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Sperm Limits
October 2009

A gratifying blizzard of headlines greeted the announcement in July that a team at Newcastle University had created sperm cells in a test tube. Within days the opinion-formers were busy, concocting columns about the redundancy of men. "Chaps doomed as lab grow sperm" reported the Sun, following up with a feature by Germaine Greer that stood up for men, despite their new pointlessness. They were good for "manoeuvring wheelie bins and flipping burgers on thebarbie", Germaine ventured wittily.

A good deal less ink was spilled when, two weeks later, the claim was retracted. So far as I can determine, only the London Evening Standard and the Mirror reported this. Infertile readers of every other paper remain in ignorance that the hope held out to them has been withdrawn, at least temporarily.

The "sperm in a test-tube" was a classic example of the herd-like behaviour of the media when tempted by a juicy tale. The claim originated from a team led by Professor Karim Nayernia and was published in Stem Cells and Development, a journal that promises "instant online publication" within three days of acceptance. The paper reported success in persuading embryonic stem cells to undergo meiosis, the process in which the cell divides and halves its number of chromosomes to become a reproductive cell.

In this case, haste got in the way of probity. A substantial chunk of the paper's introduction had been lifted word for word from another paper, by another group, published in 2007.

Plagiarism is a serious and growing scientific crime, although the offence in this case was not extreme. The preamble but not the core of the paper had been cut and pasted, or so it is claimed. A junior member of the team, Dr Jae Ho Lee, got the blame. But the editor-in-chief of the journal, Graham Parker, still believed the proper thing to do was to retract the paper as soon as he was told of the offence. 

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