Is it Time to Start Publicly Shaming Plagiarists?

Publishing is a privilege, not a right. The vast majority of Open Access journals, such as PloS, Frontiers, BioMed Central, etc., charge authors several thousand dollars for this privilege. Part of the publisher’s service to the author (and ultimately readers) involves a plagiarism check, the cost of which is readily borne by the substantial Open Access fees paid by authors. Alternatively, authors are afforded a similar service when they surrender their copyright to subscription journals.

In Cureus’ free publication model plagiarism, and the cost of checking for plagiarism, represents a bigger challenge. Each and every article we publish must be checked for plagiarism. When we discover that content has been taken from other sources without proper attribution, the article is blocked and the academic department leadership of the offending institution is notified. This process costs our journal meaningful time and money.

Because plagiarism undermines Cureus’ philosophy of providing free Open Access publishing, we want to do everything in our power to deter and prevent plagiarists from submitting to Cureus. This is no easy task, but we believe it’s worth it. How might we do this? One idea is the use of old-fashioned public shaming. Perhaps if the offending authors are suitably exposed, these “authors” and/or institutions will clean up their act. After all, we at Cureus know who the plagiarists are and where they’re located. The question I would now like to pose to the community of Cureus users is, how far do you think we should go? Should we list plagiarists by name on a digital “Wall of Shame”?

While most of the institutions where plagiarists were situated have taken their responsibilities seriously when confronted, one such institution, located in Srinagar, India, recently refused to acknowledge the seriousness of their offense; what type of ethics is such an institution teaching its students and residents?. Regardless, in a first step to put a spotlight on plagiarists, the following world map illustrates the location of authors who have submitted articles with plagiarized content to Cureus in the past 2 years. We want to protect the integrity of our responsible authors, and you can help. I urge you, our Cureus users to sound off on this topic of concern for all of us!

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In the Name of Truth and Reconciliation: A Plagiarist’s Mea Culpa

Dr. John Adler, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Cureus: Speaking as a physician-scholar and an editor-in-chief, damn do I hate plagiarists! The entire idea of plagiarism sucks the life out of something that I believe to be almost sacred. Idealism aside, fraudulent behavior among authors is all too common, and maybe even rampant, within the world of scientific journals. To combat such fraud, Cureus, like most credible journals, has made it a formal policy to aggressively police plagiarism when we encounter it, as stated explicitly in our guidelines for authors’ section:

“Cureus pledges to rigorously enforce all standards, and promptly follow up on any transgressions. In extreme cases, this may call for article retraction and the reporting of individuals to their employer, institution or some appropriate body for further investigation.”

To date, Cureus’ policy appears to have ended the careers (sadly) of some young ambitious physicians; it is the aspiring younger academic who in my experience appears most tempted to cheat, especially given Cureus’ liberal willingness to publish credible science. In response to the cheaters, Cureus’ editorial team has always sought to be ruthlessly punitive, believing it to be the best defense against future plagiarism. Once exposed to the leadership of their medical institution, a plagiarist’s career tends to end in the quiet of the night, which unfortunately does little to communicate the seriousness of such cheating to others.

Therefore, I recently made a decision (for better or worse and somewhat capriciously I might add) to not report a plagiarist to his senior leadership. In the name of “truth and reconciliation” I instead demanded that the attempted-plagiarist explain their underlying motivations so as to serve as a warning to future authors who might be similarly tempted. That is the impetus for the below anonymous blog post. It is my hope and prayer that future potential plagiarists might read this post and come to their senses before very possibly destroying their own medical careers.

My decision for leniency under the current situation was done with great hesitancy. I can rightfully be criticized as undermining our journal’s clear warning to authors. Therefore, I wish for the record to say that as long as I am Editor-in-Chief of Cureus I intend to never ever repeat such leniency towards a fraudulent submission. Any author who might be tempted otherwise, consider yourself to be hereby forewarned.

Anonymous Cureus user: Most residents desire to do research and get published in a journal, for both the academic benefits and to develop one’s resume when applying for future fellowship training. Being such a young ambitious physician, but also having no significant experience in publishing research, I recently made the biggest mistake of my professional life, and this error has haunted me every day since.

A couple of months ago I decided to publish a case report on an interesting patient I had just seen in the clinic. I decided to submit the report to Cureus. As I began to write I realized my research writing skills were seriously wanting. By chance I found a similar case and heavily “borrowed” portions of text; my only focus was on getting my first publication and I turned a blind eye to the consequences of such actions. In fact, I hardly changed any words or sentences and simply submitted this report to Cureus thinking that in this particular case the objective was the same.

