still out here. The first round of Impact Factors will be an important milestone. A sale is far more likely than a going out of business action.

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