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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Forget chocolate on Valentine’s Day, try semen, says Surgery News editor. Retraction, resignation follow

with 289 comments

We have a bizarre tale to relate involving the journal Surgery News, which recently lost its editor-in-chief over a rather strange editorial he wrote in the February issue of the magazine.

The ill-fated — and, we’ll stipulate, ill-advised — commentary has led to a de facto retraction of the entire publication — meaning that although no retraction notice exists that we’re aware of, neither does the issue exist in the publication’s archives.

But first, some important background. Surgery News is a trade magazine with a complicated structure. The publication, which describes itself as “the official newspaper of the American College of Surgeons [ACS],” is published by Elsevier, which supplies medical news through its International Medical News Group division. The society provides its own news, as well as the lead editor, a surgeon, who until recently was Lazar Greenfield. Greenfield, of the University of Michigan, also happens to be the president-elect of the ACS, twin responsibilities that put him at the pinnacle of influence for his specialty.

Now back to the offending editorial, which we’ll bring you in its entirety since 1) we think given the events that you should read the whole thing, and 2) because the ACS has taken the entire February issue off its website we can’t link to it even if we wanted to (more on that later). Under the heading “Gut Feelings,” Greenfield wrote (we added links):

One of the legends of St. Valentine says that he was a priest arrested by Roman Emperor Claudius II for secretly performing marriages. Claudius wanted to enlarge his army and believed that married men did not make good soldiers, rather like Halsted’s feelings about surgical residents. But Valentine’s Day is about love, and if you remember a romantic gut feeling when you met your significant other, it might have a physiological basis.

It has long been known that Drosophila raised on starch media are more likely to mate with other starch-raised flies, whereas those fed maltose have similar preferences. In a study published online in the November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators explored the mechanism for this preference by treating flies with antibiotics to sterilize the gut and saw the preferences disappear (Proc. Nad. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2010 Nov. 1).

In cultures of untreated flies, the bacterium  L. plantarum was more common in those on starch, and sure enough, when L. plantarum was returned to the sterile groups, the mating preference returned. The best explanation for this is revealed in the significant differences in their sex pheromones. These experiments also support the hologenome theory of evolution wherein the unit of natural selection is the “holobiont,” or combination of organism and its microorganisms, that determines mating preferences.

Mating gets more interesting when you have an organism that can choose between sexual and asexual reproduction, like the rotifer. Biologists say that it’s more advantageous for a rotifer to remain asexual and pass 100% of its genetic information to the next generation. But if the environment changes, rotifers must adapt quickly in order to survive and reproduce with new gene combinations that have an advantage over existing genotypes. So in this new situation, the stressed rotifers, all of which are female, begin sending messages to each other to produce males for the switch to sexual reproduction (Nature 2010 Oct. 13). You can draw your own inference about males not being needed until there’s trouble in the environment.

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.

Let that, um, sink in, if you will. (And a message to our wives: We will not be using this as an excuse not to buy chocolate. Or as an excuse for anything else, for that matter.)

First off, we defy any paramour to try that crap the next time Valentine’s Day rolls around. We expect the result will be about the same as it was for Greenfield, who, sources tell us, has resigned from his post. Greenfield has not yet returned a call and an email for comment.

Second, although we certainly can understand the ACS’s decision to change editorial direction, pulling the entire issue strikes us as a dramatic overreach. After all, if we can figure out a way to find and reproduce the offending text, surely the society’s IT staff could have figured out how to cut a hole in the issue’s PDF just that large.

The other puzzler, of course, is how the hell the journal allowed itself to print Greenfield’s wacky musings in the first place. Did anyone object, only to be overruled — a scenario that, given the fact that the author was not only the editor in chief but the incoming president of the ACS, seems no implausible? Or was it simply a case of no one paying attention?

We plan to ask the ACS those questions, but have yet to reach a person who is in a position to answer them — as well as whether the affair will cost Greenfield his pending presidency of the group. Meanwhile, an Elsevier official tells us that the publisher does not have oversight over the society content, including the editorials, that go into the newspaper, and that its editors are not required to review the proofs prior to press time.