Why did I do it? Regretfully I now have only stupid explanations to fall back upon. Nevertheless, it is worth saying that in the country where I was raised, the topic of plagiarism is never discussed or seriously acknowledged. Plagiarism just isn’t such a big deal.

Soon after submitting my manuscript I received an email from Cureus’ editor who told me that I plagiarized and he sent me a link to the original source. I was humiliated, and even more so now very scared. By all rights the editor could and maybe should have reported me to my program director. If that were to happen, I realized that it could very well end my career in medicine. So many years of hard work was potentially destroyed by a single incredibly stupid decision! I pleaded and begged the editor for mercy, and the consequence of that plea is the confessional blog you are now reading.

Once again I ask myself why did I do such a stupid thing? Thinking back now I realize I had been blinded by ambition and was totally dishonest to myself. It disappoints me to know my poor decisions mostly reflect my greedy nature and a willingness to get ahead without hard work; I was largely jealous of my friends and colleagues who were publishing. Blinded by such emotions, I failed to ask myself how dangerous such actions would be for my character, my occupation, my career and my family. In hindsight, had I thought deeply about the potential consequences of my careless act, I would have never done it, and that mistake taught me a very tough lesson.

As a resident, I already knew that laziness can make the difference between the life or death of a patient. However I failed to consider that laziness towards publishing medical research is potentially even more dangerous, as it can put many other lives at risk. My actions can only be described as utterly immoral and unethical; my behavior is completely inexcusable. Although it is the ethical right and privilege of the editor to report me to my departmental chair and residency director, I am sincerely grateful for the career-saving opportunity I have been afforded. I am determined that this painful lesson will lead to my honest behavior in the future, as God is my witness.

Banned From Cureus: How To Avoid Hearing Those Dreaded Words

In the current political climate there is a lot of discussion these days about banning certain immigrant groups. As a point of principle, Cureus welcomes physicians of all races, nationalities, religions or gender and sexual identities to use our FREE publication platform.

Because we believe access to medical knowledge is a fundamental human right, Cureus aspires to break down all barriers to the freer dissemination of medical knowledge, especially for physician authors in developing countries. No matter who you are, if you have credible medical science you wish to publish conscientiously and in good faith, while following Cureus’ submission guidelines, our journal is committed to serving you.

However, if you are a physician for whom publishing is merely a vanity project or a tool for professional advancement, with little regard for the integrity of the process, Cureus specifically does not want your content. If you are the type of individual who chooses to take shortcuts with the truth, who sees nothing wrong with plagiarism or scientific fraud, please stay away from Cureus.

You are hereby warned that if you are caught abusing our generous spirit, we will, to the best of our abilities, ultimately ban you AND your co-authors from further access to our journal AND when appropriate, (plagiarism and academic fraud) we will aggressively pursue academic censor from the offending individual’s parent academic or clinical institution.

Please be forewarned that our editorial team does not take lightly to authors that betray the truth or Cureus’ generosity. Our team has on a few past occasions, including very recently, needed to report serious infringements of our policies to the appropriate academic authorities. So ultimately the answer is yes, one can be BANNED from Cureus. Don’t be one of those people!

Scholarly Roulette: Impact Factor & Scientific Quality

A friend and colleague referred me to a recent publication that represents a major indictment of the peer-reviewed journal cartel.

This article summarizes a blog published by what is arguably a Cureus competitor, the open access-publishing house, Frontiers, which in this study could find no correlation between rates of rejection and journal impact factor.

Just for argument’s sake, let’s assume that impact factor does correlate with scientific quality. So if this study is correct, it means by extension that the rate of rejection also doesn’t correlate with quality. In turn this means that the standard peer review process (which totally dominates the journal industry) has no bearing on article quality. In other words, getting published, or not, appears to be a random event.

Accepting this fact (parenthetically one which I already subscribe to) means that despite all the process and rituals of scientific journal publishing, and the huge importance of this matter to society and academic tenure decisions, there is currently no objective index for assessing research article quality. Of course if one believes that impact factor is not a measure of quality, then the above random publication process is even more random than I implied in my argument! Based on this observation, I would like to sarcastically suggest we should rename this current process “scholarly roulette.”

