Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by John Sack, Founding Director at HighWire and originator of the MECA collaboration.
A new academic publishing initiative known as Manuscript Exchange Common Approach (MECA) was accepted by members of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) in May as a framework for best-practices development in manuscript transfer across systems. The idea behind the project is that the industry’s leading technology providers will work together on a more standardized approach to the transfer of manuscripts between and among systems, such as those in use by publishers and preprint servers.
Currently, the way authors have to retype and reformat to submit and re-submit manuscripts to different publishers is counterproductive. It’s not just the authors that are losing out, reviewers are affected too — it’s estimated that around 15 million hours of researcher time is consumed each year, simply repeating reviews. These are the two issues that MECA seeks to address. What’s referred to as ‘publishing’s nasty secret’ could be partly solved if journals and publishers were able to transfer manuscripts between publications that are using different submission-tracking systems, without having to write new programs for each new pair-wise system exchange.
A lot of recent industry conversations have revolved around bottlenecks faced by researchers seeking to access existing knowledge — what I have called “Friction in the workflow” in a talk at APE and in a recent article — but there is still work to do on streamlining how articles are published in the first place. Too much time is wasted on the manuscript transfer and submission processes. For that reason, my company — HighWire — is thrilled to be working alongside Aries, eJournalPress, Clarivate, PLOS and now NISO on a solution that we hope will benefit everyone in the industry. As technology organizations, we are working to provide capabilities and tools that can reduce technology as a barrier.
MECA is now at the point where we have a working system functioning to transfer submissions and editorial material among about 15 journals, from three publishers, using two different manuscript management systems. Each of the collaborators has its own MECA-support timetable. Joel Plotkin, CEO of eJournalPress noted that eJournalPress was part of the first pilot to transfer manuscripts between two different vendors — HighWire and eJP — and three publishers — Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Rockefeller University Press, and EMBO — as a part of the submission and peer review process. Joel said that for eJournalPress, “Going forward, MECA will be used for all future integrations / manuscript transfers, where possible”. Chris Heid, Product Lead for ScholarOne at Clarivate Analytics said, “we are proud of our early partnership in the project and we look forward to contributing as part of the new NISO working group. MECA’s goal of facilitating the exchange of manuscripts and peer review metadata across publishers and platforms aligns with our publisher-neutral values and we look forward to incorporating these emerging standards into the ScholarOne Manuscripts platform.”
As a group, we felt it was essential to get into operation — to create a proof of service. It was one of the group’s principles that we would do what we can, now, in practical terms, rather than discuss options that might not be feasible for years. The support of NISO, which will provide a neutral forum for MECA to be discussed and refined, will be crucial to enable this collaboration to expand to a larger group of stakeholders. It’s important that we hear the voices and concerns of all interested parties in order to continually refine MECA’s standards to ensure industry relevance.
Obviously industry-wide collaborations such as MECA come with a whole set of challenges that need to be overcome. With the many different stakeholders and interested parties involved, achieving agreement on a set of standards is complex, but we feel that we have made important first steps. There is already one fully-operational implementation of MECA in production, and this will serve as a base for documentation and elaboration through the NISO review and approval process.
In order to be of value to all parties in the ecosystem, there are different scenarios that need to be considered. There are four use cases we set our sights on in scoping MECA:
- Transfer manuscripts and reviews among journals
- Transfer papers between preprint servers and journals
- Import papers from authoring systems/tools to submission systems
- Export papers from submission/publishing systems to other services (e.g., repositories, compositors, etc.)
In our work, we focused on seven areas where standardization was necessary to make MECA work:
- Vocabulary: providing a standard nomenclature
- Packaging: a simple, flexible, standard way to assemble files
- Tagging: being able to pass submission information from system to system
- Peer review: being able to pass review information from system to system
- Transfer: enabling the transfer of information from system to system
- Identity: a unique, consistent identity for document instances across systems
- Transmission: a simple, consistent way to send the information across systems
Craig Jurney, one of HighWire’s architects working on MECA, compared MECA to the process of introducing standardized containers to the shipping industry, which enabled all sorts of efficiencies.
There are some friction points around the editorial process and practices. Our hope is that MECA will eliminate technology as a limitation so publishers and researchers can choose to address editorial concerns. NISO’s best practices approach could choose to address these friction points: manuscript formatting, triage “unmasking”, and review portability.
What we’re not yet trying to do is to introduce standards that would simplify formatting across different journals. As Charlie Rapple points out in her Scholarly Kitchen article from August last year, this is a pain point for researchers. Specific formats might be used by journals to retain their own identities. Another reason is to improve efficiency for editors, reviewers and production staff who have to handle many different manuscripts and would find it a burden to go hunt for the same information in different places and different formats. Some journals have taken an approach to this problem called “format-neutral submissions” where they encourage initial submissions in any format, requiring adherence to journal-specific standards only when an article has been accepted for publication. Authors are pleased by this and an increasing number of journals are adopting this practice.
In terms of what MECA is trying to achieve, there are some voices that question whether authors would want to transparently submit a paper to a journal after that paper had previously been rejected by another journal. The author might — quite understandably — not want the second journal to know that it wasn’t the first choice, or who the prior rejection was from. This is an entirely valid concern. We’ve spoken to authors and publishers about this, and it is our aim to ensure that all submission decisions using MECA give editorial groups the ability to make decisions that aren’t limited. MECA can help overcome any technological hurdles that authors face when re-submitting work.
Another concern that has been raised concerns the process of transferring peer reviews of a manuscript between different journals. Authors might not want to do this for the reasons outlined above, and there are further questions about how issues of subjectivity and bias might be recognized and addressed. Different journals have different scopes and review criteria, after all, so transferring a review from one journal to another might not make sense.
If there can be a level of agreement among author, editor and reviewer about whether reviews can or should be transferred, this would come under the remit of a set of editorial best practices outside of MECA. MECA’s role is to ensure that if this is a desirable outcome, it can be achieved without technological hindrance. We hope that best-practices for editorial coordination emerge rapidly, but it is more likely that for a while, a period of experimentation with various options will occur. Evidence from different approaches should be gathered and shared, informally now, and more formally at the next Peer Review Congress.
That brings me to the big picture: what we are trying to do with MECA is minimize the friction caused by the technologies used in the submission and review process.
When the technology is no longer the source of friction, we can move to focus on the process itself, with new degrees of freedom – about how we want the actual system to work. From there, journals can differentiate to take advantage of authors, editors, reviewers, time or talent.