Scientific societies originated as meetings where a group of "scientists" could discuss their ideas about the natural world. In the early days, this consisted of natural philosophers (what we would call nowadays, scientists) that met with certain regularity to present their experiments or findings and discuss their implications and interpretations. For a good example of the history of a scientific society, have a look at the Royal Society's website (here). As you can see, these societies date quite a way. In the case of the Royal Society, their meetings began sometime in the mid 1640s (that's close to 400 years ago!) Not too long after these scientific societies started to sprout, scientific journals began to appear. It is probably no surprise that the oldest and longest running scientific journal has been published by the Royal Society. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was first published in 1665, and you can read it (here), thanks to the 'Internets'. In the first issue, you will find, for example, an interesting paper by a guy named Francesco Redi (find out more about him here) — I guess he was affiliated with the University of Pisa (although his correspondence address is not reported in the paper, nor is his e-mail address), if we can trust Wikipedia — reporting "that the 'poyson' of Vipers is neither in their Teeth, nor in their Tayle, nor in their Gall; but in the two Vesicles or Bladders, which cover their teeth..." (Redi 1665; paper here). Quite an interesting read, check it out. But let's move on.
The "invention" of scientific journals led to some pretty interesting advances. For instance, what was discovered, presented, and discussed in the meetings was now a written record, which allowed ideas to be accessible almost 400 years later (just have a look at Redi's Viper paper above). As well as scientific findings being accessible over a longer period of time than just the span of the weekly meeting, journals also meant that scientific ideas could now be shipped to scientist that did not personally attend the meetings (you could now put copies of the journal in a ship and sail it to Brazil, if you wanted to, and providing the ship survived the journey across the Atlantic, back in the day). So here we have a great tool to expand the reaches of new knowledge — the scientific journal. Now, of course, there are issues associated with creating this vessel for scientific information. First of all, you need to pay someone to print the journals. In the case of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society's first issue, the society's first secretary, Henry Oldenburg, edited the journal and paid for its publication costs himself! It seems a bit unfair, right? Perhaps (at last we are getting to the real subject of this post) it would be fairer if the burdens of editing and publishing were distributed among the members of the society. This may look very similar to the system that we currently have in place (peer review).
Current scientific societies have members that pay an annual membership towards the maintenance of the society, and some of the revenue is directed towards journal costs. Some smaller societies still have as a sole source of income for editing and publishing of articles the memberships paid by its associates. However, when the size, and consequently the reach, of the society grows a little bit more, say, it starts to have an international readership, and the number of members that want to publish grow to such a proportion that you now have to delegate the publication tasks to third parties, then the membership revenue is not sufficient to cover all the costs of publication. At this stage societies are often publishing papers from non-members, adding even more strain to the system. Thus, regardless of the fact that the society has a huge membership, the costs of publishing are still too high. Now here lies the big problem. When societies have to get a professional publishing company involved to take care of editing, formatting and publishing of its journal, the control over who owns the material (the science) is jeopardized. Publishing companies like any company want to make profit. Thus, the deal is that publishing companies will publish (and do all the other tasks associated with it) the scientific articles in the journal, but the reader will have to buy the journal from the publisher if they want to read it. At this stage, my opinion is that the whole system has become very distorted. If you also consider the fact that science is usually conducted with public money (that is tax money), it makes sense that the outcome of this science should be made available, free of charge, to the citizens that paid for it in the first place... right?
But this is rarely if ever the case.
Chances are that you will have to pay a substantial fee to gain access to one piece of published research, say around $50 for access to one paper. Sounds crazy. Even crazier is the fact that publishing companies sell bundled deals to university libraries. So that if a library wants to have access to journal X, it also needs buy journals Y, Z, W, X, A, B, C, etc. Pointless.
The whole reason I started this post with an introduction of the scientific society, and built it up to this point of the "classic" model of scientific publishing (i.e. reader pays for access to journal) was to set the context for the "reinvention of the scientific publishing wheel".
PeerJ (website here), is the new publishing model, or at least that is what all the speculation is. PeerJ is an upcoming scientific journal (journals, not sure yet) that wants to "revolutionize" the way science is published. Embracing the philosophy of open access, that is scientific articles should be free to anyone who wants to read them. What's more, PeerJ proposes a new take on the publishing story, but how new is it really?
The system PeerJ will put in place when it is released some time this semester works in the following way: you, the author, pay a lifetime subscription to PeerJ, say $100 (yes, a one off payment). By paying this fee, you are entitled to publish (pending the article's acceptance after peer-review) one article per year in PeerJ, for the rest of your life. Once it is published, the article is open access, anyone can read it without having to buy, borrow, or subscribe to anything. Sound very good, doesn't it? I think it does.
The main point I want to make here is not to discuss whether PeerJ will be successful or not (I hope it is very successful), or what its impact factor would be (we could write a whole new post on what I think about impact factors). What I want to highlight here is simply the system that PeerJ is 'introducing' into the publishing world of scientific literature. The slogan on PeerJ's website reads "Academic Publishing is Evolving". Don't get me wrong, I think that the idea is great, and I am a big supporter of open access, but doesn't this model of publishing— pay a lifetime membership, and publish in our journal—sound exactly like the original system of being part of a scientific society? Remember that a society would publish a journal with articles from its members; members that paid a membership to support the society and its journal? So deep in its core, does it mean that PeerJ is simply a scientific society, charging its members for the service of publishing? I think it is. And I think it is a great idea.