Haste Makes Retractions at Cureus

When most of 56 retracted papers were reviewed in one day or less, what responsibility does the journal have?

Recently, Retraction Watch wrote about 56 retractions at Cureus, an OA medical science journal we’ve discussed before. While their coverage makes the retractions sound rather pedestrian — authorship identity and involvement questions, slow responses from officials, and so forth — when you look at the publication data, more questions about Cureus’ processes and responsibilities arise.

All 56 papers came from Saudi Arabia’s Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University, where it’s required that every medical intern publish at least one peer-reviewed paper in order to qualify for enrollment in a postgraduate residency program.

That alone is puzzling, but it’s the publication data that really raise some issues about what was going on at Cureus around these particular papers:

  • The average time of review across the 56 articles was 1.3 days
    • Twenty-four papers were reviewed and accepted on the same day
    • An additional 12 papers were reviewed, then accepted the next day
    • Three of the papers were published the same day review started
  • The bolus of 56 papers arrived over 122 days (September 15, 2021 through January 16, 2022), or one paper every 2.3 days on average, all from the same institution and corresponding author (email, at least)
  • On six days, multiple papers began peer-review, with six papers beginning peer-review on the same day (Friday, January 7, 2022)
    • Of these, five would be published on the same day (Tuesday, January 11, 2022), the sixth having been published on Sunday, January 9, 2022
  • The corresponding author — consistently using the email address saudidoctor2020@gmail.com — changed identities about halfway through the submission timeframe:

With 36 of 56 papers accepted the same day or the next day — significant deviations from scholarly norms, common sense, and normal spans of review at Cureus based on sampling of other papers around the same time — a serious question arises:

  • What was going on here?

This question gains urgency as every paper in Cureus is listed as having had two “Monitoring Editors” — Alexander Muacevic and John R Adler, who are the co-founders and co-Editors-in-Chief. In the Retraction Watch coverage, Adler alone is quoted, and only talks about his frustrations with the slow investigation and unresponsiveness of Saudi officials. He never mentions the glaring problems with the pace of submission, peer-review turnaround, and publication speed — all of which I would think any Monitoring Editor might have flagged far earlier.

Cureus began in 2009 as PeerEMed. It was relaunched under its current name in 2012, and acquired in December 2022 by Springer Nature. Publication in the journal is free to researchers if they meet the journal’s writing and formatting requirements. Failing that, authors must purchase editorial services from Cureus in order to proceed to publication.

According to Cureus’ published promotional data, 51% of its submissions are accepted, and 64% of its published authors pay for enhanced editorial services.

  • Given its business model, Cureus should have made no money from these 56 papers, as they only make money for editorial services — and there just wasn’t time for such services to be provided
    • If that’s the case, why expedite them to the point of shuttling them from in-box to out-box — and in three cases, to posting online — the same day?

At the time, Cureus was promising a couple of things:

Across these 56 papers, review and publication occurred in hours in most cases, not weeks. Publication occurred on average 2.4 days after review concluded, and any peer-review was cursory at best, concluding on the same day it started in 43% of cases, and within one day 64% of the time.

It’s impossible that authors received “helpful and informative feedback.”

This is not the first controversy the journal has registered:

Cureus makes the normal statements about commercial influence on editorial decisions:

Article selection, editorial review, peer review and publication are strictly independent of any and all advertisers or program sponsors.

Retractions of articles submitted from one Saudi institution in a flurry, accepted in hours sans jury, and posted as if in a hurry is enough to cause a lot of worry about the processes and incentives at Cureus than the coverage in Retraction Watch might have suggested.

Cureus remains curious, indeed.