Transcript: PeerJ co-founder Binfield on “Inevitability” of Open Access

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Peter Binfield on “Inevitability” of Open Access”
A podcast interview with Christopher Kenneally

For release Wednesday, August 15, 2012

KENNEALLY: Welcome, everyone, to Beyond the Book. My name is Christopher Kenneally, reporting today from Washington DC, and the North American Conference of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors.

In scholarly publishing, the remarkable growth of the open access movement is the story of 2012. One man has played a starring role in this drama – Peter Binfield, co-founder and publisher since May of PeerJ, and before that, publisher of PLoS ONE, from the Public Library of Science, which this year, PLoS ONE will publish 25,000 open access articles. Peter Binfield, welcome to Beyond the Book.

BINFIELD: Thank you, Chris. I’m very pleased to be on the show.

KENNEALLY: We’re happy to have you join us, because really, I meant that. You’ve played a starring role in this unfolding drama about open access, and I want to talk to you about your presentation here today to ISMTE, but also about where this is all taking us in scholarly publishing, and I suppose, the first place to start is with some numbers. Your prediction is that in five years, more than 50% of scholarly articles could be open access published. There’s a kind of inevitability to all of this. Tell us about that.

BINFIELD: Yes, so that prediction actually comes from a paper called The Inevitability of Open Access, by somebody called David Lewis. And he’s taken some of the data on the historical growth of open access articles over the last 10 or 15 years, and projected on top a disruption theory, by Clay Christensen, as to how rapidly a new technology or a new business can disrupt an established model.

And he’s predicting, and I subscribe to this prediction, I think, that in about 2017 or 2018, as much as 50% of all articles could be published open access. And if you look at the graph in the paper, if you simply Google The Inevitability of Open Access, there’s a very nice figure there, figure 3, that really shows that’s going to come about, and how the pace actually accelerates, even, at that point.

KENNEALLY: But when we talk about open access, it’s like talking about ice cream. There are all kinds of flavors of ice cream, and it’s hard to speak about it very generally at all. Tell us about open access, how you define that, what it means to you. There are some licenses that are critical to this. In your presentation, you distinguish between CCBY – CCBY, and CCNC, non-commercial. What are the differences there, and why do they matter?

BINFIELD: Yes, so there are really two licenses that most open access publishers use, and they nearly all use the Creative Commons license, CC. So, CCBY simply means that somebody has to attribute the original source. The BY means “by” a person.

What some publishers have decided to do is actually tack on the NC rider, which is non-commercial. So, CCBYNC means that the content is open access, it can be freely read and re-used, but it can’t be reused for any commercial purposes. And that’s definitely been muddying the waters, I think, with open access content. If you were to have a mixture of CCBY, which allows commercial reuse, and CCBYNC, which does not allow commercial reuse, then I think that makes it harder for people to know what they’re doing when they’re data mining it, how they can reuse it, whether or not they can use a group of content for one reason or another.

So, the purist, the open access purist would say that everything has to be CCBY, and certainly that’s what – again, what I would support. It’s what PLoS ONE uses, it’s what my new company PeerJ uses.

KENNEALLY: OK, well, we’ll get to what PeerJ is doing in just a moment, but I want to ask you, first of all, about some observations you’ve made about OA and the various types of OA publications out there. You had three categories that you see emerging. Super-niche, what you called broad-niche, and then broad. Give us some examples of each of those three, and where you see that going.

BINFIELD: Yes, I think – so, super-niche – and these are just terms that I put up there, not necessarily industry terms. By that, I mean a very, very niche subject area. And the topic I always use as a poster child is the Ukrainian Journal of Basket Weaving, something that’s very niche, only of interest to a very limited group of people. And obviously, that is reflective, perhaps, of a lot of the journals that are in existence today. A lot of them out there are quite niche, publishing just a small number of articles per issue. And that works well in a subscription model.

But I would say that that doesn’t work so well in an open access model, where, really, there’s very few readers, there’s very few authors in a subject like that. But at least the journal can get into great depth, and it can become quite expert in its field.

