Based in Switzerland, the open access publisher Frontiers was founded in 2007 by Kamila and Henry Markram, who are both neuroscientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Henry Markram is also director of the Human Brain Project.
A researcher-led initiative envisaged as being “by scientists, for scientists” the mission of Frontiers was to create a “community-oriented open access scholarly publisher and social networking platform for researchers.”
To this end, Frontiers has been innovative in a number of ways, most notably with its “collaborative peer review process”. This abjures the traditional hierarchical approach to editorial decisions in favour of reaching “consensual” outcomes. In addition, papers are judged in an “impact-neutral” way: while expected to meet an objective threshold before being publicly validated as a correct scientific contribution, their significance and impact are not assessed.
Frontiers has also experimented with a variety of novel publication formats, created Loop – a “research network” intended to foster and support open science – and pioneered altmetrics before the term had been coined.
Two other important components of the Frontiers’ concept were that it would operate on a non-profit basis (via the Frontiers Research Foundation), and that while it would initially levy article-processing charges (APCs) for publishing papers, this would subsequently be replaced by a sponsored funding model.
This latter goal has yet to be realised. “We dreamed of a zero-cost model, which was probably too idealistic and it was obviously not possible to start that way”, says Kamila Markram below.
Frontiers also quickly concluded that its non-profit status would not allow it to achieve its goals. “We realised early on that we would need more funds to make the vision sustainable and it would not be possible to secure these funds through purely philanthropic means,” explains Markram.
Consequently, in 2008 Frontiers reinvented itself as a for-profit publisher called Frontiers Media SA. It also began looking for additional sources of revenue, including patent royalties – seeking, for instance, to patent its peer review process by means of a controversial business method patent.
The patent strategy was also short-lived. “We abandoned the patent application by not taking any action by the specific deadline given by the patent office and deliberately let it die,” says Markram, adding, “we soon realised that it is far better just to keep innovating than waste one’s time on a patent.” (Henry Markram nevertheless remains an active patent applicant).
By the time the peer review patent had died it was in any case apparent that Frontiers’ pay-to-publish model was working well. In fact, business was booming, and to date Frontiers has published around 41,000 papers by 120,000 authors. It has also recruited 59,000 editors, and currently publishes 54 journals. By 2011 the company had turned “cash positive” (five years after it was founded).