A Serious Blow to Academic Freedom--No Outcry, Though

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on November 17, 2013.

The heavily publicized campaign by gay activists against University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus is back in the news, this time with more ominous implications for peer review and academic freedom.  A Florida court has ordered that records of confidential peer reviews of scholarly articles be turned over to a self-styled "investigative journalist."  It is an alarming decision for several reasons.

The case is John M. Becker v. University of Central Florida, and the decision, issued November 12, came from the hand of Orange County, Florida, Circuit Judge Donald Grincewicz.  A copy of the decision is here.  The technical issue is whether Becker, the journalist, can keep records that the university inadvertently gave him on a flash drive.  The drive contained more than 50,000 emails related to the work of a University of Central Florida faculty member, James Wright, who is the editor-in-chief of the Social Science Research Journal (SSR). 

But what the case is really about is the continuing effort by gay activists to discredit the work of Mark Regnerus, whose July 2012 article in SSR infuriated some.  The article, "How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?  Findings from the New Family Structures Study," immediately struck a nerve.  Regnerus's study coincidentally appeared a few months after president Obama, in a White House interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, endorsed gay marriage.  Within months, politicians and public figures of all sorts suddenly discerned a basic "human right" in what only a decade earlier had been a fringe idea with virtually no public support. 

Children Raised in Gay Households

The astonishing speed with which the concept of gay marriage gained political favor and public acceptance in the United States (and elsewhere in the Western world) left a lot of loose threads.  One of those was the topic of Regnerus's research.  He noted that almost all the studies that purported to show that children raised by a parent involved in a homosexual relationship were based on very small samples, and the samples were also mostly "convenience samples" made up of volunteers who did not represent the broader population.  Regnerus set out to put this inquiry on a firmer social science footing by using a random sample of 15,000 respondents.  What he found was--to the discomfort of some activists--"numerous, consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents."

The initial response, which I wrote about in The Chronicle of Higher Education as "The Regnerus Affair at UT Austin," combined furious denunciation and an attempt to get the University of Texas to "investigate" Regnerus for "academic misconduct."  The university responded with an "inquiry" that found no evidence of wrong-doing, after which it dropped the matter.  But the activists were not finished.  The denunciations continued in a variety of forums but so did parallel efforts including the initiative by John M. Becker ("LGBT activist, writer and blogger") to use a public records law in Florida to (in his words) "discover the truth about the peer review and publishing of the Regnerus paper." 

The real goal, I suppose, was to launch another attack on the credibility of the study by attempting to discredit SSR's editor and the paper's peer reviewers.  Becker and his allies might also hope to shame the peer reviewers by making public their confidential assessments on a controversial article.  

Last Spring I wrote an article on "The Campaign to Discredit Regnerus and the Assault on Peer Review" that drew attention to the dangers that the anti-Regnerus activists had set in motion.  Regnerus has acquitted himself well in this affair.  He conscientiously answered his critics' substantive points in a subsequent SSR article and in November 2012 he deposited all of the data from his study at the University of Michigan's Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.  Any qualified researcher who wishes to examine the data can do so.  In practical terms, it is already public--which would seem to obviate any call for yet more transparency. 

The 'Hockey Stick' and Double Standards

Consider the contrast to the work of climatologist Michael Mann, whose famous "hockey stick" graph of global warming employed a statistical methodology that has never been publicly disclosed.  Regnerus has made his work transparent and left it at that; Mann has kept his secrets and filed lawsuits against his critics.

Regardless of where one stands on gay marriage or on the merits of Regnerus's original article, the decision by Judge Grincewicz is troubling.  Peer review is a foundational part of modern research, both in the academy and beyond.  The ideal is to have people who possess genuine competence in a field or a profession provide dispassionate assessments of a fellow researcher's work.  Typically that means reading a draft of an unpublished article submitted to a journal, but peer review also applies to books, experiments, films, and a wide range of other formats.  In some forms it is "double blind," i.e. neither the researcher nor the reviewer knows who the other is.  The procedures vary from field to field.  But the goal is the same: to obtain honest assessments as free as possible from personal favor or disfavor.

Peer review, being a human institution, isn't perfect. Bias can seep into the reviewing in lots of ways, and a good editor attempts to offset this by seeking multiple reviewers independent of each other. 

But crucial to the whole idea of peer review is that the reviewer proceeds with the assurance that his identity will not be disclosed and his words will not be attributed to him.  Without that, many reviewers would be diverted from their judgment of the quality of the work at hand to considerations of how their review might damage (or improve) their relationship with their colleagues and friends, the profession at large, and the original author. 

The Judge Misses the Point

In his opinion in John M. Becker v. University of Central Florida, Judge Grincewicz seems entirely oblivious to this aspect of the case.  He focuses entirely on whether Professor Wright, as an employee of a public university, has the right to keep some of his email out of public sight.  Again, notice the parallel to what happened to Michael Mann's research materials in Virginia.  In 2010, Virginia's attorney general (and later unsuccessful candidate for governor) Ken Cuccinelli issued a "civil investigative demand" for materials held by the University of Virginia pertaining to Professor Mann's research when he served on UVA's faculty.  The materials happened to include Mann's email correspondence to 39 people and "computer algorithms, programs, and source codes."  The academic community in Virginia and elsewhere generally rose to Mann's defense on the grounds that Cuccinelli's action threatened "academic freedom."  The university petitioned the courts to dismiss Cuccinelli's demand and in August 2010 prevailed when Judge Paul Peatross ruled that the investigation was unwarranted.  The case went through various appeals and was ultimately decided by Virginia's Supreme Court, which ruled in March 2012 that the attorney general has no authority to demand the documents. 

I imagine the documents that Michael Mann is non-disclosing have considerably more substantive value to the public than the peer review emails about Mark Regnerus's article that John Becker has successfully sought. Two public universities. Two controversial researchers.  Two very different outcomes.  I don't know of any campus outcry to defend the academic freedom of Professor Wright or the reviewers of Regnerus's article.  Defending what might be called climate change orthodoxy from the scrutiny of skeptics is one thing; defending scholars who are judged to be on the wrong side of the efforts to further gay rights is something else.

Gays Call It 'Junk Science'

Judge Grincewicz's opinion in the Becker case says nothing about these larger issues, but advocacy groups see the decision as a significant victory.  The Human Rights Campaign headlined its account of the decision, "Judge Orders Disclosure of Documents Detailing Publication of Regnerus' Junk Science."  The article trails comments from those who aim to push still further.  For instance:

Hopefully, this lawsuit will prove embarrassing enough that Elsevier removes Wright from his positions with them, so that he can't publish any more anti-gay junk science with the unwarranted and false imprimature [sic] that it went through peer review. 

That's from "Scott Rose" (Scott Rosenweig's blogonym), the activist who began the effort to get the University of Texas to "investigate" Regnerus.  Another comment leaver imagines that the publisher will be forced to retract Regnerus's study. 

Nearly a century ago the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued its founding Statement of Principles in an attempt to crystallize the idea of academic freedom.  The document grew out of several cases in which prominent scholars had been fired for promoting unorthodox opinions, and it warned of "the dangers connected with the existence in a democracy of an overwhelming and concentrated public opinion." 

The Florida case would have been beyond the imagining of Arthur Lovejoy, John Dewey, and the other AAUP founders, but they would recognize the principle at stake.  A group of activists has launched a campaign aimed at inflicting hardship and discredit on anyone who disagrees with or impedes their agenda.  A Florida court just handed them a victory--one that could well have consequences far beyond this particular controversy.


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