You Call it High Academic Standards, I Call it Racism

I’m not a big fan of identity politics, where, in my opinion, allegations of racism are too often used as a political cudgel to bludgeon an opponent. But sometimes it really is important to call out blatant racism, especially when there is a greater societal good at stake, such as in this case protecting the integrity of peer-reviewed science. I had this very “opportunity” thrown at me just last week.

To introduce our journal, and its unique crowd sourced quality score (SIQ) to new physician authors, Cureus utilizes email to reach specific communities of authors who have published articles in other Open Access journals, inviting them to promote the scoring of their articles via social media and email. While away on business in Beijing last week, I was surprised to see one email and two voicemails on my phone from a (unknown to me) senior and accomplished author in other journals. His messages quickly revealed a surprising anger over having his article promoted by Cureus. I replied with a brief email explaining how the Creative Commons copyright system supported such fair usage by Cureus, but this merely precipitated yet another profanity-laced email volley. Not wanting to inflame matters further, and even more so wanting to understand the true source of his angst, I decided to call the author. To say the call was unpleasant would be an understatement. I am a neurosurgeon and have fairly tough skin but it is never fun to have all kinds of profanity thrown at you, especially when you’re sure it is unjustified.

I let him vent a little, as my primary goal was figuring out why he was so upset. No matter how patiently I asked this guy to explain the source of his anger, he repeatedly deflected. Finally, after having asked multiple times, this rather accomplished researcher frustratingly blurted out that he did not want his article promoted “alongside the University of Pakistan.” In that instant, everything became clear. There is no institution named The University of Pakistan. Cureus, however, recently published several articles from South Asian-based institutions, namely India and Pakistan. What I suddenly realized is that this person was merely pissed (and seemingly offended) that his “aristocratic” article (allow me some artistic license here) might appear alongside “unworthy” South Asian articles. To put it more bluntly, this otherwise truly accomplished author was just a racist old fool.

In an effort to defuse the situation I complied with his request to remove his article. Upon further reflection I now feel a deep sense of gratitude to this old racist for providing me the opportunity to expose how racism—implicit and overt (like this case), sadly lurks in the background of all peer-reviewed journals. Truthfully I am amazed that so many in this day and age are still clueless about what is happening in medical science. As I sit writing this in a world-renowned Chinese hospital, I am surrounded by the very type of medical excellence that my racist critic deems unworthy of his association. A close American friend of mine (and Cureus editorial board member) is one of the premier pediatric cardiac surgeons in the world, having invented several important heart operations. He has visited several South Asian hospitals that have refined his original operation, enabling them to operate on vastly more patients than him, and do so at less than 10% the price of a U.S. hospital. In light of this, it strikes me as complete foolishness to restrict such important medical knowledge. Scholarly racism is utterly self-defeating for authors, readers and the world at large.

Although I could find no formal studies documenting the extent of racism within scholarly journals, there is a modest body of research and other evidence pointing towards the existence of sexism, as well as prejudice against non-academic physicians, in the world of academic publishing [1-3]. Perhaps it is time to formally study the extent of racial bias in peer-reviewed journals. Any takers?

Recently, the CEO of an authoritative digital health website shared an interesting statistic with me: 40% of the articles published in the New England Journal of Medicine, arguably the most important medical journal, originate within a 200 mile radius of the journal’s headquarters. No one would disagree that Boston, New York and New Haven are centers of academic excellence, but the medical community that dominates the NEJM represents but a tiny fraction of world physicians, thus excluding an immense amount of clinical experience and knowledge. Although such willful blindness or elitism is not as blatant as the prejudice exhibited by my new acquaintance, does a hugely influential and even entitled societal institution like the NEJM not have a responsibility to open itself up to more of the world of medicine?

While I will continue to respect the world’s leading medical journals for the important work they publish, I remain proud that Cureus serves the vast numbers of physicians truly in the trenches of medicine who have been disenfranchised through what might be best termed “scholarly elitism.” Lastly, I want to thank this narrow-minded dolt for reminding me yet again why Cureus’ mission is so important to the world of medicine.

References:

1). Pololi LH, Civian JT, Brennan RT, Dottolo AL, Krupat E. “Experiencing the Culture of Academic Medicine: Gender Matters, A National Study.” J Gen Intern Med. 2012 Aug 31; [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 22936291. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

2) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/05/plos-one-ousts-reviewer-editor-after-sexist-peer-review-storm

3) From abstract to impact in cardiovascular research: Factors predicting publication and citation. Eur Heart J. 2012 Winnik S, Raptis DA, Walker JH, Hasun M, Speer T, Clavien PA, et al. From abstract to impact in cardiovascular research: Factors predicting publication and citation. Eur Heart J. 5 June 2012 [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 22669850. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

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