Science-publishing ventures continually battle for market space, yet most operate on one of only two basic business models. Either subscribers pay for access, or authors pay for each publication — often thousands of dollars — with access being free. But in what publishing experts say is a radical experiment, an open-access venture called PeerJ, which formally announced its launch on 12 June, is carving out a fresh niche. It is asking its authors for only a one-off fee to secure a lifetime membership that will allow them to publish free, peer-reviewed research papers.

Relying on a custom-built, open-source platform to streamline its publication process, PeerJ aims to drive down the costs of research publishing, say its founders: Peter Binfield, who until recently was publisher of the world’s largest journal, PLoS ONE, and Jason Hoyt, who previously worked at the research-paper-sharing site Mendeley. Their involvement is a major reason for the buzz around PeerJ. “I thought — wow — if the people I’m hearing about are working there — that’s the sign of something happening. It makes it less crazy,” says John Wilbanks, an advocate of open access and a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri.

PeerJ is just one of a flurry of experiments, encouraged in part by the gathering momentum of open access, that might shape the future of research publishing. “We are seeing a Cambrian explosion of experiments with new publishing models. It’s going to be an interesting period for the next few years,” says Binfield.

Binfield hopes PeerJ’s growth will resemble that of PLoS ONE, which went from publishing some 1,000 articles in its first full year (2007) to its current 2,000 articles a month. “PLoS ONE is publishing so many articles that it is stretching the boundaries of what is a journal — instead, it’s becoming a large, peer-reviewed repository of research articles. We’re setting ourselves up for exploring that future,” says Binfield. But he adds that PeerJ will not need PLoS ONE’s volume of papers to be viable.

Whereas PLoS ONE charges $1,350 per paper, PeerJ users pay $299 for unlimited open-access publications and submissions, or a smaller fee ($199 or $99) for a limited number per year. (All authors on multi-author papers must be members, although papers with 13 or more authors need only 12 paying members.) The journal, which received undisclosed start-up support from the venture-capital fund O’Reilly Alpha­TechVentures in San Francisco, California, will be accepting articles from August.

I thought — wow — if the people I’m hearing about are working there — that’s the sign of something happening.

Despite the low publication cost, PeerJ’s founders promise that, as with PLoS ONE, articles will be peer reviewed for scientific validity — but not for importance or impact. Other open-access journals have also adopted this policy, including Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports. It marks a distinction from selective open-access journals such as the forthcoming eLife, which plans to publish only high-impact work. To avoid running out of peer reviewers, every PeerJ member is required each year to review at least one paper or participate in post-publication peer review.

Untangling user fees from the publication of individual articles is a significant innovation — but other radical ideas are in the pipeline. In high-energy physics, for example, a consortium called SCOAP3, which includes funding agencies and libraries, is planning to pay publishers for all the costs of publication, so that articles can be free to access and authors will not be charged directly. On 1 June, the SCOAP3 initiative said that it had sent out tenders to publishers to bid for these contracts, with services expected to start in January 2014.

Other ideas under discussion include journals that charge for submissions rather than for publications; direct government funding for all publications; and research funders setting up their own publication infrastructure (much as some do with biology databases), says Cameron Neylon, recently appointed director of advocacy at the Public Library of Science in San Francisco, which publishes PLoS ONE.

No one knows what will work. But many say that the experiments now under way will help to reveal the true costs of sustainably publishing articles and research data. “PeerJ is part of the assertion that this can be done cheaper — and for that alone it will be interesting to watch,” says Neylon.