Rejected manuscripts are a fact of life in science, but a new initiative might take some of the sting out of the process.
By Chris Woolston
The National Information Standards Organization (NISO), a Baltimore, Maryland-based non-profit that promotes standardization in publishing, has embraced a plan to make it easier for journals to share rejected manuscripts and manuscript reviews without forcing authors to go through another arduous submission process.
“Every author who has submitted a paper knows that it can be a pain,” says Todd Carpenter, executive director of NISO. Currently, different journals can have very different requirements, which means that authors have to to essentially start over when resubmitting a paper to another journal. The ultimate goal of the new project, known as the Manuscript Exchange Common Approach (MECA), is to create a system in which authors could simply ask to have their rejected manuscripts sent to another journal of their choice.
MECA was sparked by John Sack, the founding director of HighWire, a Los Gatos, California-based publishing-technology company. In 2016, Sack enlisted the assistance of other companies that produce platforms for submitting manuscripts, including Aries Systems Corporation, eJournal Press, Claritive Analytics and PLOS. “I asked if the manuscript systems folks could work together to improve the lives of authors, editors and reviewers,” he says. “We use 90% of the same data in our internal files, but we use different terms for the same things, and the user interfaces are all different.”
His proposal was met with enthusiasm, and the companies spent much of 2017 developing the technical agreements, which resulted in a proof of concept system that was rolled out in January of this year. Three publishing organizations—Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Rockefeller University Press in New York, and the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany—now use MECA to transfer articles from their various journals to The Life Science Alliance, a new journal published collaboratively by the three organizations.
NISO is now recruiting representatives of the publishing community to serve in a working group that will evaluate the system, collect feedback, suggest tweaks and put together a formal recommendation. The process, he says, could take 12-18 months.
In addition to helping authors avoid the cumbersome process of resubmitting papers, Sack believes that MECA could also streamline the reviewing process. Instead of asking for brand-new reviews of a resubmitted manuscript, a journal could theoretically have easy access to previous reviews—assuming the author wants those reviews to remain in the submission package. “One of the major challenges will be to keep the author in control,” Sack says. “It has to be understood that it’s their manuscript. It doesn’t belong to the publisher just because it showed up at their doorstep.”
Previous attempts to make peer reviews more portable haven’t panned out. Likewise, a plan by the journal Genetics to accept submissions in any format proved challenging for reviewers and editors who had to cope with different-looking manuscripts.
MECA could potentially streamline the entire publishing process—but only if publishers and other stakeholders decide to get on the same page. “Having a working group comprised of a broad selection of publishers and systems providers will help drive that adoption,” says Carpenter. “People will say, ‘My product manager spent 18 months on this — we really should implement it.’”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.