Lessons from a retracted editorial

By Felix Salmon
April 6, 2011
Larry Summers before deciding to publish his editorial on semen in the trade mag's February edition.

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Lazar Greenfield, the former editor of Surgery News, would have been well advised to confer with Larry Summers before deciding to publish his editorial on semen in the trade mag’s February edition. Timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day, the piece reads like a quirky blog post. It starts with the effects of a starch diet on fruit flies, moves quickly on to rotifers (microscopic wheel animals), and finally moves on to humans:

As far as humans are concerned, you may think you know all about sexual signals, but you’d be surprised by new findings. It’s been known since the 1990s that heterosexual women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of pheromones, but when a study of lesbians showed that they do not synchronize, the researchers suspected that semen played a role. In fact, they found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient. Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.

These “wacky musings,” in the words of Retraction Watch’s Ivan Oransky Adam Marcus, have resulted in Greenfield’s resignation from his post as editor of the magazine; his appointment as incoming president of the American College of Surgeons being put under review; and the entire February issue of the magazine being removed from the web while the ACS “prepares the issue” for reposting — presumably sans the offending editorial.

There are three lessons here. Firstly, the more important you are, the less leeway you have to do something silly or lighthearted — or, for that matter, to make mistakes. Secondly, if something is going to appear under the imprimatur of a venerable institution like the World Bank or the American College of Surgeons, it should be written in a tone of high seriousness, without a hint of irony or playfulness. And finally, even surgeons turn out to be rather more squeamish when it comes to the mechanisms of sexual reproduction than you might imagine.

The flipside of all this is that science blogs will continue to gain in popularity, and more generally that large and serious organizations are always going to find it difficult to communicate in a human manner, with voice and humor. Which is ultimately a shame, since in principle most of these organizations do actually want to communicate effectively. They’re just too conservative to do so.

Update: Figleaf, in the comments, suggests that the issue might be with the quality of the research being cited, rather than the tone of the editorial. It does seem reasonable to expect Surgery News to hold scientific papers to a higher standard than the titillated mainstream press.

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