Publishing all credible science: Where do we draw the line?

Stemming from the belief that market-driven open access publishers are inherently predisposed to publish any article for which an author is willing to pay, there is a common prejudice that the scientific quality of such articles must be inferior to those published within non-open access journals. Whether true or not for other journals, this rationale certainly does not apply to a free publication model like Cureus.

For us, ensuring scientific quality is about preserving the brand of Cureus; by undermining credibility, bad science will, over the long term, inevitably diminish every conceivable measure of journalistic success. Destroying our reputation is the last thing Cureus leadership wants to see happen. However, working against this same concern is our journal’s philosophical commitment to publish all “credible” medical science; inevitably these two contradicting objectives require a delicate balancing act.

Despite (or as a sad result of) Cureus’ idealism, our journal sometimes receives questionable submissions: carelessly prepared manuscripts, sloppily presented results, poorly argued and unfounded conclusions, etc. Authors occasionally suffer from the misperception, perhaps due to our status as an open access journal, that we will publish whatever they submit and therefore they need invest only minimal effort.

Not so fast! I must caution against such thinking. Cureus is happy to publish articles that might be rejected elsewhere due to “political” or contrarian philosophical reasons, but like most quality journals, we will not abide substandard manuscripts. Cureus takes peer review and editorial oversight very seriously. Ensuring that authors do not abuse the easy-to-use Cureus submission system is quickly becoming a full-time job for editors who, frankly, have many better things to do.

Please do not confuse the ease of Cureus submission process with a willingness to overlook second-rate science. Does your article have a clear message and can it help interested colleagues in their daily clinical and/or scientific work? Put yourself in a reader’s shoes; if you were a reader, would you feel that the author in question has shown proper respect for your time? If you cannot answer yes, please do not submit your article to Cureus.

Anyone who intends to submit a shoddy article (and yes, you know who you are), be prepared to be blocked during editorial review. And should anyone choose to abuse Cureus’ generous spirit more than once, they should expect to be banned from our platform for an eternity. Meanwhile, the vast majority of conscientious authors, who both respect their potential readers and do their utmost to produce a quality manuscript, will be amply rewarded with a hassle-free submission process, and, once published, a large, appreciative audience of readers.

Ultimately we at Cureus like to think that a beautiful article of science is in itself, the best reward possible. Thank you for your understanding, cooperation and support.

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.

The Value of “Small Science”

“Let me tell you about an interesting case.”

“I’m having trouble with a patient, can I get some advice?”

“Help, my patient is dying on me and I cannot for the life of me figure out what’s wrong.”

“While caring for this patient, I learned something kind of cool last week.”

Have you or a colleague uttered such things in the past few days, weeks or months? Throughout my own clinical practice in an academic setting these types of utterances happened on a daily basis, if not many times a day, albeit sometimes merely under my own breath.

It is a fact that we physicians, even the smartest among us, still have a lot to learn, and vice versa, have a lot to teach through such experiences. Our clinical practices are sometimes influenced (usually for the better) by prominent, well-funded, randomized clinical trials, but more often it is the humble practical knowledge learned from one another that separates the satisfactory from the great physician. In my chosen specialty of neurosurgery, I have observed that there is not two or three bits of knowledge that make for a great operation. Instead the best surgeons have a grab bag of literally thousands of largely undocumented tricks (patient selection, choice of instrument, anatomical insights, manual skills, techniques, etc.), which make for their success. Much of this knowledge continues to get acquired the old fashion way – via trial and error in the trenches of medicine. Amazingly, in a world of more than 5,000 medical journals we all too often find ourselves repeating one another’s mistakes and relearning lessons previously learned by others. Why is this?

I believe that the above situation stems in part from a medicine-wide failure to formally acknowledge the true value of practical knowledge, or what we at Cureus like to refer to as “small science.” In many ways this is illustrated by how most medical journals see their mission, especially those with a coveted high impact factor. For example, the Instructions for Authors section in JAMA is almost half the length (in words) of Joseph Conrad’s the Heart of Darkness. Filled with complex guidelines for statistical processes and data reporting, the focus is on academic researchers who themselves are focused on climbing the ranks of academia as much as they are the knowledge at stake. The complexity of such processes, and even the associated financial costs in open access journals, intimidates too many of the busiest practicing physicians who have amazing clinical experience and insights but lack the time and arcane knowledge of contemporary journal publishing processes. As an Editor-in-Chief of Cureus this strikes me as a tragedy; some of the most knowledgeable clinicians have no forum for passing on their hard-won insights.

Our mission at Cureus is to use technology and a new philosophy of post-publication peer review to strike a better balance between process and the more efficient reporting of valuable clinical science. Our goal is to make it easier than ever for busy physicians in the trenches of medical practice to document the important things they learn on a near continual basis. Ultimately if some clinical observation is important enough for an overworked physician to invest time in writing up, we at Cureus are delighted to help with the task.

