Tuesday, December 13, 2016

mSphere Direct and Peer Review

I guess I've gone through the inevitable "slowdown in blog posts" phase of the blog. To be honest, it's not that I haven't had things to say, it's just been quite hectic as many of you know. More on that later...It's taken some time, but I've found my footing again so it's time to blog some more.

What's drawn me out today is the unveiling of a new take on peer review and publication by one of the societies to which I belong, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) (see descriptions of mSphere direct here and here). ASM hosts many different journals under its umbrella and I try to publish in ASM journals when appropriate. From my perspective, it's a great society consistently headed by some forward thinking people. Despite some internal disagreements about direction across the membership, the divisions of which are readily apparent if you've ever attended the ASM Microbe conference, I'm going to still be involved and publish there because it's important to support your societies.

A year or so ago ASM started two new journals, mSphere and mSystems. My tl;dr take on mSphere is that it's a useful addition to the cannon which seeks to minimize waiting time to publish manuscripts while filling the niche of a slightly more microbe-centered PLoS ONE. A lot of good papers thus far there, with less emphasis on flashiness of the story and more emphasis on supporting good work. As far as I can tell, mSphere direct will be a new track for publication into mSphere with the goal of relaying "quality" and peer reviewed work as fast as possible.

The mechanism by which mSphere direct is going to minimize waiting times in peer review is that they will now allow you (the author) to seek out and suggest your own reviewers. You will solicit these reviews, and then work with the reviewers to come to agreement on a publication quality manuscript. In some respects this is kind of what we all hopefully do with co-authors anyway (in the perfect theoretical Platonic world where everyone has infinite time to review papers that your name is on with a fine-toothed comb) except that the reviewers will not be co-authors. Instead, the reviewers names will appear along with the paper as a method of accountability. When you submit to mSphere direct, you will submit these reviews and review history and editors at the journal will give you a thumbs up/thumbs down within a few days. No revisions after that, just yes or no. If yes, it's published. Now, this is the natural marriage of two different ideas that ASM/mSphere have implemented in the past: 1) allowing ASM fellows to solicit reviewers along a "fellows track" and 2) mSphere allowing you to include previous reviews from other journals along with your submission to speed the process. I'm guessing that both of these previous ideas have worked reasonably well, to the point of mSphere starting mSphere direct.

I'm guessing that a lot of your own opinions about mSphere direct are going to depend on what you view as main problems with current peer review. There are plenty of problems to choose from, but we all have our own focuses of priority on problems that "really matter" compared to those that are just "burdens" on the system. It's not my place to tell you what to think about this, we all have our own priorities, but I am going to tell you what I think....

mSphere direct's goal is to reduce waiting times to the publication of peer-reviewed manuscripts. Full stop. In my opinion, the advent of preprints have somewhat blunted this problem (obviously depending on how your own scientific discipline has embraced preprints and scientific priority). To me, you post a preprint and so long as the story is scientifically valid that establishes priority. Others might think priority is only established after peer review...that's their prerogative. I'm not a zero-sum worldview person and so I think both can exist at the same time and both work, but given multiple thought lines, this is inevitably going to lead to disagreements that screw over people. I don't know a way around this, suffice it to say that problems of scientific priority have existed even in the "old days"...note how many Nobel Prizes have been awarded to those working in animal systems for phenomena that have been previously described in plants. C'est la vie. I also think that a hybrid system utilizing thorough comments on preprints followed by submission to mSphere direct should also be a valid track and that's up to the editors to decide (I would definitely strongly support such efforts though).

What I and many others that are hesitant about mSphere direct worry about, is that we prioritize faithfulness of the review process over publication times (again, my worldview is heavily biased by being a preep-er and thinking that preprints establish priority). I can also speak to my fears growing up in a scientific world where a similar publication track at PNAS led to <multiple facepalm> levels of crappy papers. I worry that the review process of mSphere direct will enable more crony-ism in science where you pick your buddies as reviewers (or heaven forbid actually offer payments for good reviews) and then submit to mSphere direct. Right now it's on the editors to ensure that the review process is thorough (I'll put my faith in ya'll so long as quality papers come out of this track) as well as firm commitments to avoid reviewer COIs. I can speak as a researcher that avoidance of COIs, while a good first step, will not eliminate crony-ism int the review process. Our best reviewers are those that disagree with us but which we can convince that our story is legit. This type of review process will inevitably soften the review process (for better or worse) because the author will know who the reviewer is and because we all have our scientific friends and enemies. If everyone published with mSphere direct, there would be less worry about "reviewer 3" but...and although it sucks when you get harsh reviews...so long as the reviews are fair they make the manuscript better. Naming reviewers helps, but it doesn't eliminate the problem.

Overall, I'm cautiously hopeful about mSphere direct but I think they can make one change that will solidify my faith in the journal. Aside from publishing reviewer names, publish the reviews and responses of each paper along side the paper. Let us as critiques see which of certain valid points about the paper were brought up by reviewers and dealt with by authors. Give the reviewers that participate more of an incentive to do a great job reviewing (other than just having their names associated with paper review). I suggest this out of hope, and out of wanting to see my scientific society survive, thrive, and revolutionize.

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