Then you have sort of broad but niche journals, and here, an example that I use is BMJ Open. So, BMJ Open is a journal that covers the whole of clinical medical, for instance. So it’s very broad clinical medical, it’s a broad area, but it is still niche. It doesn’t cover physics, chemistry, for instance.

And then you have the journals like PLoS ONE, which – you know, they’ve come to be called mega-journals, and they’re truly broad. So, PLoS ONE, in particular, tries to cover the whole of science, so hard sciences, it does physics, chemistry, maths, biomedical, medical, health, biology, and all of those subject areas. And there’s – I think this is an increasing phenomenon to most journals of that type. So there’s a few now being launched which are as broad as PLoS ONE. Again, PeerJ is one of those, but there are others, by other publishers.

SAGE Open, for example, covers the whole of social examples. Another example might be SpringerPlus, actually. So SpringerPlus is out of the Springer stable, and again, it attempts to publish anything in any subject area. And I think that’s perhaps an interesting trend in the open access world, that a journal of that broad scope and that size can really actually work financially.

KENNEALLY: So, you asked the question today at the annual meeting of ISMTE that we’re both attending, which is, why would anyone go anywhere but PLoS ONE? And so, answer it for us.

BINFIELD: Yes, and I think that is an interesting question. So, PLoS ONE is truly huge. It gets as many as 200 submissions a day, at the moment. It’s publishing almost 2,500 articles a months. It’s massive.

And the interesting thing with PLoS ONE is it, only peer reviews content based on scientific, methodological validity. So, as an author, you’ll come to PLoS ONE. Your work is peer reviewed and judged simply on whether or not it deserves to join the scientific literature, and if it does, then the journal publishes it. It’s become very big, and this is only six years old, this journal, now.

So, as an author, if you want that kind of experience, if you want to be judged only on scientific and methodological soundness, if you want to have a quick and efficient publication process, you want to get your article out there open access quickly, then PLoS ONE is a great solution.

There have been maybe 10 or 15 clones of PLoS ONE launched in the last, sort of 12 to 18 months. And if you look at the stats, none of them are really succeeding in the way PLoS ONE originally succeeded. They’re not publishing as many articles as PLoS ONE did in the early days.

So that’s what I mean when I say, as an author, if you want that PLoS ONE experience, at the moment, it seems that authors go to PLoS ONE, rather than to one of the clones, which are really – they fail to differentiate themselves, I think.

So, the – probably the reason that people aren’t using them as much as perhaps they had hoped, there’s no differentiation on price, there’s no differentiation on service, on quality. In many ways, some of those clones are less attractive to authors than PLoS ONE, because – for example, they don’t have an impact factor, they don’t have an established brand, nobody’s heard of them, those kind of reasons. And as a result, PLoS ONE does seem to be dominating the landscape there.

KENNEALLY: Well, it sounds a bit like the story of Google. You know, first mover advantage in a kind of an established space, and why go anywhere else? A search engine is a search engine. Is there something to that? Is it a characteristic of Internet publishing companies?

BINFIELD: Maybe. There is a first mover advantage, definitely, I think, and PLoS ONE has had the space to itself for maybe five or six years. There is – you know, economies of scale kick in. Once you’re in a PLoS ONE environment, as an author, you know you’re with thousands of other articles in the same area, so you know that readers are coming to that website to read them, because they know there’s content there. The journal has established processes and can actually operate efficiently at that scale.

So at some level, there is economies of scale. But I think as well, there’s perhaps been a lack of imagination by the industry to really take on PLoS ONE and create new products that really differentiate themselves in that space.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s a great way to start a whole line of questions about what you’re doing right now, which is your startup, called PeerJ. You’re not going to leave the field to just PLoS ONE. Tell us what you’re trying to do with PeerJ.

BINFIELD: Yes, so PeerJ is, we think, very interesting. It’s a brand-new open access publishing company, and it’s going to publish two publications. So, PeerJ, which is going to be a journal, looking very much like PLoS ONE, and PeerJ PrePrints, which is going to be a preprints of – somewhat similar to arXiv, for instance, in the physics world.

