The entrenched market power of existing scholarly publishers haven’t stopped innovators from trying to enter with new models. Probably the best known is the Public Library of Science that charges authors between $1350 and $2900 to publish papers depending on the journal. After that, the paper is open access. Elsevier offer the same option but the price is higher. Cambridge University Press has gone in the other direction and dramatically reduced open access author charges.
Into this mix comes PeerJ. It is also open access but its pricing is different: it is based on the notion of a club. With PeerJ, when you submit a paper you pay $99. That entitles you to submit one paper per year for life. They call it lifetime membership but that membership does not come for free. To keep it active you have to review papers for PeerJ. This is reminiscent of the old BEPress model before it sold out of the innovative scholarly publishing business.
What also makes PeerJ like a club is that the membership is for each member. If you have, say, four authors on a paper, they all have to be active members in order to submit. What is more, you have to take care that they haven’t already submitted that year. If they have, they need to upgrade their membership to higher levels that allow more submissions.
At some abstract level, the membership idea makes sense. It is not unprecedented. Often scholarly societies accept only submissions from their members to journals. The American Economic Association, for instance, does this but you only need one author to be an active member. In that situation, you also have to pay for membership each year. And, of course, those journals are not open access.
If PeerJ were already an established scholarly association, this might make sense. But it is a start-up. That means that its pricing is introductory and will rise (they have said so). Also, it means that the value of the whole ‘lifetime’ bit, is contingent upon your expectations regarding not your life (although I guess that matters) but PeerJ’s life. (I am not the only one who has expressed this concern).
My guess is that PeerJ may have been better off with a different frame. Instead of offering lifetime membership as the starting option, they could have offered a fee to publish articles but at a dramatically lower rate than other places. In fact, it seems to me that the costs of publishing a paper are independent of the number of authors, so that fee could easily be $99 or a little bit higher. That fee could then give the lead author the right to publish papers into the future. In that way, they could build membership at a slow rate but without getting everyone to guess any more about the start-up’s longevity than would be necessary.
One final point; the objection of many to the pricing practices of traditional publishers is that fees seem independent of costs. Is it really a good idea to start-up an alternative model where fees are not purely based on cost components?