Manuscript Exchange Common Approach (MECA): How Peer Review Helped to Shape the Protocol

How, and Why, it all Started

In 2016, representatives from Aries Systems, Clarivate, eJournalPress, HighWire Press and PLOS came together having identified inefficiencies in the way in which manuscripts were transferred between the submission systems offered by each of the companies.

Each company had developed processes for their respective systems to ingest manuscripts and their accompanying metadata, the difficulties being that these processes had been developed independently of one another. Each submission system needed to implement a separate exchange mechanism with all systems involved, the work involved in maintaining such a process increasing exponentially whenever a simple change or new use case was identified.

These companies, who had traditionally been competing against one another, realised that to help meet the changing needs of researchers and for the greater good of the industry they would need to work together in order to identify a common approach to the transfer of manuscripts. They formed a working group christened “Common Approach to Manuscript Transfer”.

The transfer of manuscripts between journals and publishers was on the increase as more publishers were pursuing cascade policies whereby manuscripts rejected from one journal may be identified as being suitable for publication in another journal within their portfolio.

With the metadata associated with the manuscript already held within the submission system it made sense to transfer that, along with the manuscript, to the new journal. A relatively simple process if both journals are on the same submission system, a much more troublesome process if the publisher used different submission systems for different journals within their portfolio or across collaborating publishers.

From these initial discussions the working group was rebranded and Manuscript Exchange Common Approach (MECA) was born.

In addition to the technical issues that had been recognised there were also inefficiencies in editorial workflows which could be addressed. 85% of authors resubmit rejected papers to a different journal1. In peer review, papers are often rejected but reviews are not typically shared between journals2. Reviewers are irritated at the amount of time wasted in having to repeat reviews, 15 million hours of researcher time is wasted each year in reviewing and re-reviewing unpublished papers.

In 2015, 20% of biomedical researchers performed between 69% and 94% of reviews3. Peer review is evolving4 and will need scalable infrastructure in place in order to evolve in an efficient manner.

Initial Methodology and Recommendations

The initial MECA group sought to agree on a methodology to package up files and metadata in order to transfer that package from one submission system to any of the others. The goal was to have a common process and method to exchange manuscripts in any direction without having unique requirements from system to system.

An exercise to identify the most common elements of a review was undertaken. No simple task given that different publishers have wide ranging requirements. After much debate it was decided that the review element of the MECA package needed to tackle the following considerations:

  • Goal: Pass review information from system to system
    • Questions / Responses
    • Ratings
    • Comments
    • Annotations
    • Red lines / marked up files
  • Privacy
    • Reviewer names / contact information can be redacted
    • Based on sending site’s privacy policy
  • Multiple reviews & revisions in one file
  • Compliance with JATS Compatibility Model

As the Working Group progressed, they continued to keep the industry informed on developments with presentations at events such as JATS-Con, CASRAI, SSP, OASPA, Force11, STM, ISMTE, CSE and ALPSP.

In Spring 2018, the first MECA recommendations were published but the journey to this point had led the initial members to realise that this was only the first stage in what was becoming a much larger project.

Each member of the initial group saw that the solutions being discussed could be useful beyond just the transfer of manuscripts between submission systems. Preprint services and authoring tools were also asking about similar communications processes, and the group saw the MECA solution as a good general solution. It was also realized that if the solution were to be accepted by other organizations, they needed to involve more industry stakeholders and increase visibility of the initiative.

Working with NISO

MECA approached NISO, and in May 2018 MECA became a NISO Working Group5 with the goal of defining a recommended practice to define a common approach with wide adoption throughout the publishing ecosystem.

Along with the original members, the working group was expanded with representatives from publishers such as American Chemical Society, Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis as well as wider industry stakeholders.

Additional use cases were brought into scope6 as it was recognised that the scholarly publishing landscape was changing. New publication workflows were demanding transfers to/from submission systems and preprint servers. Interest in online, collaborative authoring tools was growing. Ingest programs such as that demonstrated by Aries Editorial Manager were seeing manuscripts being transferred from Author Service providers such as language editing companies. The need for manuscripts to be exported from submission and publishing systems to third parties such as repositories or composition services was also brought in scope.

The increased visibility afforded to MECA through being a NISO Working Group meant that interest in the recommendations grew as more industry stakeholders were exposed to the initiative. The new Working Group initially spent time going back over the initial recommendations and assessing the motivations and requirements behind them as well as assessing how they could work in conjunction with the new use cases.

Approved as NISO Recommended Practice in June 2020, ultimately the MECA Recommended Practice has seen the successful collaboration with stakeholders from various areas of the publishing ecosystem which provides a framework for manuscript exchange with low barriers to entry.

Aries’ Editorial Manager and ProduXion Manager, HighWire’s BenchPress, and eJournalPress’s EJP systems all have implementations of MECA. Cold Spring Harbor’s bioRxiv and medRxiv are also actively implementing MECA. AGU have implemented MECA as a means to transfer to and from the ESSOAr PrePrint Server. The Life Science Alliance made up of EMBO Press, Rockefeller University Press and CSHL are using MECA to transfer manuscripts between journals as are Journal of Cell Science, Journal of Cell Biology & Molecular Biology of the Cell within the Cell Biology Transfer Network.

Next Steps

As with the initial recommendations, the Working Group recognises that there is still work to do and as such will continue to work together to evolve the recommended practice.

One of the biggest challenges faced throughout the MECA lifetime has been agreeing on an approach and then agreeing on the limits of that approach. There is always a temptation to expand scope, and it was important to keep the team focused on getting a simplified solution defined.

