Thinking outside the sphere

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A quick tip of the hat from TIR to the American Society for Microbiology’s journal mSphere, for pioneering a new paradigm in the scientific publishing process.

It’s a fact that the time taken to get research results published has lengthened dramatically over the last couple of decades, and it’s reached a point where the prevailing emotion upon acceptance of a manuscript tends not to be jubilation, but relief.

The reasons for the long duration of peer review are both scientific and human. Techniques have increased in variety and sophistication, and the information content of individual papers has also risen dramatically. Gone are the days when a three-figure paper using a single assay would be enough to satisfy a front-line journal.

At the same time, the anonymity of peer review is frequently abused by competitors seeking to delay publication of their rivals, or potentially also as a means of venting frustration on a hapless author. The decision by the journal eLife to publish reviewer reports has been a very welcome development in this regard, but is by no means an end in itself.

It’s for this reason that mSphere‘s new direct submission process deserves applause. Under the new mSphereDirect system, authors will be able to solicit reviews themselves from (impartial) peers, carry out revisions, and then submit to mSphere. A senior editor at the journal will then decide whether to accept or reject the manuscript, with no further revisions permitted.

The potential drawbacks are obvious – it is effectively outsourcing the entire review process to authors, and relies heavily upon the professional integrity of those authors in their choice of reviewers. However, empowering authors to contract their own peer review should expedite what is currently a formidably convoluted process, and being able to openly choose reviewers is not so different from the current system of nominating (without knowledge of whether those nominations are used or not). The editors at the journal will still be the custodians of quality, so it is unlikely that a corrupt application of the freedom to choose reviewers directly will impact on the overall merit of the journal’s output.

Regardless of its success or failure (and TIR very much hopes it succeeds), mSphere deserves huge credit for taking a look at the current publishing paradigm, and trying to develop a solution that puts the scientist-author’s needs first. In the current publishing and career landscape, there needs to be more of this kind of creative thinking. Rather than pander to what is looking like an increasingly outdated status quo, the ASM has been thinking outside the box. Or rather, outside the sphere.

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