Tag Archives: open access

Analysis: Is PeerJ cheaper than other Open Access journals?

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.

Commentary: When Open Access isn’t

This week, PLoS ONE published an interesting paper by Bo-Christer Björk and coworkers on the free global availability of articles from scientific journals. One of the principal findings in this study is that 20.4% of articles published in 2008 are now available as Open Access (OA):

Open Access to the Scientific Journal Literature: Situation 2009

Background: The Internet has recently made possible the free global availability of scientific journal articles. Open Access (OA) can occur either via OA scientific journals, or via authors posting manuscripts of articles published in subscription journals in open web repositories. So far there have been few systematic studies showing how big the extent of OA is, in particular studies covering all fields of science.

Methodology/Principal Findings: The proportion of peer reviewed scholarly journal articles, which are available openly in full text on the web, was studied using a random sample of 1837 titles and a web search engine. Of articles published in 2008, 8,5% were freely available at the publishers’ sites. For an additional 11,9% free manuscript versions could be found using search engines, making the overall OA percentage 20,4%. Chemistry (13%) had the lowest overall share of OA, Earth Sciences (33%) the highest. In medicine, biochemistry and chemistry publishing in OA journals was more common. In all other fields author-posted manuscript copies dominated the picture.

Conclusions/Significance: The results show that OA already has a significant positive impact on the availability of the scientific journal literature and that there are big differences between scientific disciplines in the uptake. Due to the lack of awareness of OA-publishing among scientists in most fields outside physics, the results should be of general interest to all scholars. The results should also interest academic publishers, who need to take into account OA in their business strategies and copyright policies, as well as research funders, who like the NIH are starting to require OA availability of results from research projects they fund. The method and search tools developed also offer a good basis for more in-depth studies as well as longitudinal studies.

Having just set up a mirror of the OA subset of PubMed Central, I know that it contains only ~10% of the articles deposited in PubMed Central and only ~1% of the articles indexed by PubMed. It was thus with equal doses of joy and scepticism that I read numbers reported by Bo-Christer Björk and coworkers.

It soon became clear to me that the study did not adhere to the OA definition by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which is as follows:

By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

The Bo-Christer Björk et al. do not define what exactly they mean by OA. However, from reading their paper is is pretty clear that any article for which they can get hold of free full text is counted as OA. The license under which the copy is distributed does not to matter, and they thus count the 90% of articles in PubMed Central that are published under non-OA licenses as OA. It does not even seem to matter if the free full text is legal or not, implying that any article of which an illegal copy can be found somewhere on the web is counted as OA.

I have heard of Gold OA and Green OA. It is tempting to call this Black OA. But I won’t. Because it just isn’t OA.

Commentary: Open access equals bulk publishing?

This week Nature published a News piece by Declan Butler with the rather provocative title “PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing”. Unsurprisingly, this caused a backlash from open-access advocates in general and science bloggers in particular. Jonathan Eisen posted the ironic response “Only Nature could turn the success of PLoS One into a model of failure”. For an overview of the many other responses from the blogosphere see the summary by Coturnix and the long debate on FriendFeed.

The core of the criticism by Declan Butler was directed against the business model of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), in particular that a large part of their total income is produced by “bulk publishing” in the “database” PLoS ONE with only “light” peer review. There is no point in denying that PLoS ONE is a major source of income for PLoS, that it publishes many papers, and that it is not a top-tier journal. Still, it is in my view an unnecessary provocation to refer to a journal from a competitor as a “database” and between the lines suggest that they do not perform proper peer review.

I have nothing against Nature Publishing Group (NPG) – they are in my view one of the more progressive publishers with initiative such as Connotea and Nature Network. However, I find the criticism by Declan Butler somewhat unfair, especially considering that NPG also has a considerable number of lower impact journals in their portfolio in addition to their lineup of Nature journals. To illustrate this point, I looked up the impact factors for all the PLoS and NPG journals that I could find (6 and 68, respectively) and plotted the distributions:

The average impact factors of the two publishers are remarkably similar 9.19 for PLoS and 9.39 for NPG, but the underlying distributions are very different. Notably, the high average impact factor of NPG’s journals is due to a fairly small number of journals with impact factors over 20, which are sufficient to offset the large number of journals with impact factors below 5. Consequently, the median impact factors are 9.03 for PLoS and only 4.88 for NPG.

I want to be the first to point out the caveats of this analysis. First, the analysis above did not take into account that each journal does not publish the same number of papers. However, weighting the journals by number of papers when calculating average impact factors shifts the balance in favor of PLoS (9.79 for PLoS vs. 9.46 for NPG). Second, the journal PLoS ONE does not have an impact factor yet and was thus not included in my analysis. Third, the criticism by Declan Butler was mainly targeting the fact that much of PLoS’ revenue is due to PLoS ONE. However, until NPG chooses to make available detailed financial reports like PLoS does, it is impossible to tell how much of their revenue comes from lower-impact journals.

That being said, the business models of PLoS and NPG do not look all that different based on bibliographic metrics alone.

Full disclosure: I am an associate editor of PLoS Computational Biology.

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