Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Journal editor resigns over firestorm from circumcision article

with 28 comments

10-5409-logoCircumcision is a hot topic. So hot, questions about a reviewer’s potential conflict with the author of an article promoting circumcision prompted a journal editor to resign, and one academic to call another a “fanatic.”

It began in August, when Brian Morris, professor emeritus of molecular medicine at the University of Sydney, published a critique of a paper that itself had critiqued the practice of circumcision. But the sole reviewer of Morris’s article was a frequent co-author of his, Aaron Tobian of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In his reference section, Morris listed five papers on which he and Tobian were co-authors.

A tipster forwarded us emails from Eduardo Garin, editor in chief of the journal, saying he had resigned from the journal after it refused to retract the paper, despite the fact that its sole reviewer was a frequent collaborator of the author. However, Garin is still listed as editor in chief on the journal’s site.  

Garin confirmed to us that he resigned after the publisher refused to retract or correct the Morris article; however, Xiu-Xia Song, vice director of the editorial office at Baishideng, told us by email that Garin is still the journal’s editor.

Here are some specifics:

Morris’s paper is  “Critical evaluation of unscientific arguments disparaging affirmative infant male circumcision policy” in the World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, put out by the Baishideng Publishing Group. It critiqued  “Risks, Benefits, Complications and Harms: Neglected Factors in the Current Debate on Non-Therapeutic Circumcision,” published in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal by Robert Darby, an independent scholar who also wrote the anti-circumcision book “A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain.

As usual, we sent emails to everyone else involved.

Morris defended Tobian’s impartiality, noting:

Tobian is an expert on the topic and would be highly unlikely to allow any past relation with me over an unrelated paper to influence his assessment of this recent manuscript. You are clutching at straws … and for what? Do you have a hidden agenda. If so think one would regard that as unethical…Did [Darby] put you up to this nonsense?…Tobian was not on the list of suggested reviewers. So now will you go away and stop bothering me? This is a non-issue. If you are looking for someone to annoy I suggest you go and harass Darby.

When we contacted Tobian, the sole reviewer, he declined to comment, saying “I am conflicted.”

Tobian is still listed as a peer reviewer at the bottom of the journal article; Song didn’t respond to questions, about the World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics’ conflict of interest policy for peer reviewers. That policy reads:

Reviewers will decline participation in the peer review process for any manuscript if a conflict of interest exists, including interests related to the manuscript’s authors, personal interests, or academic or economic interests. If a conflict of interest becomes apparent during the peer review process, the reviewer must inform the Editorial Office immediately.

There are two comments on the article, one from circumcision critic John Dalton, and the other a response from Morris. Dalton’s comment reads in part:

Morris, Krieger, Klausner and reviewer Tobian are members of an authorship cartel who seek to promote circumcision by co-authoring papers and reviewing each other’s work. They also seek to repress papers with opposing views by writing damning reviews.

Morris’s response reads, in part:

We suggest you be wary of comments posted by opponents of male circumcision. These pose a threat to good science, public health and individual well-being. The comment by Dalton provides false allegations against the authors. This appears to be a deliberate strategy undertaken in a desperate attempt to discredit high quality scientific work when no credible criticisms can be made.

Darby, the author of the paper Morris et al was criticizing, acknowledged to us that the topic of circumcision raises strong feelings:  

Circumcision is in itself an intensely emotional topic because it is the focus of discourses that are themselves likely to generate intense emotions: sexuality, body image, masculinity, health, religion, science etc. Most people writing on the topic have an interest one way or another and passionate feelings may arise among people on both sides of the debate: circumcision critics through resentment at having been circumcised, for example, or supporters because they have circumcised their own boys and do not wish to believe that they have done the wrong thing.

But even admitting that, it has to be said that the intensity Prof. Morris brings to the debate is in a class of its own, and I don’t think it is unreasonable to describe him as a fanatic…I don’t think Morris has any particular aversion to me – he tends to hate all circumcision critics equally, and generally responds to them with great personal venom.

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Comments
  • Just Wondering November 22, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    Seeing how collaborating with colleagues in my field is increasingly needed to successfully complete projects, soon the only people who will be eligible to review my manuscripts will be my enemies. What do we do then?

    • MVE November 22, 2016 at 2:32 pm

      With a good editor and a well-managed review process, there is nothing wrong with an enemy reviewing your manuscript.

      It’s called science.

  • jim thornton November 22, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    Retraction can be tricky in this area. Sometimes nothing to retract. Sometimes it won’t.

  • herr doktor bimler November 22, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    However, Garin is still listed as editor in chief on the journal’s site.
    Link is broken (though the intended version is evident enough)

    Tobian was not on the list of suggested reviewers.
    It would be edifying to know who recruited Tobian to be the sole reviewer. Prof. Garin, Editor-in-Chief, appears to have had little to do with the process. If the website is to be believed, there are 243 members of the Editorial Board.

    • Ivan Oransky November 22, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Fixed — thanks.

  • herr doktor bimler November 22, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Jeffrey Beall does not currently include Baishideng on his list of predatory publishers though he is open to the possibility of re-classifying them if they continue with their practice of indiscriminate spamming.
    In my own experience of being a Baishideng spammee, they solicited a copy of my photograph.

    • Barbara Piper November 23, 2016 at 6:03 am

      Baisideng was listed on Beall’s website this morning.

      • herr doktor bimler November 23, 2016 at 2:32 pm

        Thanks for the correction.