We’ll buy that, although given the current debacle they might want to reconsider that policy, at least on an ad hoc basis. According to a note in the masthead section:

The ideas expressed in Surgery News do not necessarily reflect those of the College or the Publisher.

Those 17 words are, we’re guessing, giving both parties at least a little comfort at the moment.

Maybe the inventor of the Greenfield filter — a device used to prevent blood clots in the lungs — needed a filter of his own.

Update, 10:10 a.m. Eastern, 4/6/11: We’ve now spoken with David B. Hoyt, a surgeon and executive director of the ACS, who told us that the society is in the process of “preparing the issue” so that it can be reposted. However, Hoyt said he didn’t know when that might happen.

Hoyt said “several” society members called to complain about Greenfield’s article, which, he added, to the best of the group’s understanding had received the typical editorial scrutiny prior to publication.

As for Greenfield’s status as incoming president?

That’s under review.

Please see this update for news of Greenfield’s resignation.

Update, 2:20 p.m. Eastern, 4/6/11: A note about comments: While we appreciate a vigorous debate, we have been forced to delete passages from several comments that went far beyond the bounds of respectful discourse. Please keep that in mind when commenting.

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Written by Adam Marcus

April 6, 2011 at 9:50 am

289 Responses

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  1. Has any one researched whether semen has similarly positive mood inducing effects when semen is received via the anus? I assume the answer is yes given the absorbency of the anal lining. Perhaps this would explain the risky behaviour of many passive gay males and the spread of HIV in that group? Just a thought. May be the condom industry could be incentivised to spray some of these uplifting substances onto their products. It might just encourage greater uptake of safer sexual practices.

    Louis Szikora

    January 25, 2012 at 9:38 pm

  2. Lesbians periods very much synch up. That science is just wrong. I had a house full of 5 of us at one point and that was just HELL! lol
    As a lesbian woman, I found the joke a bit gross because I have different tastes (yes that is a joke), but funny. Not all feminists or lesbians hate men. I have a lot of amazing men in my life in the form of older brothers, and two dads (step and biological). The most offensive comments I read came from the crazed Debbie. I just have a problem with that study on lesbian cycles. Could have just asked a few and then saved the money for something way more benificial to society as whole. Just one nobody’s opinion.


    January 27, 2012 at 11:47 am

  3. This has left me scratching my head. What is so wrong with that article?! I can only spot one thing, the exceedingly poorly chosen word “promiscuity”. Other than that, it’s perfectly fine. Semen really does make women happy, via some biochemical/hormonal mechanism. It’s a phenomenon that is quite apparent to most women who choose to take notice, so is worthy of discussion and study.


    June 25, 2012 at 4:26 am

  4. It was a fun bit of editorial. Editorial is opinion-based and the censorship that strangled this piece (and the doctor’s career) could very well silence your own opinion one day. Why would anyone get worked up over a doctor “injecting” humor into the realm of science and medicine — for a Valentine’s Day piece? Kudos to him for actually finding something funny in an otherwise dry field. :) Lighten up!

    Melanie Saxton

    June 25, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    • I agree Melanie. I would have to conclude that there exists a critical mass of female surgeons out there with a giant chip on their collective shoulders. Disturbing that chip is hazardous to one’s career. Can’t upset them, oh no, or you will be in trouble. This phenomenon might make the cautious want to avoid them, if possible. You never know when they might get the modern equivalent of “the vapours” and strike out at you! Ask Larry Summers.


      June 26, 2012 at 9:00 am

  5. I found it informative. It’s good to know that semen contains all those other things. Women should know what their getting. It effects their body chemistry and I think that information is valuable. So what if it was published on valentines day, dont a lot of people still make love on valentines day? This info is relative. Firing the good doctor is an over reaction by a bunch of politaclly correct notzis that have no sence of humor or the balls to publish info on such a delicate topic.


    March 21, 2013 at 10:31 am

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