Journal’s new program: Choose your own reviewers – and get a decision in days

Michael Imperiale

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.

Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.

13 thoughts on “Journal’s new program: Choose your own reviewers – and get a decision in days”

  1. I must say that I can see how this system could be abused quite easily.

    Suppose I am Prof Big Cheese, a powerful figure in my field. I want to get my paper published in mBio. So I find a couple of people and send them the manuscript along with a note saying “I think you’d be great to review this for mBio, please send me your thoughts”.

    Now the recipient of this ‘invitation’ might feel that it is an offer they can’t refuse. If they decline to review it, they would be snubbing me, Prof Big Cheese, which they might not feel in a position to do. Especially if they owed me a favor for whatever reason.

    And clearly, once they have agreed to review it, the reviewer would be under great pressure to give my work a positive review, because otherwise they’d have to tell Prof Big Cheese to his face that his paper is bad – they would have no veil of anonymity to protect them, and not even an editor to break the news for them!

  2. This is not new .Many journals do implement it under different variants. Biology Direct is one of them. It is easy to fool the system from different angles ( creating fictive emails , pressuring junior researchers into positively reviewing , “old boy’s network , etc….)

  3. 1) This makes the journal appear to have a rapid turnaround time, but does the article really get accepted any earlier? Rather than wait for the referees’ responses after submission, the authors have to wait for the responses before submission. And this way they don’t get the editor’s help in chasing up referees who are taking too long.

    2) An author could send the manuscript to several referees, but only forward to the journal the two least critical ones. The silence of the others can be achieved by thanking them for their comments in the acknowledgements.

  4. Yes – this is ripe for extensive abuse.
    One possibly might be to as the author to secure two reviewers and then the journal supply a third (independent) reviewer to ensure the other two reviewers are doing a good job. Not sure how that would be much faster than the current system though…

  5. This is not a new model. It used to be the norm’ for Academy members at PNAS USA, but PNAS have been doing their best to reduce and minimize that track in recent years. One assumes that they have good reasons for trying to do away with it…

  6. We already have “Article Publication Communes” ( in which authors include each other to boost their publication counts. How long would it be before this proposed system leads to “Manuscript Reviewing Rings”, in which A, B, C, D, and E agree to review each others’ work in a circle that would be very hard to detect?

  7. Isn’t this going back to the system that was in place in Europe in the early 1900s ? To get a paper into a prestigious journal you had to get a respected scientist to read it and then send it to his pals at the journal with a letter of recommendation.

    As a referee I will fall at the first hurdle; because I work for a small NGO with no e-mail server of its own I have only a g-mail address.

  8. Allow me to introduce you to “Cellular and Molecular Biology”followed the same disruptive model in which the responsibility of choosing appropriately qualified and disinterested reviewers for a contribution, and of checking that any criticisms they made were adequately addressed in revisions, devolved upon the author:

    All papers will be peer-reviewed. The Author himself searches his own Peer Reviewers (PRs), but has to follow precise indications, staying in contact with them until the end. Each paper needs the acceptance by 2 PRs. One of these PRs should be obligatorily from USA.

    The journal’s website and all its archives seem to have vanished or relocated, which is a pity, as it boasted no fewer than 14 Nobel Laureates on its list of Honorary Editors, of whom 10 were actually alive. Their duties were presumably limited, what with contributors doing all the work as well as paying for publication.

  9. This suggestion made me realise that it is often not the actual comments of the referees that are so important in improving a manuscript; much more important is the threat of what they might say, so that the author tries to cover all the criticisms he can think of in advance of submission.

  10. Just what powerful scholars will risk their hard-earned reputation by giving a less-than-rigorous review to an undeserving paper? I think the present system is more susceptible to bad reviews because there’s little risk in shooting down a great idea against which you are biased if you are unknown to the scholarly community. Transparency breeds honesty. Care to guess the corollary for secrecy?

  11. What Doug Ferguson said. The key to credibility with this system is surely that the reviewers & reviews be public. Would work best with a journal that also had online reader comments – they’d keep the referees on their toes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.