        • Barbara Piper November 24, 2016 at 6:16 am

          And thanks in return for your many good contributions to this important issue.

  • davis November 22, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    It is time to end male genital mutilation.

  • DF November 22, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    I’m with Elaine Benes on Seinfeld: “It has no face, no personality” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sH2Jg5soZig

    • Joey Moore November 23, 2016 at 9:39 am

      This is exactly why genital mutilation is allowed to continue unabated, society is too weak and scared to look at the devastating repercussions of it, so they make jokes about it…

    • Gregor Waltz November 24, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      That joke never made any sense. Aroused, the penis looks nearly identical either way, unless you call a big nasty scar “personality”. Preferences, especially when made in ignorance, are no justification for mutilating a child.

  • Hugh Young November 22, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    DF
    I’m with Elaine Benes on Seinfeld: “It has no face, no personality” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sH2Jg5soZig

    Completely irrelevant to the topic of the article of course, but typical of the way male genital cutting advocates think about the issue of cutting a normal, fuctional part off healthy babies’ genitals forever. Elaine Benes is a fictional character, her words almost certainly written by genitally cut men, and “she” is quite wrong. The intact penis has much MORE personality: it’s quite literally a Transformer.

  • Hugh Young November 22, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Robert Darby is quite right:
    “Most people writing on the topic have an interest one way or another and passionate feelings may arise among people on both sides of the debate: circumcision critics through resentment at having been circumcised, for example, or supporters because they have circumcised their own boys and do not wish to believe that they have done the wrong thing.”
    But more than that, many cut men (including Morris and Tobian) find it virtually impossible to criticise male genital cutting, and thereby admit that there can be anything lacking from their pride and joy.

  • Hugh Young November 22, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    “Morris, Krieger, Klausner and reviewer Tobian are members of an authorship cartel who seek to promote circumcision by co-authoring papers and reviewing each other’s work.”

    This might sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is hard to find a paper supporting infant male genital cutting (with the exception of papers out of China) that does not include the names of Robert Bailey and/or Stefan Bailis, Ronald Gray, Daniel Halperin, Godfrey Kigozi, Jeffrey Klausner, Brian Morris, Stephen Moses, Malcolm Potts, Thomas Quinn, Edgar Schoen, David Serwadda, Dirk Taljaard, Aaron Tobian, David Tomlinson, Richard Wamai, Maria Wawer, Helen Weiss and/or Thomas Wiswell among its authors. Morris credits nine of them with contributing to one of his many pamphlets supproting infant male genital cutting, “Sex and Circumcision: What every woman needs to know”

  • Conrad Seitz MD November 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    Perhaps circumcision (one’s personal status, that is) should be listed as a non-issue in conflict of interest discussions, just as one’s (parents’) national origin is in some circles– otherwise, everyone will have a conflict of interest, except women, who won’t be allowed to contribute because it’s not their problem…

  • herr doktor bimler November 22, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    he had resigned from the journal after it refused to retract the paper […]However, Garin is still listed as editor in chief on the journal’s site.

    I am sure the journal is just working slowly through its procedure. You would not want them to make a short cut.

  • James Loewen November 22, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    The people promoting genital mutilation of children are inherently dishonest. Violating a child’s private parts, cutting off part of a child’s normal genital organ, is a criminal activity, assault and battery causing bodily harm. Genial mutilation of children is medical fraud. It’s long overdue for this atrocity to end.

  • Paul Mason November 22, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Amazing that Emeticus Professor Morris himself identifies that Tobian was NOT on the list of reviewers, raising the shocking inference that WJCP sought out not only “suitable” reviewers but also ended up with only ONE!

    Had a chuckle about the name “Retraction Watch”. Of course premature/forced foreskin retraction is the likeliest source of UTI pathogens in small boys, further justifying the otherwise unjustified financial aims of the Circumcision Lobby.

  • Lee Rudolph November 23, 2016 at 8:55 am

    In my own experience of being a Baishideng spammee, they solicited a copy of my photograph.

    Do spammers not have a legitimate interest in their spammees’ life expectancy???

  • herr doktor bimler November 23, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Do spammers not have a legitimate interest in their spammees’ life expectancy???

    I was merely concerned that my photograph might end up on one of the hundreds-strong Baishideng editorial boards and there would be no way of un-joining (much as Garin remains Editor-for-Life of WJCP despite his resignation). The Life-expectancy / clairvoyance possibility never occurred to me.

  • Narad November 23, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    Circumcision is a hot topic.

    None of N ≈ 20 friends that I’ve surveyed (yes, I used to browse mothering-dot-come) has expressed any dissatisfaction with the state of his dong, one way or another. Perhaps “circumcision is a topic that engenders stiffly opposing views,” or something like that.

    • herr doktor bimler November 23, 2016 at 9:16 pm

      One can only speculate that RW received a tip-off.

      • Toby November 24, 2016 at 1:12 pm

        This is getting silly! …..but quite funny.

  • Hugh Young November 23, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    Narad
    None of N ≈ 20 friends that I’ve surveyed … has expressed any dissatisfaction with the state of his dong, one way or another.

    So the cut ones don’t miss what they can’t remember having? Doesn’t mean it wasn’t stolen from them, or that they are enjoying sex as much as the ones who still have everything.

  • Anonymous November 24, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    On circumcision, these images say it all:
    http://casereports.bmj.com/content/2012/bcr-2012-007096.full

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