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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