ASM Launches mSphereDirect to Take Scientific Publishing to the Next Level in the Digital Age

Dec. 12, 2016

Microbiologists will soon be able to take advantage of a new publishing track that ASM is launching. Coming in the new year to all microbiology labs of the world and to ASM’s 50,000 members, it is my pleasure to announce mSphereDirect!

Since the advent of the Internet, few forms of communication have been as stuck in the mud as scholarly communication, and scientific publishing has been among the least innovative among this timid lot. For most journals, the boldest move so far to join the digital revolution has been migrating from fiber paper to digital paper. We no longer walk to the library to read journals on paper, but we still walk to the computer to download PDFs that look like paper.

Surely there is so much more that we could do to make scientific publishing a more attractive, pleasurable, and productive experience. At a recent ASM meeting, an editor suggested that we measure journals by a “torture index.” Sad, but true. Digital age or not, editors and publishers still make scientist authors jump through hoop after hoop to an uncertain end. Indeed, from my own experience both as an author and publisher, I can say that publishing a paper is the ultimate anticlimactic experience. Our academic lives depend on publishing, yet when a paper that is the result of years of preparation and months of application crawls out the end of the journal pipeline, most authors can do little more than exhale with relief. This is pathetic. Publication should be a cause for celebration, not exhaustion. And imagine if the paper appeared while we were still excited about the outcome, and not months later when our work and the field have moved on.

Things are about to change for microbiologists.

Starting in January, microbiologists will be able to take advantage of a new publishing track that ASM is launching. Coming in 2017 to all microbiology labs of the world and to ASM’s 50,000 members, it is my pleasure to announce mSphereDirect! You can find out more about mSphereDirect here and in an article that I coauthored with mSphere Editor-in-Chief Mike Imperiale and ASM Journals Board Chair Tom Shenk.

In a nutshell, mSphereDirect is an innovative way to publish your research in a timely manner while removing the big mystery of the peer-review cloakroom. ASM is about to take peer review out of the dark, beginning with the selection of reviewers. First of all, authors know better than anyone else the reviewers who can best judge their research. So, our open-access journal mSphere, which covers all microbial sciences, will give authors the option of selecting at least two reviewers to evaluate their paper and to work with them on the reviews, responding to their comments and suggestions before submitting through the new mSphereDirect track.

Of course, there will be very clear conflict-of-interest rules, which you can review here. You cannot pick your boss, your former mentor, or your lab colleagues. Once you have your reviews and you feel your paper is ready to submit through mSphereDirect, mSphere editors will make a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision in five days. Here is the best part: there will be no further requests for changes or new experiments if your paper is accepted. The role of the journal will be to assess whether the peer reviews were done well and the results are credible. Four weeks later, the final, copyedited, beautiful version of your paper will appear in mSphere. Here is another innovation: as with any other paper, yours is a work of collaboration, from your experimental design to the trainees who labor at the bench. So in mSphere the names of your reviewers will be associated with the paper, since their contribution has also been important, and we want the whole process to be as transparent as possible.

ASM is also a strong supporter of preprints. Authors can choose to deposit their manuscript in bioRxiv and submit directly from bioRxiv to mSphere. If accepted, bioRxiv will flag the preprint as accepted for publication by mSphere within five days.

When I joined ASM last January, I put innovation in publishing and scientific communication high on my agenda. I present mSphereDirect as the first major result of a year’s brainstorming, experimenting, and hard work. I believe that mSphereDirect will put ASM at the forefront of innovation in peer-reviewing and publishing. For this project, big credit goes to ASM Journals Director Barbara Goldman, ASM Journals Board Chair Tom Shenk, and mSphere Editor-in-Chief Mike Imperiale. Without their intellectual input, this experiment would not have gone anywhere. I need to thank them and all the ASM journals staff, starting with Melissa Junior.

Will mSphereDirect make a difference to science? I hope so. I believe that it addresses three major pressure points in scholarly publishing.

First, it should substantially speed up peer-reviewed publication. Through mSphereDirect, authors will have their work approved or rejected within five days and published within a month. If authors choose to post on the bioRxiv preprint server, the accepted preprint will be flagged as accepted by mSphere within five days.

Second, mSphereDirect puts you, the author, in control of your research. You will be in the driver’s seat, able to choose reviewers you know to be authoritative and competent to review and judge your work. The role of the editors will be to ensure that the review and revision process is correct, credible, and authoritative. That’s all.

Third, while the assessment of relevance is measured by reviewers in the short run, the research community’s reaction is the more important metric in the long run. We are building online communities that will help have your work featured so that your paper will appear in selected and ad hoc communities where “digital microbiologists” will dwell and contribute. This will be a boon both to authors and to the microbial sciences community. It will throw open to public view the real work of science, which is to distinguish the relevant, the reliable, and the innovative. This will not be based on simplistic, quantitative metrics, but on the judgment of hundreds of other scientists. There is no better metric. We all wade in the ocean of literature and data. We are all searching for papers that strike us as insightful, useful, and credible. I am convinced that mSphereDirect is an innovation that will mobilize information and data, advancing microbial sciences for authors and readers. This is the core mission of ASM, and mSphereDirect will be front and center in promoting real progress.

It is an honor to lead this society into what I call the Second Digital Age. ASM has always prided itself on its innovative spirit that has kept us at the leading edge in scholarly publishing with our range of journals. As we launch mSphereDirect, I hope that you will provide this experiment with your comments and thoughts. Peer reviewing is about evaluating and suggesting improvements. Perhaps the best way to both support and test mSphereDirect is to submit your best work. Then, let us know about your experience and send your suggestions to improve it.

This is your research, your career, and your science. mSphereDirect steps into the digital age with a daring premise: you should be in control of your best work. This is the way it should be. The mantra at ASM is always, “This is all about you.” We are launching mSphereDirect with a slogan painted on its side: your research, your direction, you’re in control. Welcome to the world of mSphereDirect! 


Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.