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Journal's Audit Blasts Flawed Mark Regnerus Study on Gay Parents

The Mark Regnerus study on gay parenting which was published last month and called "flawed, misleading, and scientifically unsound" by GLAAD, HRC, The Family Equality Council and Freedom to Marry has been blown apart again, this time by an internal audit scheduled to appear in the November issue of the journal Social Science Research, which first published the study.

The Chronicle received an advance copy and reports:

RegnerusSherkat was given access to all the reviews and correspondence connected with the paper, and was told the identities of the reviewers. According to Sherkat, Regnerus’s paper should never have been published. His assessment of it, in an interview, was concise: “It’s bullsh*t,” he said.

Among the problems Sherkat identified is the paper’s definition of “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers”—an aspect that has been the focus of much of the public criticism. A woman could be identified as a “lesbian mother” in the study if she had had a relationship with another woman at any point after having a child, regardless of the brevity of that relationship and whether or not the two women raised the child as a couple.

Sherkat said that fact alone in the paper should have “disqualified it immediately” from being considered for publication.

In his audit, he writes that the peer-review system failed because of “both ideology and inattention” on the part of the reviewers (three of the six reviewers, according to Sherkat, are on record as opposing same-sex marriage). What’s more, he writes that the reviewers were “not without some connection to Regnerus,” and suggests that those ties influenced their reviews.

He declined to be more specific in an interview, saying that he was obligated to protect their identities. “Obviously,” he concluded, “the reviewers did not do a good job.”

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  1. @Scott: I appreciate the work you've been doing as an investigative journalist, and certainly you've offered some great coverage of this issue since the study broke. But you're off base with the academic misconduct charges.

    1. Having a right wing funding source, per se, is not academic misconduct. Normally before a grant is awarded there is some kind of request for proposals process; I haven't heard whether that was the case here, but even if they simply picked Regnerus because they had a hunch he'd be the right person for the job they had in mind that is not academic misconduct either. Funding organizations often have specific individuals in mind to look at particular problems of interest to them, and it's part of their free speech rights to throw as much money as they want at the researcher. The resulting research may not be worth the match to burn it, but hey it's their money to waste.

    2. A crappy research design is not academic misconduct. If you flubbed up your sampling design, committed howling errors, and drew invalid conclusions, that would not be academic misconduct. If some incompetent and/or distracted reviewers let it get thru the peer review process, that wouldn't be academic misconduct either.

    What IS academic misconduct then? You have to distinguish between malfeasance and misfeasance. It's not enough to be incompetent. You have to have willingly, consciously manipulated your data, or take kickbacks, or misuse your grant money, or plagarize the results of others, or deny people credit for the contributions they made, etc. It's all about intent. And, that hasn't been proven in this case. He did not falsify the data, in the sense of actually tweaking his samples. What Regnerus did was engage in what is called "shotgun empiricism" - tweaking his definitions until he got the results he wanted, while leaving the original data intact. It's bad science, and produces a lousy study, but it's not academic misconduct.

    In short, of the objections lodged in your complaint, most of them go to the issue of the quality of the research - but poor quality research isn't academic misconduct. If it were, 80% of academicians would be at risk of being brought up on charges, because at the end of the day all research has flaws. What science strives to do is to minimize the flaws by running the study through the peer review process.

    Posted by: BZ | Jul 27, 2012 4:06:11 PM

  2. @KIT - one other thing that may have happened, is that it's not uncommon for an editor to ask the author to name a few scholars who are familiar with this particular area of the literature and would have the professional competence to act as reviewers. Academic fields can be incredibly specialized; depending on what you're working on, there may be only 20-30 people in the world who really know what's going on. That makes the editorial process relatively easier to manipulate. Regnerus probably nominated some of his buddies who he knew shared his political perspectives, and the editor simply assigned them without carefully reflecting on the implications for a study of this nature. The buddies then quickly gave glowing reviews of the research, and once that happened the editor's hands were kind of tied. That's the only way this could have gotten thru the peer review process in five weeks, when ordinarily it takes a year or more for this particular journal (and I agree with you that SSR is a pretty highly regarded journal, or was until this debacle seriously tarnished their reputation.)

