Speaker Profile: Peter Binfield, PhD – Co-founder and Publisher of PeerJ

By Georgeann Sack

Peter Binfield will be a speaker on the Science Communication panel for Beyond Academia on Thursday, February 20.

Peter Binfield ran PLOS ONE during the journal’s rapid growth and is currently Co-founder and Publisher of PeerJ, an Open Access journal that offers scientists a one-time low membership fee to publish for life. Before becoming a giant in the academic publishing industry, Binfield received a PhD in Optical Physics at the University of Aberdeen. His journey from PhD to Publisher began with a decision. “You need a moment of self-realization,” Binfield says, speaking for all of us who are considering other careers. “I am not ideally suited to be in academia. I am going to bail out and do something I can excel at.”

Binfield

 Binfield grew up on the south coast of England in Newhaven. As a child he wanted to be an astronaut, but a compliment from a teacher clarified his path. “As a 12 year old, my physics teacher, Dr. Newton, took me under his wing and said I had an aptitude for physics,” Binfield explained. He went on to study physics and astrophysics at the University of Manchester, the institution associated with the iconic steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory. He decided to move to the experimental side of science and went to Aberdeen, on the coast of Scotland, to study Underwater Holography. Referring to copious time spent in dark rooms, he said, “For three years I didn’t see much sunlight. I saw plenty of laser light, but not sun.”

One year into his thesis work, Binfield knew he didn’t want to be a scientist. He is a believer in following through once committed, and he did, but he started to think about other careers early in his PhD. Describing his thought process, Binfield said, “I love science. I am a nerd and a science fiction reader. I wanted to be involved in the scientific community but without actually being a scientist.” He saw an advertisement in The New Scientist magazine for a Books Editor at the Institute of Physics Publishing, applied and was chosen out of 300 applicants. Even with a PhD, Binfield had to start at the bottom, and worked his way up from making copies and doing the filing to becoming a Books Commissioning Editor.Binfield moved to Holland when he was 29 to work at Kluwer Academic Publishers, a time he described as the “best eight years of my life,” emphasizing how important he thinks it is to experience a different culture. He continued to work his way up, from Publishing Editor, to Manager, to Director. In 2003 Kluwer was sold to Springer SBM Publishers and Binfield was made Business Development Manager, but found that role to be a poor fit, saying he “always wants to be involved in content.”

In part because of this, in 2005 he moved to sunny Ventura, California to take up the role of Publishing Director of the US journals program at SAGE Publications. It was at SAGE that Binfield started thinking about Open Access publishing, saying that although “Open Access was not felt in my day to day life at SAGE, I could see from the outside that it is the future. I wanted to be on the leading edge, pushing it forward.”

PeerJ

In 2008, therefore, he decided to make the move to Open Access and became Managing Editor, then Publisher, of PLOS ONE. Though he has been credited with the success of PLOS ONE, Binfield said, “I take credit for jumping onto a moving train and accelerating it. And not breaking it.” Since 2008 PLOS ONE has gone from publishing 100 articles per month to 600-700 articles per week. In 2012, Binfield left PLOS ONE to start PeerJ with co-founder Jason Hoyt. When asked if he has always been business minded, Binfield replied with a smile that “it remains to be seen whether I am. Until now, I have always been within an existing company, but now I am trying to do it myself. One reason we were able to get venture capital funding was because of my years of publishing experience.”

When asked about making the transition out of academia, Binfield said, “Just do what you enjoy and are good at.” In addition to that common sense career advice, he emphasized that you have to make an effort. You cannot simply hope an alternative job will fall into your lap based on academic experience. He advised that you get out into the world and develop an online presence through social media and blogging. These are tools to publicly display that you have been investing time and thought into your subject of interest, proving that you are knowledgeable and making the effort to bridge the gap. Binfield said employers in the media world, himself included, are likely to be much more interested in that than in the specifics of your PhD or publication record.

Binfield was motivated to co-found PeerJ in part due to a desire to innovate. He described his recent experience listening to Tim O’Reilly, the man who coined the term Web 2.0 (and who is on the governing Board of PeerJ), talk about the Google self-driving car. O’Reilly showed everyone the self-driving car and talked about the development from an atlas in a physical book, to internet maps, then to mobile devices, and finally the transformation into a self driving car. “This is where we are with journals,” Binfield said. “We have gone from a physical book to the web, but haven’t done anything incredible with it yet like turning it into a self-driving car.” If you are interested in Publishing, he believes the Bay Area is a great place to be. “In addition to PLOS and PeerJ, there are a lot of alternative companies in the academic space here,” Binfield said. “Service companies. Tech companies hoping to use big data. There are a lot of open science events, including swissnex and PLOS hack days.”