KENNEALLY: For those listening who aren’t familiar with some of these terms, a preprint is – what, exactly?

BINFIELD: So, a preprint is a version of a journal article that exists before it’s submitted to a journal, before it goes through peer review and it’s accepted. So, it’s been very popular in the physical sciences world. High energy physics, in particular, historically use this kind of a service to circulate early drafts of their papers and get feedback from their peers. That evolved into something called arXiv – A-R-X-I-V, which is now a very large repository for preprint articles in that world. Preprint servers have not really taken off outside of the physics community, yet, but in PeerJ, we think we may have a solution there.

But the interesting thing, I think, I relation to your question is PeerJ, the journal. So, PeerJ, the journal, is going to be, at some level, a PLoS ONE clone. It’s going peer review content based only on scientific methodology and rigor. It’s going to attempt to publish content across a very large area, the whole of biomedical, medical and biological sciences. But I think we’ve come up with a few interesting ways to really differentiate it from PLoS ONE, which I think will cause it to be more successful than many of these clones, and would actually prove an attractive venue for authors.

So probably the most obvious way that it’s going to differentiate itself from PLoS ONE is in the business model, the price. So, PLoS ONE charges an APC fee, which is an article processing charge of $1,350 per article. So if you publish your article at PLoS ONE, as an author or a group of authors, you have to pay $1,350 to PLoS.

PeerJ, on the other hand, has a membership model. So, if you come to PeerJ as an individual, you’ve paid to become a member, and that membership then gives you the rights to publish articles with us forever for free thereafter. So the basic price is $99, so if you come to us as an individual and pay $99, that gives you the right to publish one article with us every year for free, for your lifetime.

There’s a catch, that of course, every co-author on a paper has to be a member, and typically, a paper might have five or six co-authors. But genuinely, once you’ve paid that one-off fee, you can publish articles with us forever, going forward.

So there’s then two tiers of membership above that, so $99 gets you the right for one paper a year, $199 buys you the right to publish two papers a year with us, and $299 is the all-you-can-eat package, where literally, you can publish an unlimited number of articles with us every year for free, going forward.

So that model, I think, really differentiates us from PLoS ONE. Not only is it dramatically cheaper than the PLoS ONE model for the individuals, but also, it’s just a very different and sort of headline-grabbing business model, compared to paying per publication.

KENNEALLY: Right, so as you say, you’ve grabbed a few headlines. What’s been the reaction of the scholarly community to your approach? And how disruptive do you feel this new take is?

BINFIELD: Well, the – so the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far. It’s been really gratifying, actually, to get e-mails from people about this. I’ve been spending the last two months building the editorial board of the journal. I’ve been approaching top academics around the world, asking them if they’ll join the editorial board. We now have almost 600 people on the editorial board, including four Nobel Prize winners, for example, and reactions from that group have been along the lines of, this is a much-needed innovation, we totally appreciate the judging only for scientific rigor. We appreciate that the price is much lower, and that’s going to really help young scholars, and it’s really going to drive this agenda forward. So they’ve been very positive.

KENNEALLY: Can you tell us about your funding? Are you, as a startup, getting funding from angels, VC – just a range, I would imagine.

BINFIELD: Yep. So, we have – we actually have two investors, we have VC funding. So we have funding from O’Reilly Media, which is a big computer book publisher, and O’Reilly Media has a sort of spinoff investment arm called OATV, and they’re the second funder.

So actually, Tim O’Reilly, who’s a very big name in the open source or open science world, is actually on our board. So Tim O’Reilly, via those two companies, is the investor, and one of the board members now of PeerJ.

KENNEALLY: And certainly, a man who is known for his creativity when it comes to business model, so that was probably what appealed to him.

BINFIELD: Yeah, I think so. He’s – with his Safari bookstore, for instance, he’s been very innovative in the past, and he really tracks these developments. He’s a great fan of open access. He proactively advocates for it. He was tweeting about the SOPA Act, for instance, and then, things like that.

So, yeah, he’s very engaged, which is great to have him on the board.

