Double-blind and single-blind processes continue to dominate academic peer review. Too often this results in a ‘black box’ – a system without sufficient transparency for authors, readers and reviewers alike. Hopefully one day fully transparent (and even public) peer review will come to be seen as acceptable throughout the world of academic publishing. For now we must take small steps to break down this barrier, just as Cureus works to break down barriers to publication.
During my halcyon college days, long before I knew I would “grow up” to be a surgeon, I was a huge fan of Star Trek. Although the ideas behind warp speed travel and teleportation were mind blowing, I was even more captivated by “Bones” McCoy’s Tricorder. This and other similarly nifty little medical devices could in the hands of the right doctor affect surgical-like cures for most any disease non-invasively and without pain.
Who wouldn’t want to embrace such a future for medicine?
The recent announcement that the Chief Medical Officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center failed multiple times to report significant financial conflicts of interest in journal articles and letters authored or co-authored by him has justifiably stirred up quite a hornets nest of controversy.
Truth be told, I too am personally quite angry about his glaring oversight, which at its worst, involved opinions communicated broadly to the medical community via the New England Journal of Medicine. As a physician innovator, entrepreneur and scholar I have sought to play by these disclosure rules, which simply mandate transparency, because I think they are the best tools for fairly communicating possible bias to readers.
I recently co-authored an article submitted to Nature Urology, a subdomain of the Nature publishing group. It took roughly eight weeks of review before we received feedback from the editorial office. In December 2016 we were finally presented with several reviewer questions that had to be answered before a final decision could be made. After all outstanding questions and reviewer requests had been answered the article was finally, mercifully “accepted in principle” on February 3rd. That was far from the end of it, however, as another round of editing requests arrived on May 11th.
This time the requests came directly from the Nature editorial office. The majority of the requests concerned tightening up the narrative flow and bringing the article in line with their in-house style. At this time, we discovered that the edits already made by the editorial office were so extreme that the editors had to check with us to make sure the meaning of our words (and indeed the entire article itself) had not been altered by their editing process. All of this for arbitrary language and formatting issues.
On May 15th, with the article still unpublished, we were yet again asked to check affiliations and other minor aspects of the article. The article was finally published yesterday, May 23rd, roughly eight months after submission. (And it could have been worse!)
How does this kind of perfectionism serve the scientific community? Why does the editorial office of the Nature publishing group change the text of professional scientific authors in a way that even they are not sure if the scientific information is still correct? The editorial work of so-called high-end and high-ranking journals has reached a level where their interaction is beyond thoroughness. It is absurd to edit every paragraph, every sentence, and even every word. This does not serve the scientific community. Instead it unnecessarily prolongs the publication process to guarantee the house style of a specific journal. The scientific message does not change with this heavy editing, but an article may look better and therefore may be better sold by the publisher based on the work of scientific authors.
The process (and underlying philosophy) are different with Cureus. In short, we rely on the individual capabilities of our authors, who also retain their copyright. We want to make the publishing process fast and efficient, so while we provide a certain level of support to our authors, we do not intend to alter their scientific message. Instead, we appeal to their own sense of pride and responsibility for adequate language and general accuracy.
In the end it is the scientific community that will evaluate if the article is scientifically sound, informative and correct. If it is not, the article will be met with heavy criticism, both via a low SIQ score and negative comments attached to the article. This system is not only much faster but also unbiased and transparent. We want to keep the focus of scientific publishing on what we feel is most important – the fast, fair and uncomplicated dissemination of interesting findings around the world.
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.
We’re pleased to announce the launch of our brand new, built-from-the-ground-up peer review tool! Any article submission started today will utilize the new system while in peer review.
Previously, we had used a third-party software tool called Crocodoc for article peer review. Our team has been hard at work creating our own proprietary system that makes reviewing an easier, more intuitive experience.
Similar to Google Docs or Microsoft Word, this new system enables reviewers to highlight text and leave comments. Each reviewer’s comments will be displayed via a unique highlighted color, while also allowing for overlapping comments.
Only articles created and submitted after the release will utilize this new system. All articles created before the release will still use our original peer review system. As such, please don’t be alarmed if your review experience changes from article to article!
Between the peer review and submission systems, we have now overhauled the entire publishing process in the past five months. We’re confident that submitting and reviewing articles with Cureus is easier than it has ever been, but we won’t stop working to make your experience better. Stay tuned for more exciting updates as we continue to tweak and enhance the Cureus Journal of Medical Science. Thanks for your support!
– The Cureus Team
Questions about the new peer review system? Drop us a note at email@example.com and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
A junior colleague described to me a review he was recently asked to perform for one of the leading journals in neurosurgery. After a careful review he reported that the paper “sucked” and he recommended that it not be published. A few months later a revised paper was sent back to him, despite his rejection, leading him to again recommend that the paper be rejected. The next communication was a letter from the editor-in-chief asking my colleague to write a commentary of the paper in question which was to be published alongside the now twice-rejected article. Eschewing a discussion of whether this paper merited ultimate publication or not, I do question the entire peer-review charade that this vignette exposes. The reality is that too often reviewers have little say in whether a paper gets published or not. Instead journal politics and the discretion of the editor-in-chief is transcendent throughout the peer-review process. My lament is that if the editor-in-chief is intent on publishing a paper from the start, why not say so and at least ensure that the process is efficient; this is of course the Cureus process of peer review!
What the above story calls into question is just what exactly constitutes peer review? What is its function? The stalwart champions of peer review argue that it alone uniquely enforces scientific quality. The “acceptance” of one’s scientific work by potential critics and academic rivals, represents the highest measure of personal and scientific integrity. It is hard to argue with such a high-minded proposition, but is it grounded in reality?
In my own, and many of my colleague’s considerable experience, the realities of peer review are nothing like the above idealistic notions bandied about by proponents. Gross inefficiency is often embraced in the name of scientific integrity by rivals who are in no rush to see the accomplishments of scholarly competitors lauded. Many reviews are little more than cursory reads by time-harried reviewers resulting in a thumbs up or down. Ironically when all is said and done this may not be the worst outcome!
Too frequently reviews become meaningless intellectual battles, which at their core are little more than exercises in power and ego. These many skirmishes are often expressed in the to-and-fro volleys between reviewers and authors centering around secondary or even tertiary measures of paper quality. Time-wasting reviewer obsessions with incautious conclusions, inadequate words of self-criticism (at times almost Marxist in nature), failure to reference important (reviewer?) publications, by the letter ethical processes, inconsequential statistical measures, etc. often mask the importance, and strip away the beauty, of science. Given human nature and a subjective system that deliberately selects reviewers from the pool of intellectual competitors, is it not too surprising that baser self-interested emotions too often trump fairness, or at least efficiency? There has to be a better way! Because we at Cureus believe there is, we invite you to learn more about our peer review process.