The newly announced Open Access journal PeerJ has caused quite a fuzz, not least because of their catch phrase: “If we can set a goal to sequence the human genome for $99, then why not $99 for scholarly publishing?”
This at first sounds very cheap; however, the $99 is not what you pay per accepted paper. PeerJ operates under a different scheme than traditional Open Access journals: instead of paying per publication, you pay a one-time fee that you pay to be able to publish in PeerJ for life. This sounds almost too good to be true.
There are a few catches, however. Firstly, $99 only entitles you to submit one manuscript per year to PeerJ. If you want to be able to submit two manuscripts per year or unlimited manuscripts, the price rises to $169 and $259 respectively.
Secondly, all authors on a manuscript must be paying PeerJ members at the time of submission (except if there are more than twelve authors, in which case it is enough that 12 of them are members). This suddenly makes the comparison to other Open Access journals much more complex, as the actual average price per manuscript depends on the number of authors, the number of other PeerJ manuscripts submitted by the same authors in their lifetime, and the acceptance rate of PeerJ. In this post I try to do the math and compare PeerJ to traditional Open Access journals, where you pay per accepted publication.
PeerJ compares itself to PLoS ONE, so I base all comparisons on that. From 2006 when PLoS ONE was launched up to and including 2011, a total of 29,042 publications have appeared with a total of 150,020 authorships. This amounts to an average of 5.1 authors per publication. When PeerJ is initially launched, no authors will have the benefit of already being members, so at first this implies that all authors will have to pay an average cost of $99*5.1 = $511 per submitted manuscript (ignoring the discount on manuscripts with 12+ authors). According to the PeerJ FAQ, this is expected to be approximately 70%. Assuming that this holds true, the average cost incurred by the authors per accepted paper will be $511/0.7 = $730. This is already considerably less than PLoS ONE, which has a publication fee of $1350 per accepted paper. From a pure cost point-of-view, PeerJ thus looks to be about half the price of PLoS ONE.
I do have some concerns related to the model of charging per author. First, I find it to be illogical, since the actual costs related to handing a manuscript are independent of the number of authors. Second, the average number of authors per paper varies between research fields, which implies that the average fee per manuscript will in some fields be higher than $730. For a manuscript with 12 authors, neither of whom are already PeerJ members, the fee per accepted manuscript is $99*12/0.7 = $1697, which is more expensive than PLoS ONE. Third, the new model gives a direct financial incentive to not include authors who made minor contributions.
In summary, I think PeerJ is a refreshing new idea – I can only applaud efforts to lower the price of scientific publishing. However, although $99 for scientific publishing sounds revolutionarily cheap, PeerJ will at first only be ~2x cheaper then PLoS ONE. Also, the new payment model, which effectively boils down to a per-author charge, is in my opinion not without its own problems.
Full disclosure: I am an associate editor of PLoS Computational Biology.