An author was accused of faking peer reviews. Turns out he also falsified two images.

In 2015, the journal Cureus published two neurosurgery papers from the same corresponding author, one month apart.

Soon after, the journal uncovered “potential irregularities” with two reviews during a routine editorial audit, editor John R. Adler Jr. told Retraction Watch:

Two faked reviewer accounts (co-opting the names of well known neurosurgeons) seemed to have been created by the submitting author due to their similarity in name and comments.

The journal forwarded its concerns to the University of Cape Town, which launched an investigation, since the corresponding author worked at an affiliated teaching hospital. After some roadblocks—including a challenge by the corresponding author and an unrelated student protest—the university determined that the authors had, in fact, lifted images from other sources in the papers that showed entirely different pictures—including an image taken from a public website.  

Cureus retracted both papers earlier this year.

Lyn Horn, senior manager in the Office of Research Integrity at the University of Cape Town (UCT), told us that, “although there was strong circumstantial evidence for fake peer reviews,” the university did not investigate this allegation. Horn explained that Ameya Kamat, the corresponding author on both papers, challenged the investigation because of a “jurisdiction issue.” Kamat was employed by Groote Schuur Hospital, one of the university’s teaching hospitals, not by the university itself, and thus his UCT affiliation was“informal,” Horn said:

This fact understandably influenced the investigation. UCT needed to focus on aspects of the allegation that involved its student and staff. … at the time of the complaint Kamat was already working in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stellenbosch University.

We reached out to Kamat, but have not heard back.

But during this preliminary investigation, the university uncovered a separate issue that was enough to prompt a retraction: : image falsification and plagiarism. In one paper, the authors claimed a figure taken from a public website represented human brain tissue but it showed mouse brain tissue. And in the other, the authors said a figure showed spinal cord compression; however, the university determined it had been plagiarized from a 2012 paper about a disease caused by a tapeworm infection.

Horn also said the university is concerned about a third paper, but declined to release any information, as it has not made a final judgment on it yet.

Last month Nico C Gey van Pittius, the vice dean at Stellenbosch University, confirmed:

Kamat is still registered for his studies at Stellenbosch University.  We have only recently been notified by UCT of the outcome of their investigation, and are currently in the process of initiating a preliminary inquiry of our own.  

“Denying culpability”

Both notices state the authors tried to defend their papers; in the retraction for “Thoracic Vertebral Actinomycosis Secondary to a Pulmonary Origin,” the journal notes:

The authors responded to the preliminary report variously denying culpability, knowledge of improper use of images or failure to acknowledge sources. However, these denials are not relevant to whether plagiarism exists in the article. The allegation of fabrication or falsification can also be established without difficulty. The article states that the image came from [the university’s repository of patient medical images]and represents human brain histology of the patient concerned – it does not.

Here’s the notice for the other paper,Staged Surgical Management in the Treatment of Primary Epidural Hydatidosis of the Spine: A Case Series and Review.(The journal is not indexed by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.)

Horn said that the investigation was delayed by “student unrest and turmoil” because of protests over the fees for higher education, and that the university “is still considering various mechanisms to further clarify the respective roles of persons implicated:”

The head of neurosurgery at UCT has objected to this outcome and further investigations or action may yet follow.

In February, Graham Fieggen, head of Neurosurgery at UCT (who was not a co-author on either paper), told us:

I do not see this as the end of the matter, and I hope UCT’s further response will be clearly spelled out by early next week.

We emailed Fieggen for an update on March 1 but have not heard back.

Cureus says its aim is to “revolutionize how medical knowledge is published and shared” by hastening the review process (a platform modeled after Turbotax). But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. In 2014, for example, Cureus quietly retracted a paper by a researcher who has threatened to sue Retraction Watch. The journal did not publish a notice but later informed us that the paper was retracted because it had been published without the consent of the study’s principal investigator and included commercially sensitive data. A year later, the journal published a paper about sex addiction after a two-day review; following criticisms, again it quietly corrected it before adding a correction notice, then decided to retract and republish it.

And in 2016, Cureus hosted a contest sponsored by Novartis, which aimed to publish peer-reviewed articles supporting the use of the company’s heart failure drug. Successful authors would receive $10,000. But after critics raised ethical concerns about the competition, the company withdrew its support.

Given the delay, we asked Adler if he had considered flagging the two recently retracted papers with an expression of concern. Adler said:

In hindsight that might have been a good thing to have done…..we kept delaying believing the investigation was imminently about to be wrapped up.

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2 thoughts on “An author was accused of faking peer reviews. Turns out he also falsified two images.”

  1. Thank you for calling attention to this pattern of behavior at Cureus. We have watched them attack many scientists who tried to call attention to this, so appreciate Retraction Watch reporting.

  2. The following statement is categorically untrue:

    “And in 2016, Cureus hosted a contest sponsored by Novartis, which aimed to publish peer-reviewed articles supporting the use of the company’s heart failure drug.”

    Although sponsored by Novartis, the Cureus publishing competition in question did not reference any specific drug and was intended to provide physicians with practical generic solutions for migrating patients from one drug to another, including competitor’s drugs.

    For the record, sexologist Dr. Prause is upset that Cureus had the temerity to publish in 2015 a review article that describes legitimate genetic and epigenetic studies with which she disagrees. Although invited to publish an on the record comment, Dr. Prause demurred, choosing to cowardly attack her intellectual competitors via social media.

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