Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Following uproar, surgery journal retracts paper with male-only pronouns

with 15 comments

The Annals of Surgery has retracted a paper that used only male pronouns to describe surgeons following outcry from readers.

The journal plans to replace the article — a recent presidential address of the European Surgical Association — with a new version with more “gender inclusive language.”

The problem, said editor Keith D. Lillemoe, is that the address was delivered in April by previous ESA president Marek Krawczyk in Polish. According to an email Krawczyk sent to ESA leadership, which Lillemoe forwarded to us, Krawczyk says the pronoun “his” can include women in Polish.

Still, Lillemoe told us, the journal believed it needed to quickly retract the paper:

In Polish, ‘his’ is not a gender specific term, but it is in this country, and we wanted to make it right….We didn’t want to make the suggestion that we were not sensitive to gender issues, so we wanted to jump on it quickly.

Lillemoe said the journal realized there was a problem with the paper — titled “Modern Surgeon: Still a Master of his Trade or Just an Operator of Medical Equipment?” — after seeing readers’ reactions on Twitter. He added that the paper was reviewed by the ESA, including an editor and two peer-reviewers, but as the publishing journal, Annals should have caught the issue before it went to press:

I’m not making excuses, because it might have slipped by me as well…It’s my responsibility, since it’s published in the journal.

In his email, Krawczyk writes:

It  has never  been my [intention] to offend female surgeons by using  pronoun HIS only.

I admit  that the article had originally been written in Polish  where HIS as a pronoun is justified  by traditional grammar and does not exclude female participants.

Obviously, I accept all  modifications  necessary to avoid  any misunderstandings.

Yesterday, the Annals of Surgery tweeted a retraction statement:

We wish to thank our readers for bringing to our attention an important oversight in our editorial process. We recently published the Presidential address of the European Surgical Association entitled ‘Modern Surgeon: Still a Master of his Trade or Just an Operator of Medical Equipment?’ Unfortunately our own editorial review did not catch the singular use of male pronouns to refer to surgeons. This does not represent our views at Annals of Surgery and we sincerely apologize for this oversight in our production process. We have immediately taken steps to retract the current paper until it has been revised to gender inclusive language that better reflects all of our values and mission as a profession and journal. We again apologize and are working to resolve this expeditiously.

Lillemoe said he’s already seen the edited version, “where the proper pronouns are used throughout.”

Update, 1800 UTC time, July 24, 2017: We heard from Dana Telem, director of the Michigan Comprehensive Hernia Program, who wrote Annals of Surgery about the article when it first appeared:

My thoughts are that unconscious bias is something that exists within our society and is the likely main culprit of the achievement gap in academic surgery. It is not the first time that I have seen this, and there have been many recent articles referencing the way men versus women are addressed and included. What is unique is the way that this was handled. I applaud the integrity and accountability of Annals in addressing this promptly and swiftly. They have led by example and used this as an opportunity to propel gender equity.

Update, 1:49 UTC, 7/25/17: We’ve heard from Krawczyk directly, who told us:

As I wrote in my previous email, it was not my intention to create the impression that  I do not respect women in the profession of surgeon and I want to stress  that I have always put  women on an equal footing with men in my professional work. The misunderstanding resulted from the grammatical idiosyncrasies  of the Polish language.

I fully accept any changes that will correct my unintentional error.

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Written by Alison McCook

July 24th, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Comments
  • Ken Pimple July 24, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    I did a quick search in the hope of finding The Answer, at least in English, but I only had three actual hits. My search term was “options beside his or hers” which isn’t great, given that the variety of rest of the hits on page one (see the list below). I’m all for a set of non-gendered pronoun.

    My three pertinent hits are

    (1) Is there a better way of saying ‘his/her’ & ‘she/he’? – Quora
    https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-better-way-of-saying-his-her-she-he
    Once you’ve settled on writing in a gender-neutral manner, your main options involve to rewriting the sentence in a way that minimizes the number of “his or her” …

    (2) Is there a correct gender-neutral singular pronoun (“his” vs. “her” vs. “their”)?
    https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/48/is-there-a-correct-gender-neutral-singular-pronoun-his-vs-her-vs-their
    Aug 5, 2010 – Use his or her: Each student should save his or her questions until the end …. I’ve never known ‘singular they’ to be other than a way of avoiding he/she. ….. Shakespeare) had rejected singular they and so had no other option.

