We sent off some questions to PeerJ’s Nathaniel Gore to find out a little more about him, about PeerJ, and about what the publisher is doing in the open access space.
Hi Nathaniel! Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your history and what you do at PeerJ?
I am Director of Communities at PeerJ. The PeerJ Communities Team’s primary focus is on developing products, programs, and services wanted by the communities that publish with us. We work closely with our Editorial Boards; we think a lot about user experience, and we act as the communications team at PeerJ. We are, above all, advocates for the communities who publish with PeerJ.
I joined PeerJ in 2020. Before then, I worked at PLOS as Publishing Development Manager. Before I started at PLOS – almost a decade ago – I hadn’t really heard of open access; I worked at ProQuest and spent a lot of my time developing content that would, for the most part, sit behind a paywall. It was really on the last project I worked on at ProQuest – Early European Books – that I started to learn more about the open access movement; lots of the national library partners I was working with wanted the content we were digitizing to be available to everyone in their country. I started reading more about OA, and that’s when I decided to move to PLOS. I went from a job developing content to put behind a paywall to being an OA evangelist pretty quickly!
We’re delighted to hear that! What are your hopes or vision for the future of open access publishing?
For me, the biggest challenge for the future of open access publishing is moving the discussion beyond “access” being the ability for anyone around the world to read science towards the ability to partake in the publishing process and scientific communication. Publishing open access isn’t always an option for large parts of the world when an APC (article processing charge) can be a year’s salary or research budget. So, at PeerJ, we are doing a lot of product development and community research into how we can unlock access in that sense. For me – and for PeerJ – it’s important to ensure that we continue to make scientific publishing and communication more accessible and build products and programs to support different communities to publish what they consider to be rigorous science.
What do you think that the scholarly community can do better, or do more of, to support the advancement of open access?
I think it’s tough to answer with a single brushstroke for the entire scholarly community – it depends on a whole host of factors; everything from subject area to geography to career stage.
For those with the power and authority to influence: continue to push for the redundancy of the Journal Impact Factor and its impact on research careers, and get your funders and institutions to focus on author experience and value for money.
Can you tell us a bit about PeerJ’s history and its journey? What services does it provide, and what is unique about PeerJ?
PeerJ launched in 2012, and the first articles were published in 2013. We now publish seven journals: PeerJ – our multidisciplinary journal of Life & Environmental Sciences; PeerJ Computer Science; and a new family of five chemistry journals. We maintain our bespoke publishing and peer review platform, integrated into our main website, that includes features such as expertRxiv (our new careers, collaborations and tasks hub), Contribution Points, a new Special Issues platform, and a lot more. We’re keen to develop our platform and build tools our communities want – innovation is a key part of our DNA. For example, we’ve just recently released a completely new user interface for the site.
PeerJ launched with a unique payment model – Lifetime Memberships – and it’s still something we hope more researchers would take up, as we believe it’s a sustainable and value-for-money alternative to APCs. We are also currently piloting a new take on the concept – 3-Year Fixed Term Memberships – with some of our institutional partners. When we launched, one of our core aims was to minimize the cost of open access publishing; this remains at the heart of our mission. We continue to live with the paradox that, for a significant part of the scholarly community, price and value for money have little impact on publishing decisions. Whereas, for the rest of the scholarly community, prices are prohibitive and prevent engagement. This seems like a massive inequity that we’re striving to do more to solve. We have some big plans to start to address this, which we will announce in the new year.
PeerJ became DOAJ’s third Premier Supporter this year. Why is it important for your organisation to support us?
Given our aim to keep the cost of open access as low as we can, we don’t spend a huge amount of our budget on sponsoring or supporting other organizations. When we do, we want them to be organizations that we feel are really important to the open access mission. And, as is the case with DOAJ, organisations that work to increase the visibility, usage and impact of quality, peer-reviewed, open access scholarly research journals globally.
