Gavia Libraria

More PeerJ musings

Buried in the PeerJ FAQ is a brief discussion of what happens to articles with a lot of authors: pay for the first twelve authors, the rest come free!

Coming from information studies, the Loon hadn’t thought of that angle—four authors is a lot for an LIS paper—but in biomedicine, it’s a genuine issue. The Loon has no grounds to quibble with PeerJ’s solution… but it did send her mind off in the direction of the intersection of author lists, interdisciplinarity, and PeerJ’s business model.

(This will make sense in a moment, the Loon hopes.)

Research is becoming more interdisciplinary, we keep being told. Whatever the reasons for this (and the Loon strongly suspects “poorly-drawn lines in the sand” are an important one), it means that the disciplinary boundaries around PeerJ are… porous, shall we say. (The same is already true of PLoS ONE, for that matter; just poke around in the title browse for a bit and see the disciplinary outliers.) The Loon hardly has to waddle ten yards down the hall from her office to find an LIS colleague who collaborates actively with biomedical researchers.

This means, among other things, that the universe of potential paying PeerJ members is emphatically not limited to those who are primarily identified with PeerJ’s initial subject foci. Anyone in any discipline who is a collaborator with someone in the primary target market may also become a paying member for a coauthored article! That’s clever of PeerJ. It’s got to reduce their cost of author and article acquisition (a cost few academics seem to consider when costing out publishing, but a genuine cost nonetheless).

It also means that PeerJ doesn’t have to guess about when and where to expand its disciplinary coverage. It will have actual evidence to work from, in the form of the aggregate disciplinary affiliations of its membership. This distinguishes PeerJ usefully from some of the PLoS One imitators launched in early 2011, who hadn’t a lick of market research behind them as far as the Loon can tell.

This isn’t just clever, it’s brilliant. Piggybacking growth on patterns that emerge organically from affiliation and collaboration networks makes total sense—it’s one of those ideas that’s painfully obvious in hindsight. (Yes, the Loon is kicking herself; she should have thought of this.) It’s got to beat the hamhanded approach (embedded in existing, laughably inadequate, unnecessarily exclusionary disciplinary boundaries) that the various PLoS One imitators have taken.

Taking the Clayton Christensen view, too, PeerJ may have found the “underserved clientele” that are the mainstay of any business-disruption attempt. Who is underserved by the current system of chopping knowledge into ever-tinier domains, the way journals do? Why, interdisciplinary scholars, of course. The Loon can’t be the only avian to have seen such scholars complaining of “this article is great, but it doesn’t fit our journal” rejections. PeerJ can morph to fit emerging needs in a way most journals can’t.

The addition of the preprint server is another clever touch. If you ask the Loon (which you didn’t), the problem with a lot of the “social networking for academe” experiments is that most academics need object-oriented social networks. The only individual-oriented “networking” they do is in the form of their online CVs, and the pathetic rate at which those are updated is a fair reflection of how important academics don’t think such networking is.

At least some work and conversation does coalesce around work objects such as preprints, though, at least in some fields. Can PeerJ build a working community from its preprint server, plus allied services such as alt-metrics and open review? Will PeerJ’s (likely) increasingly interdisciplinary reach introduce the idea of preprints to fields that don’t currently rely on them? Who knows? But it’s got a better chance at success than academia.edu or institutional repositories ever did.

PeerJ has learned from arXiv to put a small barrier in front of the preprint server to keep the whackadoodles (mostly) out. It’s a price barrier rather than arXiv’s “have a community member vouch for you” barrier; the contrast should be instructive over time. (The Loon doesn’t have a strong sense of which kind of barrier is “better;” they may both be perfectly adequate, though obviously the price barrier needs to have a value proposition behind it, which is why PeerJ is bundling it with its bread-and-butter publishing service.)

SSRN offers a service or two that PeerJ might profitably adopt; the branded series comes to mind immediately. Quite a few law, political science, and business schools pay SSRN to brand a series of working papers or preprints. This “branding” often doesn’t even extend to a coherent visual identity! It’s just scoped search/browse plus slapping a series title/link on the page somewhere—the tech burden is ludicrously small. As for SSRN, they might learn from the way PeerJ is coupling pre-publication with publication dissemination. If that’s something authors will pay for, why on earth not offer it to them?

Lastly, worth noting: PeerJ, like Figshare before it, is acting responsibly with respect to preserving the content of its publications. It is depositing to PubMedCentral, and is joining the CLOCKSS network. The Loon mentions this because she sees too many faculty whinging ignorantly in too many blog comments about digital preservation. Digital preservation is an entry in the Loon’s private “shut up about publishing if you don’t know about this” glossary. If at minimum you don’t know about LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, Portico, and the DOAJ’s open-access journal-preservation program, shut up; you are embarrassing yourself.

PeerJ is not. Whatever else they are or may become, they’re not being witless. The Loon finds their lack of witlessness rather refreshing.