KENNEALLY: Well, some of the ways that open access is changing publishing isn’t just around the business models. That’s important. But also, how it’s changing the way the community is thinking about scientific publishing.

One of the ways you mentioned is that OA has a culture of acceptance, versus a traditional publishing model that’s a kind of culture of rejection. Tell us about that.

BINFIELD: Yes, and I wouldn’t say it’s open access that has that culture so much as the PLoS ONE model has that culture. So there are many open access journals that are highly selective, that attempt to reject 99% of all submissions. So it’s the PLoS ONE model that I think has this culture of acceptance. So it looks at content and tries to – tries to figure out wherever it is acceptable, and then it tries to accept it. As a result, PLoS ONE accepts about 68% of all the submissions to it.

And a more traditional model, not PLoS ONE, is peer reviewing content, deciding whether it’s scientific, but then making an extra subject decision as to whether or not this content is high quality, is it very impactful, is it a great degree of advance in the field. And usually what they’re trying to do there is, reject everything except something above a certain bar, so they can have a very high quality journal.

So, most people’s experience in a selective journal is to be rejected, in fact, and so that, I think, sets up a very different psychological dynamic with authors. You know, the more established traditional model has not been very favorable to authors. It has traditionally tried to reject as much as possible. Whereas a model like PLoS ONE, which is, like I say, rapidly growing and starting to disrupt the more traditional model, it’s much more accepting. And that – I think people appreciate that.

Another interesting difference here is the fact that in a subscription model, the library is a customer. So, the traditional publisher with a subscription journal will be going to an academic university librarian and trying to sell the product to them. So a lot of the services that they create, and a lot of the outward facing attitude towards the world is really geared toward that customer.

The open access world, for instance, and this does now describe the whole open access world, their customer is the author. So, within the open access world, I think there’s been a lot more thought about how we can give good author service and good customer service basically to that group of customers, which a more traditional subscription publisher is not used to doing.

And so you do see some of these subscription publishers having a problem when they’re trying to switch over to an open access model. We’re getting the head around what they need to do for authors, as opposed to what they previously did for academic librarians.

KENNEALLY: Well, some great points there. And we’re talking with Peter Binfield, co-founder and publisher of PeerJ, about the open access movement and his new publication. I want to ask you how it feels to be somebody who has come out of, not only PLoS ONE, but before that, a range of traditional publishing houses in scholarly publishing. You feel any nostalgia at all, or do people talk to you about those days when it was a quiet kind of feel, the quiet profession, and now we live in such disruptive times?

BINFIELD: (laughter) I don’t know if nostalgia is the right word, but definitely, I think the period right now is unsettling for a lot of people. I think it’s clear that the market is moving quite rapidly, that a subscription model is being disrupted with the open access model. And what’s not clear to people, obviously, is what the future holds for them, as a result.

So, I think people are out there, somewhat nervous, somewhat looking around at what the future does hold. They see developments like PLoS ONE and PeerJ and they try and project that back onto their own existence, and how that’s going to treat them in their businesses and in their careers and so on.

And I think there’s a great deal of uncertainty in the industry right now because of that. I’m firmly of the belief that, you know, this model will be the dominant model in the next five to ten years. It will disrupt the subscription model. What nobody’s clear, including myself, of course, is what the industry will look like when we get through that period, and it’s out of a transition phase.

KENNEALLY: But there’s no going back?

BINFIELD: There isn’t. And you know, people have tried to legislate the protection of their industry, their subscription model, but that’s clearly – it’s not going to work. There’s a market force at play here, so – and it’s nothing I’m doing, it’s nothing that even legislation is doing. I think the market, which is academic authors, the marketplace, has shifted. It is changing rapidly. People need to accept that and learn to deal with what the future brings.

KENNEALLY: Peter Binfield, co-founder and publisher of PeerJ, thank you for joining us today.

BINFIELD: Thank you very much. Great to be on the show.

KENNEALLY: And for everybody at Copyright Clearance Center, this is Chris Kenneally, reporting from the North American Conference of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors. And we appreciate your listening. Goodbye.