Intellectual Fascism

I have been Co-Editor-in-Chief of Cureus for about three years and in this time I’ve learned a lot about how peer-reviewed journals function. It’s often said that in water polo the real game happens beneath the surface of the water. Similarly with journals, sometimes the serious action goes on behind the scenes. From its inception, Cureus was designed to minimize the role of politics in scientific publishing by way of its post-publication SIQ scoring process. Despite these ambitions, politics have occasionally crept into our efforts to publish great medical science. So it was with one recent article, and boy did the Cureus editorial staff learn a lot through this experience!

The article in question was written by several very accomplished clinical neuroscientists and involved a complex intersection of multiple scientific fields. Despite being evaluated by three reviewers, a clear error was noted in the published article by a reader; the error was of a political nature and not scientific in the least, but still an unambiguous error. An erratum was being prepared when a big hullabaloo broke loose in social media. Two individuals, whose specialty overlapped the erroneous article, attacked the article for its political misstatement, and by extension, Cureus’ journalistic integrity for missing this error during our pre-publication review process.

I immediately invited these critics to set the record straight via our liberal comment and scoring processes, but in a series of personal (and necessarily confidential) emails, the critics refused, insisting on remaining anonymous. Over the next several days they recruited a chorus of similarly-minded colleagues who insisted that the article in question represented serious scientific misconduct and demanded it be retracted… period! In light of these demands, Cureus, by virtue of its status as a peer-reviewed journal, was obligated to investigate under ICJME (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) guidelines.

I personally oversaw the investigation, which started by recruiting seven truly world-class domain experts, who after reading both the original and the proposed corrected manuscripts, were to advise me; I deliberately included a couple of researchers suggested by the critics of the article. In parallel, I stumbled upon the existence of a listserv community of likeminded researchers including the two critics, whose major modus operandi is to fiercely act en-mass, hyena-like, oftentimes via social media, when certain partisan political issues arise, such as the article Cureus had unwittingly published.

If ever I witnessed intellectual fascism, this was it; the only thing missing was a goose-stepping mustached man. However, this was also to be a moment of truth for our young journal. Pending the advice of the seven domain experts, would Cureus stand up for open scientific discourse? Or would we join the ranks of cowering researchers?

After almost one month of analysis by the aforementioned unimpeachable panel of experts, some of whom are at the very pinnacle of their respective fields, it was determined that the Cureus article had erred badly (yet seemingly inadvertently) in misstating a political reality. However, the science itself was credible. As a result, an erratum addressing the erroneous facts was published and the original article retracted.

Ultimately this experience reminds me, and by virtue of this blog should remind all readers, that standing up for open and honest scientific discussion, devoid as much as possible from political considerations, is a constant struggle even in our supposedly democratic world. In fact I invite the very critics of the article in question to now publish their own scientific concepts with Cureus, which perhaps might even refute the published paper. The function of journals is not to anoint “scientific truths,” but to provide a forum for scientific truths to be discovered, and refuted.

We at Cureus are especially fortunate to have such a liberal post-publication comment and scoring system. This process, which is available to everyone, is intended to provide a voice for even the most contrarian scientific ideas. The power of the Cureus community-at-large remains a great potential strength. Please don’t be afraid. Step up and use it!

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