Clearly there are huge shortcomings to the Frontiers study, such as selection bias and the non-medical nature of many scholarly journals. However, to a huge research community that has invested so much of their lives into the existing peer review process these type of findings must be dispiriting. Nevertheless, this current set of observations does resonate with our philosophy at Cureus, where we subscribe to the belief that as long as the medical science within is credible, there is no reason not to publish an article. In other words, we believe that we are, on average, no better equipped to discern quality than any other journal.

A big part of our confidence stems from Cureus’ unique post-publication SIQ scoring system. Although we are no smarter in finding scientific quality up front, we do believe that it is quite possible for the medical community-at-large to find quality over time, post publication. Nevertheless, to make this a reality, every reader has a role to play, which of course includes you!

The Anecdote is the Antidote for What Ails Modern Medical Science

Today I read with great interest an article in Vox.com entitled: “Fleming’s discovery of penicillin couldn’t get published today. That’s a huge problem.” As a long time academician and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Cureus, I could not agree more! Not only would Fleming’s discovery go unreported, but Jenner’s discovery of the first small pox vaccine or Connecticut dentist Crawford Long’s discovery of ether anesthesia would also be dismissed as trivial curiosities and anecdotes.

In a rapidly changing world of medical science, the process of peer-reviewed publishing has never been more important for validating medical knowledge, yet at the same time the arcane processes of peer-reviewed journals have never been more at odds with potential societal benefits. The altruism that is supposed to drive the publication of scientific research has been almost entirely co-opted by the peculiar needs of academic promotion and tenure, as well as the pecuniary demands of the scholarly publishing industry; the public good of medical knowledge has been reduced to a mere after-thought by both academia and the publishing industry. These two interest groups only seek seemingly important “big science,” and actually decry any role for mere clinical observation, which Cureus has in the past and the Vox authors now in the present both refer to, in a somewhat ironic, self-deprecating manner, as “small science.”

Despite the above dire (my word) situation in medical publishing, just maybe the proverbial pendulum is about to swing the other way. For example, the conventional wisdom is that we are entering an era of “personalized medicine,” a concept which at its core recognizes the unique genomic, proteomic, metabolomics and demographic, etc. profile of every patient. Embodied within this concept is the understanding that each of us will as patients undergo a unique clinical experience, not necessarily predicted by a priori knowledge, and that such observations will need to be documented if we are to build new scientific understandings. Assuming that to be true, the future of medical publishing may well be found in observational “small science.” If this is true, the important medical publishing of the future may be about to shift from “the few” elites reporting big science, to the power of the many, within the trenches of medicine, collectively reporting their humble clinical observations? For the record, Cureus aspires to lead this transition into the new world of small, yet very powerful, medical science.

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!

Banished From Cureus: Introducing a New Cureus Editorial Policy

Founded with the belief that far too many credible physician and allied medical specialists are disenfranchised by a publishing system driven largely by money and academic promotion, Cureus has, from its inception, bent over backwards to remove barriers to medical publication. Whenever possible, we have always tried to give each author the benefit of doubt throughout the entire review and publishing cycle. In the process of being so liberally minded, however, Cureus has attracted a handful of prospective authors that seek to take advantage of our generosity. In particular this group of authors has either failed to read closely Cureus’ author instructions or chosen to not follow its unambiguous dictates. This is especially apparent in the areas of copy editing and formatting, for even the simplest little requirements, such as bracketing reference citations.

Why is this handful of authors so sloppy? Maybe having been schooled in the practices of other journals they assume some faceless (yet compensated) copy editing team will clean up their carelessness? Of course other journals will clean up your articles, but it’s going to cost you; for such copy editing services an author must give up either all copyrights or pay many hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for open access. One might think the generosity of Cureus’ follow-the-rules “self-serve” model for publishing, which on average requires about 30 minutes of extra work, would be appropriately valued by all authors. Sadly this is not always the case.

Therefore, Cureus has hereby implemented a new policy of banning (“blocking”) an article from any chance of being published, regardless of the quality of science, if an author fails (for whatever reason) to twice submit a manuscript that complies with our clearly published author guidelines. Moreover any author that submits two unique articles that fall short in this way will be forever banished from Cureus. There are plenty of other journals that are happy to copyedit sloppy work. Authors who produce such manuscripts are invited to send their articles to those publishers.

In Cureus’ community of trust and mutual respect, there is no room for users who fail to follow the rules. But if you are among the vast majority of users who comply with our guidelines, I promise that you will be amply rewarded for your consideration and cooperation. Thank you.