The ESPERE project (Electronic Submission and Peer Review)  started in April 1996 and we have recently completed the research phase. The project is lead jointly by the University of Ulster and the Society for Endocrinology and has seven Learned Society partners.
The project focuses on the electronic peer review of papers submitted to UK learned society publishers, initially in the biomedical area. The aim is to achieve an introductory level of article submission and peer review by transfer of a file which includes all the figures and tables applicable to the paper.
Attitudes to electronic peer review
One of the key elements in the success of this project is the readiness, or otherwise, of authors, referees and learned society publishers to adopt an electronic system. The advantages and disadvantages of electronic submission are being assessed and the project is examining the attitudes of academics and publishers to these developments in order to determine whether the system would be acceptable for widespread use.
We have interviewed editorial staff from seven learned society publishers: the British Institute of Radiology, BMJ Publishing Group, CABI INTERNATIONAL, Society for Endocrinology, Society for General Microbiology, and The Royal Society. As a result we have learned a great deal about how they currently manage the peer review process and their view of future possible systems.
A questionnaire was sent to 200 biomedical authors, one focus group has been held and an authors' group has been established to provide trial material and feedback to the project. Authors are genuinely enthusiastic about the idea with 63% being interested in submitting electronically and 70% prepared to accept papers for review by this method.
There are two issues, technically speaking, which have to be resolved.: what file format is most suitable and how should the file be transmitted. The most common file format used by the biomedical authors surveyed is Microsoft Word although a wide variety of graphics packages are used. We think that it may be possible to accept Word, postscript or PDF files with graphics embedded and perhaps a limited range of graphics files.
For refereeing, we have decided on Adobe Acrobat as the most appropriate format for the moment. 20% of the authors in our survey had installed the Adobe Acrobat Reader and another 16% had heard about it. If files are to be sent to referees all over the world a portable format such as Adobe PDF is essential. Another advantage is that the file can be made reasonably secure. Some initial experiments using actual material has shown that it is possibly to transfer some of the more difficult graphics such as gel diffusion results successfully to PDF.
Transmission of the files
Experience with email attachments leads us to think that this method is probably unsuitable at the moment, until email software becomes more standardised and use-friendly. We are looking into the possibility of using Web pages as the main user-interface for authors and referees and providing a user-friendly upload facility for files. This development also makes it possible to experiment with group refereeing of papers.
We hope to launch a limited number of pilot systems in the summer of 1997. A trial system will first be developed on a server at Nottingham University and if successful this will be transferred to one or possibly more of the publishers sites.
 ESPERE Web Site,
Dee Wood is the ESPERE Project Manager