PeerJ Preprints Succumbs

A retreat from preprints may reflect the thin ice of these initiatives overall

The number and range of preprint initiatives has been expanding for a few years now, with bioRxiv, medRxiv, chemRxiv, and socRxiv among a much longer list, some quite obscure.

The recent announcement that PeerJ Preprints won’t be posting any more preprints after the end of this month may represent the beginning of “preprint deflation,” the first obvious retreat in the preprint realm, a world that has been haunted by questions of financial viability since Day 1.

Even long-standing preprint servers like arXiv have wrestled with the expense and work involved in posting free drafts of papers. The systems, people, and bandwidth needed to support technology platforms longterm aren’t cheap. Preprint platforms are no exception. This year, arXiv moved from one part of Cornell to another, in what looked like an attempt to shuffle overheads out of budgetary approval scrutiny for a time — after all, as I’ve calculated, if you include these, arXiv is hemorrhaging money every year, and nobody seems to want to confront that possibility.

Other indications of preprint deflation are observable in the analyses I’ve done around bioRxiv and socRxiv. The goals of these platforms — to encourage collaboration and pre-publication review — aren’t shared by most users, with authors increasingly using the platforms as marketing adjuncts or to meet Green OA requirements after successful submission to a journal.

At the level of competition, PeerJ admits between the lines that it has been beaten, writing in the announcement:

While PeerJ Preprints has been successful and pioneering, the academic community is now well-served with other preprint venue options. . . . With a sad heart, the time has come to stop accepting new submissions at PeerJ Preprints . . .

Another tacit admission is that authors aren’t generally substituting preprints for peer-reviewed articles, something arXiv found years ago:

What we’re learning is that preprints are not a desired replacement for peer review, but a welcome complement to it.

It’s been clear for years that the subterfuge of replacing journals with preprints is unlikely to work — arXiv learned this years ago — but human nature often means learning things again the hard way. Preprint platform providers are left holding a bag of duplicative expenses, with no revenues to make it all worthwhile. In fact, PeerJ explicitly states that the revenues of peer-reviewed publishing are now their focus.

As PeerJ apparently has learned, the more reliable money in peer-reviewed publications is worth pursuing, and preprint servers can get too large and expensive, while preprints in general may be more trouble than they’re worth. Because, what are they worth?

Currently, without any revenue source, preprint platforms are technology plays, which introduces the inevitable issue of scale. To be efficient, preprint platform technology will tend toward monopoly. What happened to PeerJ Preprints — losing to better-scaled competitors — points to the future of preprints. BioRxiv is already feeding and being fed by medRxiv. Will an “Rxiv” platform emerge, slurping up the disparate and inefficient pack of initiatives? OSF is attempting just such a thing. BioRxiv and medRxiv hint of a similar strategy of scale. If one proves victorious, would that be the ultimate Green OA solution, creating truly functional Green OA? Would this be part of how “free” seems poised to backfire in the coming months?

We have a long way to go, and PeerJ’s problems may be isolated. But there remains an existential question in the face of the competition around preprint platforms — if a preprint platform “wins,” what will they have won?