Now that those NISO recommendations have been published, it is time to refocus efforts and consider new requirements as well as those requirements that were previously considered to be out-of-scope. Whilst we don’t yet know what all of those new requirements that will come into scope will be, we do know some of them:

  • Defining a solution with low barriers to entry meant that some tough decisions had to be made on how best to implement this. This meant that some of the latest and greatest technology solutions had to be deferred to a future version – we’ll be revisiting some of these areas, such as transmission and potentially the use of JSON as an alternative to XML.
  • The current recommended practice only deals with English language manuscripts, for a global industry such as ours, we should acknowledge those manuscripts authored in other languages.
  • New processes and new requirements are always evolving, for example there is a new initiative called DocMaps (https://docmaps.knowledgefutures.org/) seeking to create a framework for representing review and editorial processes as part of the scholarly record for research items like articles, data sets and preprints. The output of that initiative may need to be represented in MECA.
  • Another initiative and NISO Working Group, JATS4R, has recently produced protocols for publishing peer review using JATS. These protocols will be examined and possibly adopted in the next version of MECA to enhance or replace the current Review XML schema.

Further information on MECA, along with contact details, can be found on the dedicated website (https://www.manuscriptexchange.org/) and on the NISO website (www.niso.org/standards-committees/meca).

Footnotes

1 Inside Higher Ed. (n.d.). Retrieved August 5, 2019, from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/03/28/academics-shouldnt-focus-only-prestigious-journals-essay
2 Scholar. (n.d.). Retrieved August 6, 2019, from https://www.aje.com/arc/peer-review-process-15-million-hours-lost-time/
3 Kovanis, M., Porcher, R., Ravaud, P., & Trinquart, L. (2016, November 10). The Global Burden of Journal Peer Review in the Biomedical Literature: Strong Imbalance in the Collective Enterprise. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5104353/
4https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/emotional-professional-cost-drawn-out-peer-review-researchers-experiences
5 https://www.niso.org/press-releases/2018/05/niso-launches-new-project-facilitate-manuscript-exchange-across-systems
6 Sack, John (2018, July 25). Manuscript Exchange — What MECA Can Do for the Academic Publishing World — And What it Can’t. Retrieved from https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the members of the NISO Working Group:

Co-chairs
Tony Alves, Director of Product Management Aries Systems
Stephen Laverick, Director Green Fifteen Publishing Consultancy

Members
Helen Atkins, American Chemical Society
Siobhán Aldridge, Senior Manager – Online Submissions Taylor & Francis Group
Kevin-John Black, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Paul Dlug, American Physical Society (APS)
Rebecca Hansen, Springer Nature
Melissa Harrison, Head of Production Operations eLife Sciences Publications
Chris Heid, Clarivate Analytics
Craig Jurney, HighWire Press
Frank Manista, Jisc
Joel Plotkin, eJournalPress
Laura Randall, National Library of Medicine (NLM)
Ken Rawson, IEEE
Charley Trowbridge, American Chemical Society
Sally Ubnoske, Aries Systems

About the authors

Tony Alves, Aries Systems
Tony has worked in STM publishing since 1990 and has focused on electronic publishing for almost thirty years, designing online learning products and workflow management software. Tony joined Aries Systems in 2001 to manage the development and rollout of the Editorial Manager system and is responsible for designing new features and functions for the EM/PM system. Before that he served as Publisher at HealthStream, Inc., and at SilverPlatter Education. Tony is very involved in promoting industry standardization focused on system-to-system communications protocols and other industry shared services. Besides co-chairing the MECA working group, he also participates in the STM, Research Data Year initiative, STM Image Manipulation Detection project, OASPA’s OA Switchboard, and Doc Maps, an initiative to make peer review part of the scholarly record.

John Sack, HighWire Press
John is the Founding Director of HighWire, which facilitates the digital dissemination of more than 3000 journals, books, reference works, and proceedings. John is also the Co-Director of the International Congress on Peer Review and Scientific Publication. Previously director of Stanford’s IT services; and a graduate student in English literature at Stanford; and an undergraduate at University of Virginia studying English, philosophy, religion and art history.

Joel Plotkin, eJournalPress
In 1999, Joel Plotkin started eJournalPress, which focuses on providing web based manuscript submission, peer review, billing, and production workflow software for scientific journals. He has grown eJournalPress into a multi-product which serves scholarly publishers around the world. In addition to being an engineer and entrepreneur, Joel is also an inventor with two patents including a “Process for computer implemented manuscript review.” As CEO of eJournalPress, he has contributed to and promoted industry initiatives such as ORCID, FundRef, CrossCheck, Annotate, and open access. Prior to his work at eJournalPress, Joel held positions as a programmer, system engineer, and system architect for notable organizations such as the Department of Defense, National Library of Medicine, U.S. Department of Labor, and Bell Atlantic. Joel has an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland and a graduate degree in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University.

Stephen Laverick, Green Fifteen Publishing Consultancy
Stephen has over 20 years’ experience in scholarly publishing with time spent working in both the UK and China. He is an independent consultant specialising in XML-first publishing workflow integration working with, among others, Maverick Publishing Specialists and Typefi Systems.

Stephen was a key figure in the setup of the Alliance for Scientific Editing in China, an industry response to the growth in unethical practices in author services in China. He is a member of the Society of Scholarly Publishers, volunteering on the Membership Committee. Stephen is a member of the Steering Committee for the JATS4R initiative to introduce standardisation in the use of JATS XML and acts as co-chair on the NISO Recommended Practice for Manuscript Exchange Common Approach (MECA).