    (3) Gender Neutral Language
    http://www.kentlaw.edu/academics/lrw/grinker/LwtaGender_Neutral_Language.htm
    Do not use “their” as an alternative to his or her; “their” should be used only when … If necessary, use “one” instead of “he or she” or “his or her. … Better Choices

    And the rest:
    * Permanent Birth Control: Vasectomy and Tubal Ligation – WebMD
    * Permanent Birth Control: His and Her Options. By Kara …
    * Sedation Options – Brea Pediatric Dental Practice
    * 10 Options to Consider Besides a Nursing Home | Best Nursing …
    * Creative New Ways To Buy A Home – Forbes
    * Alternatives to Blood Transfusions – American Cancer Society
    * Giving a person back his or her own blood is called an autologous …
    * 5 Alternatives to the Diamond Engagement Ring | The Art of Manliness
    * Alternative Career Options | School of Medicine | University of …

  • Bort July 24, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    Idiotic retraction. Had the author used only female pronouns, it would have been seen as a bold political choice and applauded.

    Let’s just get over this issue of identifying yourself by your gender or skin colour already.

    • SB July 25, 2017 at 4:28 am

      “Let’s just get over this issue of identifying yourself by your gender or skin colour already”

      Unless you’re identifying men only, in which case it’s fine? The editors are doing exactly what you’ve stated.

      • Bort July 25, 2017 at 6:36 pm

        No, they are absolutely not. My point is WHO FRIGGING CARES if an article identifies doctors as men or women??? We are more than just our genitals.

  • Some Dude July 24, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    Checking Ovid https://insights.ovid.com/pubmed?pmid=28657947 , I’m not sure if the changes have been pushed out yet, but if they are, they were very sporadic with which ones they changed. There is an instance of “his or her” in there, but also three uses of “he” that don’t refer to a specific person.

    All other he or his that I could find, were either specifically referring to a male individual, or were part of a quote. (or in the title of course)

  • CRD July 25, 2017 at 2:06 am

    I cannot agree with this retraction. It is done for political reasons, and not at all for purposes of scientific integrity or accuracy. This is a terrifying look at how dangerous the future of politicized science will be.

    • JH July 25, 2017 at 5:14 am

      What are the “political reasons” you refer to?

  • Cancer doc UK July 25, 2017 at 5:39 am

    Welcome to the next age of science research.

    I have told me two sons to not go into medicine or medical research.

    They will be happier elsewhere.

  • aceil July 25, 2017 at 8:53 am

    I suggest we use se for she and he, hem for her & him and hes for her & his as gender neutral pronouns. This will make it easy to write when gender is not specified, it is also fair and equal representation for people with unspecified gender.

  • Richard Van Noorden July 25, 2017 at 8:58 am

    It’s an issue, certainly, but couldn’t the article’s poor translation simply have been corrected?

    “Modern surgeons: still masters of their trade, or just operators of medical equipment”?

    etc.

    Where’s the justification for the retraction?

  • kmf July 25, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Well, here is an easy fix for the title. Instead of “Modern Surgeon: Still a Master of his Trade or Just an Operator of Medical Equipment” you could say Modern Surgeons: Still Masters of their Trade or Just Operators of Medical Equipment.” That should be pretty painless.

  • Andy Patterson July 25, 2017 at 9:53 am

    What about transgender and binary surgeons? Won’t they feel left out by using only he/she?

  • Richard Smith July 25, 2017 at 10:11 am

    This piece amused me greatly and caused me to remember that the BMJ had an editorial announcing that we would not use sexist language in 1987. Unfortunately an audit in 1992, when I was the editor, found that 7% of articles still included sex-biased language. I’ve reflected on the issue, conducted a micro-audit, and included references here: https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/journals-surgeons-and-sexist-language/

  • Mary Kuhner July 30, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    When there is an existing power imbalance, insisting that the less powerful pretend that everything is fine does not do anything to fix the problem.

    For example, as long as police are more likely to shoot dark-skinned people than light-skinned people (and they evidently are in many parts of the US), insisting that dark-skinned people should “just get over it” does nothing whatsoever to save their lives. It is not the awareness of women/black people that they are women/black people that causes discrimination.

  • lujlp August 1, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    NEVER APOLOGIZE

    You should have accused those complaining of culturally oppressing Poles and unduly criticizing a gender neutral pronoun

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