Thursday, 27 April 2017 08:56

mSphereDirect: A publishing experiment starts to yield results.

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Published in mBiosphere

ASM is a society of scientists, and like our members, we like to make decisions based on data. In January, ASM launched a publishing experiment, mSphereDirect, which allows scientists to control the review process and speed up the time-to-publication after submission. Both ASM staff and the mSphere Editors recognized this process would be a test: who would use this publishing route? How would reviewers view the process? How would the quality of reviews compare to conventional publishing routes?

To answer these questions, we gathered preliminary data by speaking with some of the scientists who were the first mSphereDirect users. Previously, we highlighted a conversation with first mSphereDirect user Pat Schloss. Now Jim Musser, Aaron Hernday, and Dean Gabriel tell us about their experience in soliciting and responding to reviews prior to submitting their manuscripts.

Who uses mSphereDirect?

We expected users of mSphereDirect might be early adopters of other publishing experiments: primarily publishing in open-access journals, posting preprints on bioRxiv or other servers. This wasn’t the case across the board, however. All three labs have published in open-access journals: “There’s a lot to be said when you’re working on publicly financed research that the findings be publicly available,” said Hernday “I definitely support open-access journals.” However, none of the authors solely sought out this publication type. And of the three scientists interviewed, only Musser had previously published preprints.

There was no pattern among the three papers featured here to suggest that either trainees or lab heads are more likely to suggest using mSphereDirect. In Gabriel’s case, the first-author postdoc suggested mSphere because the scope of the journal fit the research, and further suggested that using mSphereDirect might be a faster way to make the research available. Gabriel agreed. For their manuscripts, Musser and Hernday were the ones proposing the mSphereDirect route to their trainees. When asked how they had heard of mSphereDirect, Hernday said a trusted colleague had told him, while Musser laughed and said, “I get these incessant emails from ASM!” (Glad to know our informational campaign worked!)

If you haven’t heard about mSphereDirect from your ASM emails, newsletters, or social media feeds, take a minute to watch our video that explains the process:

Finding reviewers

It’s one thing for an author to decide to use mSphereDirect, but introducing the idea to potential reviewers might be challenging if the reviewers aren’t familiar with the new system. Fortunately, no one we spoke with had difficulty explaining mSphereDirect to their potential reviewers. “Your choice of reviewers as the author can influence the quality of the paper,” said Gabriel, indicating that the reviewers and their reviews should be carefully selected. For that reason, “I chose strong reviewers with a lot of credibility.” This ensured Gabriel could trust his manuscript would be the best possible research report by the time it was submitted.

Most reviewers were not familiar with mSphereDirect, but with a little explanation, were willing to take part in the process. This direct interaction between the author and reviewers seemed to decrease turnaround time to Hernday, allowing authors to actively control the movement of their manuscripts. “One of the nice advantages is that the process is a little more personal,” he said. “The reviewers know ‘this is a colleague, a person I’ll see at conferences; I want to make sure to get it done in a timely manner so I don’t keep him waiting.’ I think that element helps speed the process along.” To that end, the ability to send reminder emails to reviewers helped Hernday follow the progress of his manuscript and ensure each review was completed.

All three scientists were satisfied with the quality of the reviews received, which they felt were as thorough as those from the conventional, blinded peer-review process. “I thought both reviews were very fair, very rigorous,” said Musser. Additionally, “there was the usual range: one of the reviewers had some questions that would have resulted in yet another paper, and I chose to say ‘next paper,’ and he was fine with that.”

Hernday spoke to the underlying trust between scientific colleagues that was central to all the authors in selecting their reviewers: “I pride myself in knowing that these reviewers are going to take the review process seriously no matter what. I know they are very reliable, very thoughtful people whose opinions I trust.” This trust between members of the scientific community is a central underpinning of the mSphereDirect process, and one that helps generate the strongest scientific reports possible.