“Globally” is particularly important to us – coming back to my earlier answer, PeerJ wants to help make participation in open access a global endeavour, which means we share a lot in common with DOAJ.
What impact do you think that DOAJ has had on open access scholarly publishing?
It is vitally important to have an independent organization like DOAJ provide resources that allow authors and editors to be confident that their research is in trustworthy hands and that their efforts are aligned with publishers who share their values. Whilst predatory and questionable publishing practices are by no means exclusive to open access, we know that a number of individuals and companies out there have used the movement to their economic advantage in a very unscrupulous way.
For PeerJ and many other journal publishers, knowing that authors can use the DOAJ to find us and trust us is important. Plus, DOAJ’s global network is doing vital work to help promote open access around the world.
What is PeerJ doing in the open access space to develop it as a viable publishing option? Do you have any exciting projects or new initiatives that you can share with us?
A recurring theme in our user research has been the future of societies and other membership organizations. The current dynamics in STM publishing can make life difficult for societies, especially smaller membership organizations. Whether it’s authors choosing to publish with us to meet OA mandates that their society’s publication cannot fulfil; or concerns from society board members about slowly but steadily falling membership and financial reserves (exacerbated by conferences being cancelled due to COVID-19); or societies wanting to launch and manage an OA journal, but being put off by the complexity, cost and ongoing investment to maintain and sustain a fledgling title. Meanwhile, the focus of many publishers has been on alternative business models and transformative deals at the institutional/funder level.
We believe that scholarly societies and the communities they support and develop are vital to a thriving academic and research ecosystem, so we want to offer them an opportunity and a solution to many of the concerns they have about the current publishing landscape. Our first step towards the new ecosystem that we envisage is to develop something we’re calling PeerJx. We will be announcing our first partners in 2022 and are still keen to find other partners to co-develop the concept. For us, co-development is a key part of the project, so the early partners will have the first chance to shape what we build. Then we want to put control over what they publish – and how they publish it – back in their hands.
Initiatives like Plan S, OA2020, and others are making pushes to see open access become the default for scholarly publishing. Do these initiatives affect PeerJ in any way? If so, how?
They do, generally in a positive way: as we move closer to a world where open access is the default, it means more authors discover PeerJ; and given the positive experience that authors have with our submission and peer review system, the quality of customer service we provide, and the value for money, we believe that once those authors enjoy the PeerJ experience, they will want to repeat it.
Perhaps the most interesting—and maybe unexpected impact of initiatives such as Plan S—has been the rise of so-called transformative deals. Like a number of pure open access publishers, we have been frustrated at the amount of time – and budget – these deals are taking up, and we’re not convinced they provide the best value for money. It has been frustrating to be told that you are at the back of the line to discuss an institutional deal because the focus is on deals with legacy publishers who have been slow to adapt to open access. But we’ve been excited by the positive response to our 3 Year Fixed Term Institutionally Funded Memberships trial, and we’re really appreciative of those librarians who can find the time to work with us on the program.
To be honest, I still think there’s a long way to go until open access is the default for scholarly publishing. As well as the issues that open access—and notably “Gold” open access—presents to many parts of the world, there’s still a lot to think about when it comes to the humanities, monograph publishing and more. Luckily there are plenty of great organizations and initiatives working in these spaces (such as OLH) but when you see, for example, incredibly high textbook charges, it shows that open access, as a wider movement, still has a lot to do when it comes to making important knowledge accessible to all.
How is your organization changing or adapting for that future where open access is the default?
We’ll be delighted when—if—that future arrives. Everyone in the organization truly believes that open access to the world’s knowledge and information is vital not just as a point of principle but, importantly, to deal with the hugely pressing problems facing us, whether that be climate change, pandemics or the rise in the deliberate promulgation of misinformation.
We’re preparing by building tools and developing concepts that allow more and different research communities to publish with us and for them to take more control of the publishing process. We’re confident that we can do that and that, as more communities choose PeerJ, we’ll continue to improve global open access.