On February 1st, PeerJ announced that all accepted manuscripts submitted to its two journals (PeerJ and PeerJ Computer Science) before the end of the month would be published for free. This promotion coincided with PeerJ’s 5th anniversary.
The response from authors was overwhelming. Manuscripts flooded in, many in the last three days before PeerJ’s promotion ended. On March 1st, in response, Jason Hoyt, co-founder and CEO of PeerJ, tweeted his enthusiasm: “Wow. More than 1,500 manuscripts submitted to @thePeerJ for peer review in February. And all for free. Way to go!” For context, last year PeerJ published a total of 1,370 papers and just 38 in PeerJ Computer Science.
Reactions to PeerJ’s free publication promotion were generally positive. Free publishing would introduce PeerJ to many new authors, supporters claim, and be helpful to those who do unfunded research. A more insightful comment — in the form of rhetorical questions — came from Angela Cochran, fellow Kitchen blogger:
What is the overall message you take from this? Is it that people don't want to pay? That an APC is a barrier for trying something new?
— Angela Cochran (@acochran12733) March 1, 2018
It should surprise no one that when a publisher reduces its processing fee from $1,095 to zero, the result is a rapid increase in demand. The flood of submitted manuscripts simply illustrates that PeerJ is a respected publisher that creates true value for its authors. A marginal change in submission rates, in contrast, would have caused greater concern about whether PeerJ provided such value or had fully captured its potential author market.
Why would a for-profit, VC funded publisher celebrate by committing itself to a full year’s worth of additional expenses with no additional revenue?
Nevertheless, why would a for-profit, venture capitalist (VC) funded publisher celebrate by committing itself to a full year’s worth of additional expenses with no additional revenue? If we look at the past performance of PeerJ together with its recent press release, we may find an answer.
PeerJ (the journal) is not growing as expected. After launching in 2013, annual publication output doubled (103% increase) in 2014, but quickly began to slow to 70% in 2015, to 62% in 2016, to just 6% in 2017. At present, 2018 output looks very much like 2017. For PeerJ Computer Science, output looks more bleak: 45 papers in 2016, 38 in 2017, and just 5 papers to date in 2018.
While many niche publishers would be satisfied with publishing 1000+ papers per year, PeerJ must grow to the size of PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports to satisfy the financial returns demanded by its VC investors. At present, growth appears to have stalled at a fraction of these two competitors. In addition, undercutting the competition on price by a few hundred dollars doesn’t seem to have made any difference; we only see a surge of submissions when PeerJ’s price point has been reduced to zero. Moreover, while PeerJ has pivoted away from its initial pay-once-publish-for-life business model, it still retains many loyal returning authors, who cost the publisher money but do not bring in any additional revenue.
PeerJ’s free publication promotion coincided with an announcement of an overhaul of its editorial structure, adding Section Editors who will soon take responsibility of the decisions made by its Academic Editors. According to their announcement, PeerJ’s assignment of an Academic Editor was largely a random process that involved little, if any, oversight:
Ultimately it is the single Academic Editor that makes a final decision, without consultation or agreement with the community (although journal staff provide some guidance). There can be 100 Academic Editors covering one subject, each acting independently. For authors, the worry can be that there may not be consistency between decisions and it is down to the luck of the draw of which Academic Editor handles their submission.
PeerJ, like PLOS ONE, Scientific Reports, and other OA megajournals, were founded on the principle of publishing all “sound science,” regardless of its importance, novelty, or significance. In theory, an editorial model based on sound criteria should have been straightforward. In practice, it has not. A layer of editorial accountability was added to PLOS ONE in 2016, when it appointed its first Editor-in-Chief.
Adding another layer of decision-making will slow decision and publication times — a trade-off that PeerJ believes is justified. It will also further increase costs.
As explained in the HBO parody, Silicon Valley, many startup companies launch with a business model, only to pivot when they find themselves in trouble. PeerJ did this once when it pivoted from their initial $99 pay-once-publish-for-life individual membership model to an APC and institutional-support model. With this recent move, PeerJ pivots from a community-driven megajournal model to a traditional editorial-driven model. In order to successfully pivot, however, PeerJ will need to expand into new author markets.
After five years, one wonders how long investors are going to remain patient with PeerJ and whether this is PeerJ’s final pivot?