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.
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.