Peer review has numerous problems: Researchers complain it takes too long, but also sometimes that it is not thorough enough, letting obviously flawed papers enter the literature. Authors are often in the best position to know who the best experts are in their field, but how can we be sure they’ll choose someone who won’t just rubber stamp their paper? A new journal – mSphere, an open-access microbial sciences journal only one year old – has proposed a new solution. Early next year, they’re launching a project they call mSphereDirect in order to improve the publication process for authors. We spoke with Mike Imperiale, editor-in-chief at mSphere, about how this system will work.
Retraction Watch: So let’s start with how the program will work, exactly. Can you explain?
Mike Imperiale: How it works is that authors will write a paper, solicit at least two reviews from individuals whom they think are qualified to review it, and submit their paper along with the reviews. Our requirements are the authors obtain reviews from reviewers with no conflicts, who agree to be named when the paper is published. We are asking authors to describe, in a cover letter, the reasons they chose the reviewers, and how the review process was undertaken. If the reviewers have asked for revisions, authors have to respond to the reviews before submission, and include a letter from reviewers saying they are satisfied with the final version. Once everything is submitted, the editor has five days to decide if the journal will accept the paper, as-is, or reject it. (There will be no further chances to review it after submission.)
RW: What problems with the peer-review system do you hope these changes will address?
MI: The main problem we’re addressing is the publishing bottleneck that comes after a paper is submitted. We make a decision within five days, and the paper is posted within four weeks, which is our standard time for posting accepted manuscripts.
But there are other advantages. As we note in our editorial, it “takes the mystery out of the peer review process” – authors choose the people they believe most appropriate to review their papers, which lowers the risk an editor will pick a less optimal referee. And by posting their names with the paper, reviewers will be encouraged to write a quality review.
RW: Under the system, authors will select and collate their own reviews. With all the recent issues with fake reviews (mostly provided by author-suggested reviewers), some journals are now avoiding author-suggested reviewers entirely. How can you ensure the reviews will be appropriately critical?
MI: This is clearly a concern and something that we’ve discussed extensively. There are a few things we’re putting into place. (1) Reviewers have to have working, authentic email addresses and must be associated with a known institution. We will not accept gmail and other such email addresses. (2) We will vet the reviewers’ recent publication history to ensure they themselves are publishing in quality journals. (3) We have strict rules about conflicts of interest. (4) Reviewers’ names will be published with the accepted manuscript. (5) The ASM has seen no difference in quality of manuscripts that are submitted to mBio via the AAM track and the regular peer-review track (see editorial by Shenk and Casadevall, 10.1128/mBio.01222-15). We expect the same outcome. At the end of the day, as we note in the editorial, if an editor has any doubts, we will reject.
RW: Everyone agrees peer review takes too long, but will speeding up the editor review part of the process to five days create other problems – perhaps by letting obviously flawed papers pass muster?
MI: I think this is related to the previous concern. We think that by careful vetting of the reviewers, we will be able to avoid flawed manuscripts. If something does sneak through and we (or others such as Retraction Watch!) catch it later, we reserve the right to no longer accept manuscripts from the authors and/or reviewers of the paper in question. As we note in the editorial, we hope that authors will view this process as a means to improve the quality of their science and their manuscript.
RW: Are researchers who want to submit to mSphere obligated to use the new system?
MI: No, they can still submit through the traditional blinded peer-review system if they wish.
Although we are trying out a new system, we have already made progress in achieving a goal we set when we first launched – namely, to be an author-friendly journal by making rapid decisions and not engaging in multiple rounds of review and revision. We are getting quality research out sooner – in our first year, we published 112 manuscripts, and informed authors of our decisions on average within three weeks of submission. This hasn’t sacrificed quality, in our opinion — and our site has logged an average of 4,000 downloads per month, and research from our journals has been picked up by the media more than 400 times. Our goal is to try to build on these improvements, already in progress.
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