The Academy Awards of Medical Science

Last week a friend of mine told me about watching a notable old movie at a film festival entitled “Sergeant York.” Besides being a story about WWI and starring Gary Cooper, I can’t say I know much about this film other than one interesting fact; it was also nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award in 1941. Of note, it did not win, losing out to “How Green is My Valley.” Now before you start to worry about me running off on a tangent here, I’ll get to my point. Two other movies were also nominated, but lost out, for the 1941 Best Picture Academy Award: “The Maltese Falcon” and “Citizen Kane.” Now through the lens of hindsight is there almost anyone alive today who would truly believe that the Academy Award voting process got the decision right back in ‘41?

To my way of thinking such a question is directly relevant to the world of peer-reviewed medical publishing. How often have important ideas in medicine struggled to get published within contemporary leading journals, only to have such ideas be recognized as true genius after the passage of time? Two weeks ago, my friend and mentor Tom Fogarty was honored by his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame by none other than President Barak Obama. Tom was recognized especially for his invention of the Fogarty Balloon Catheter, which through another lens of history has proven to be one of the most important medical devices ever created. Clearly once upon a time the reviewers of the scientific article written by a young Tom Fogarty to report his new discovery must have recognized the genius of his invention, right? Not at all! Tom’s 1965 article reporting how and why his new catheter might work was rejected three times before ultimately being accepted. Even today, Tom has no idea why so many (supposedly) open-minded and wise reviewers rebuffed this important article.

I don’t for a second believe that Cureus reviewers are innately smarter, or politically less biased, than the reviewers who rejected the original Fogarty balloon catheter paper. The Cureus review and publication process, however, does not put reviewers in a position to choose what is important or unimportant medical science. As long as the article in question represents a good faith effort (following peer review) to apply reasonable scientific standards, and is neither fraudulent nor clinically dangerous, Cureus will publish your article for free with no questions asked!

Cureus believes that good ideas available to the broad court of scientific critique will invariably be discovered over time and serve to advance medical science – “the cream will generally rise to the top.” Meanwhile wrong-headed scientific ideas can and will be discredited. Very importantly, we at Cureus also believe that SIQ, our unique post-publication peer-review process, can, through the democratic power of the many, serve to discern real and enduring scientific quality over time, not unlike like the once overlooked masterpiece “Citizen Kane”. It is our fervent hope that at some point in the future, after the passage of enough time, when we look back at Cureus’ growing library of medical articles, we will see that our SIQ system can accurately foretell the inductees into the National Inventor Hall of Fame or, for that matter, the winners of medical science Academy Awards.

Please don’t forget that all Cureus readers are invited to cast their SIQ ballots after each and every article they read!

Does the Journal Make the Author or Does the Author Make the Journal?

Last week I attended a grand rounds lecture at a major medical school given by an internationally-renowned, chaired professor at the peak of his academic career. Through our personal relationship, I know he also happens to be a man of great integrity. Nevertheless, this professor presented data during his lecture that he tried to publish in three different specialty journals but was ultimately rejected. Why? We will never know. In fact, I equate the traditional peer review process to the game of water polo; during a water polo meet the real action occurs beneath the water’s surface. Undeterred, the professor in question commented in the middle of his talk that he would now publish his article in Cureus. At that instant, I, as proud Editor-in-Chief of Cureus, felt a little like the guy who realizes he is not the first, or even second, choice of the teen who asks a girl to the prom. However, I quickly consoled myself; if ultimately I get to go to the prom with a beautiful girl, then where is the downside to that?

In reflecting on the experience of the above professor, I fully acknowledge the right of any journal to choose what gets published through its peer review processes. Nevertheless, this reminds me of how inefficient the “game” is – there is so much human effort required to reformat, resubmit and re-review a article. Once published, will this article be better for having survived this process? I for one am deeply skeptical. Meanwhile, if an acclaimed and politically connected academic has such problems getting his articles published, one can only imagine the difficulties that a less accomplished and, god forbid, non-academic (or even developing country) physician has in getting their ideas into the ocean of pubic discourse at many journals.

We at Cureus like to continuously, and quite provocatively, question why the medical community-at-large subjects itself to such abuse. My answer: being innately insecure, we academics engage in such self-flagellation merely for the perceived status derived from seeing one’s ideas published in luxury journals (a term I am stealing from 2013 Nobel laureate Randy Schekman) as well as the sloth embodied by most university promotion committees, who by virtue of their intellectual laziness, have chosen to make tenure decisions through journal impact factor. In response to this, I urge more physician authors to let their ideas speak for themselves by publishing in Cureus, a journal in which the process of getting published has never been easier. After all, does the journal make the scientific article, or do scientific articles make the journal?