The submission process

“What helped me is that I know how the peer-review process should work—and what the ethics should be,” said Gabriel. Like ASM staff and the mSphere Editorial Board, Gabriel recognizes the opportunity for gaming the process by inappropriate reviewer selection. “It’s on the Editors” to ensure the reviewers are qualified, he added.

Moving through the process, Gabriel was further aided by his editorial experience, since there are no guidelines for the best way for authors to contact reviewers. “Do I interact with all the reviewers in the same email? Do I send an abstract first or the entire paper?” Gabriel decided to send the abstract, and once hearing OK from the reviewers, send the rest of the manuscript. Hernday also sent a preliminary description when making his reviewer requests. The author-reviewer interactive process was designed to be flexible, and all of the scientists here modeled their interactions after those from previous peer-review practices. Given his previous experience to guide him, Gabriel said, “the process itself went brilliantly.”

Overall experiences

In addition to giving authors control over the review process, mSphereDirect promises a decision on your manuscript within five working days. Do the Editors really review the submission packet, and get back to the author, in the promised timeframe? “Like everyone else in science, I am skeptical,” said Musser. “I wanted to see if the five days held up—and it did.”

“In many different ways, this is a very reasonable way to handle scientific publishing,” Musser continued. “I’d use it again, and I’ve already recommended it to a couple of my colleagues.”

Hernday echoed Musser’s enthusiasm. “It is very refreshing to be aware of what’s happening with the review process every step of the way,” said Hernday. “We were very happy with the process and will gladly use mSphereDirect again.”

Potential challenges

There were a few issues that the researchers felt might pose challenges to those using mSphereDirect. Musser and Gabriel thought that the process may favor experienced scientists. Both are senior scientists, having published research as ASM members for several decades. As such, they were in agreement that their broad collegial networks and familiarity with the peer-review system were advantages in using mSphereDirect. “A younger investigator could have a little more difficulty identifying reviewers who would give them a reasonably prompt turnaround time,” said Musser. Gabriel points out that younger investigators might not be as familiar with the minutiae of peer review, putting them at a disadvantage.

The nature of mSphere itself may play an additional role in a decision to use the mSphereDirect submission route. Younger researchers may prefer to publish in a journal with more name recognition, suggested Musser. And Gabriel noted that a tenure committee unfamiliar with mSphere may not look favorably on a young professor submitting to a journal that allows one to choose one’s own reviewers—another reason he feels the system favors established scientists.

All three of the scientists acknowledged the potential to game the system by soliciting favorable reviews. Fortunately, all investigators felt certain that ASM staff and Editors are up to the task of vetting the submitted reviews and reviewer choices, a process that is helped with stringent requirements to act as an mSphereDirect reviewer. ASM also has an Ethics Portal that can help authors in the review process, as well as in other aspects related to compiling a scientific manuscript.


In our mSphereDirect publishing experiment, ASM has generated a route for authors to control the review process by selecting and soliciting their own reviewers, and revising their manuscripts according to these reviews prior to manuscript submission. The data so far support cautious optimism about the utility of this publishing method, with the evidence suggesting all authors received strong scientific reviews, found the submission process easy to use, and received a response quickly after sending the required submission materials. Despite perceived potential for future abuses of the system, the scientists interviewed here trust that ASM will maintain its standard of publishing high-quality scientific research.


To read the mSphere papers submitted by Jim Musser, Aaron Hernday, and Dean Gabriel, please see the following:

Last modified on Thursday, 27 April 2017 10:02
Julie Wolf

Julie Wolf is the ASM Science Communications Specialist. She contributes to the ASM social media and blog network and hosts the Meet the Microbiologist podcast. She also runs workshops at ASM conferences to help scientists improve their own communication skills. Follow Julie on Twitter for more ASM and microbiology highlights at @JulieMarieWolf.

Julie earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, focusing on medical mycology and infectious disease. Outside of her work at ASM, she maintains a strong commitment to scientific education and teaches molecular biology at the community biolab, Genspace. She lives in beautiful New York City.