Elsevier makes “sand, sun, sea and sex with strangers” paper disappear following criticism

An Elsevier journal has disappeared a paper claiming that gay men seeking sex on the beach is damaging dunes, after critics lambasted the work as terrible science and an “egregious” attack on gays and bisexuals. 

The article, “Sand, Sun, Sea and Sex with Strangers, the “five S’s”. Characterizing “cruising” activity and its environmental impacts on a protected coastal dunefield [WebArchive link],” argues that the littoral lovemaking habits of some particularly enthusiastic mariners might be damaging key ecological species: 

The results show that the distribution of the 298 identified sex spots, which occupy an area of 5763.85 m2, is related to the distance to authorized paths in the protected area, to the presence of bushy and dense vegetation, and to stabilized aeolian landforms or ones formed by vegetation (nebkhas). The bigger the sex spot, the higher the number of people who made use of it, the greater the likelihood of it being a low-lying area covered by vegetation, and the larger the amount of waste. The activities developed in these sex spots impact directly on the aeolian landforms and on eight native plant species, three of which are endemic species.

The paper was part of the January 2022 issue of the Journal of Environmental Management and appeared online on October 11, 2021. It didn’t take long before critics began calling for its retraction — not, or not just, because of its offensive premise, but because the authors appeared not to have received ethics approval for the study. [See update here.]

Markus Eichhorn, a forest ecologist at University College Cork in Ireland, tweeted:

On November 13 The Stem Village, which supports the LGBTQIA+ community in the STEM world, published a letter it wrote to the journal demanding retraction:

We, like many others, are astonished that this level of irresponsibility passed editorial and peer review to be published. This, of course, is not the first article like this to also be published. As a community, we want to help enact change, and challenge “research” such as this, and the editorial processes that lead to their publication.

We have penned an open letter to the Editors-in-Chief of the journal in question, asking them to retract the article, and will be sharing this with the respective universities of the authors. We have further contacted the funding body, the European Regional Development Fund, and the Commissioner of the fund, raising concerns that public funding was used to support a study that could directly endanger the lives of people engaging in cruising.

Today, The Stem Village tweeted that the researchers had apologized for the article — here’s the letter — and would be making changes to it:

An error now appears where the paper once lived online, which isn’t what we — or the Committee on Publication Ethics — would consider best-practice in this or any case. [See update at end.]

As we have noted elsewhere, Elsevier has temporarily removed more than 100 papers since 2005, by our count. The papers are often reinstated without any mention of why the paper was removed.

Co-author Patrick Hesp, of the Beach and Dune Systems Laboratory, College of Science and Engineering, Flinders University, in South Australia, who penned a commentary on the paper for The Conversation, declined to comment pending decisions by the editors.

Update, 1100 UTC, 11/28/21: The paper is now marked as a “temporary removal.” As is the case for other papers Elsevier labels this way, the notice reads:

The publisher regrets that this article has been temporarily removed. A replacement will appear as soon as possible in which the reason for the removal of the article will be specified, or the article will be reinstated.

The full Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal can be found at https://www.elsevier.com/about/our-business/policies/article-withdrawal.

Hat tip: Alan McElligott

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9 thoughts on “Elsevier makes “sand, sun, sea and sex with strangers” paper disappear following criticism”

    1. “The publisher regrets that this article has been temporarily removed.”

      If the publisher “regrets that this article has been temporarily removed” then why in the world did they remove it. (Other than the fact that the cancel culture, twitter mob, victim card players found the paper to be unacceptable.)

  1. Well, just more cancel culture at its best. Or worst. They hit every trigger point in that Twitter thread that they can. Disgusting.

    As I’ve said before, science is well and truly dead.

  2. All of the ‘cancel culture’ firestorm might have been avoided if during review Editors had done due diligence & asked questions about ethical approval for the study. This is editorial best practice & has nothing to do with the subject matter or scientific content of the paper [which is a separate issue]. One wonders if the Reviewers of the paper raised the issue about ethical approval?

    1. The ethics approval thing would get me too except I don’t know if they needed approval. Some jurisdictions don’t require ethics approval for everything- it might only be needed for medical research or there might be exceptions for low impact studies.

      It depends on what they did (which I don’t know since the article is gone) and what rules apply where the research was done (which I also don’t know). If they were just watching public beaches getting trashed then it might not have needed approval.

      1. Impossible to know for sure without access to the the actual paper, but the title suggests that they look at crowds and never at individuals. If so, it’s hard to see why they would have needed ethical board approval . There may be other things to criticize with the paper (again, impossible to know while it’s temporarily removed) , but the lack of ethical board review seems a red herring.

  3. The only problem appears to be the reference to the LBGT community. Leave that out and just refer to ‘humans having sex’ and re-publish.

  4. Precisely why would the study need ethical approval? Why do gays have a veto on science? Also there’s no such thing as an “LGBT Community.

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