    Now, Scott: if you want to look for evidence of academic misconduct, this was the place to look - in the editorial peer review process, rather than in the details of the study design. But you would probably have a hard time making anything stick. This kind of manipulation of the peer review process happens all the time; it's one of the dirty little secrets of the academic world.

    Posted by: BZ | Jul 27, 2012 4:16:37 PM

  3. BZ-
    Nice try at attempting to defend this study but it has and will continue to be highlighted as the FAKE fraud it is. It holds no weight in proving how gay parents parent. No matter how hard your side attempts to prove it does. Our side has transparency with it

    Posted by: Scholar Gillato | Jul 27, 2012 6:43:38 PM

  4. @BZ -- That would be a good point if it were the case that there are only 20-30 people who are competent to review this. But this is not an obscure area of sociology and the methodology is basic first year grad school stuff. There are many, many people who could have read this -- some of them are among the 200 Ph.D.s who signed the letter in protest of this study (I am one of them, btw). I have published in numerous sociology journals. Never once have I been asked to name possible reviewers (and my area of expertise is far more specialized and obscure than Regnerus's). I have not published in SSR, although one of my colleagues has. He was not asked to nominate reviewers. There is something fishy going on here...

    Posted by: kit | Jul 27, 2012 6:55:24 PM

  5. @Scholar Gillato - It's amusing how you could imagine, from reading what I wrote, that I was defending this study. It's a steaming pile of crap, as I think I made rather clear if you go back and reread what I said. My point is that there's a big difference between poor quality research and academic misconduct, namely, that of the incompetent vs. the crook.

    Posted by: BZ | Jul 28, 2012 9:36:33 AM

  6. @KIT: I agree there's something fishy going on in the peer reviewing process. I also hold a Ph.D. in the social sciences (not sociology) and have a number of journal publications. I don't know what the prevailing practice is in other disciplines, but it's certainly not unheard of in mine for authors to meet and socialize with journal editors informally at conferences, discuss upcoming submissions, and speculate as to which colleagues (who are already reviewers for the journal) might be good choices for the peer review. I have no evidence that it happened in this case, but it's far from an uncommon occurrence in some corners. The rationale goes that if the paper is saying something really new (a novel method, or exploring a topic from a new perspective) then ordinary reviewers would be less enclined to recognize the potential merit of new lines of research. Essentially, it's 'give the new idea a chance' although of course the research still must meet the standards of the journal, there's no relaxation of that.

    For example, a paper might have found some interesting insights suggestive of overlooked phenomena by using qualitative methods. Most of the editors of journal X are accustomed to using quantitative methods and would shoot a qualitative paper down by applying inappropriate review criteria. The conversation with the editor would then be something like, "can you find us some reviewers on your list who understand a thing or two about how to evaluate a qualitative paper?" And, that's a legitimate request because otherwise the journal might reject a paper that's otherwise got a worthwhile contribution to make. Of course, it's not hard to see how this kind of thing can be abused.

    Note that the bulk of previous LGBT parenting studies used small samples (convenience sampling, snowball sampling) to find their informants. This Regenerus study didn't. So Regenerus could have said something similar, "Hey, I've got the first major quantitative study here, and the results may be very different from previous qualitative studies. Can you find me some reviewers who have a track history of quantitative studies?" "Well, who did you have in mind?" "Hm...let me see..."

    Posted by: BZ | Jul 28, 2012 9:49:44 AM

  7. To clarify: The UT definition of scientific and scholarly misconduct includes this: "other practices that seriously deviate from ethical standards for proposing, conducting, or reporting research are unacceptable and in some cases may constitute scientific misconduct." Presenting as a valid, a study based on a test-group/control-group comparison, in which the test-group/control-group comparison is not valid (as is the case with the Regnerus study) seriously deviates from ethical standards for reporting research. Although intent often is a major factor in misconduct, reckless misconduct exists, and has been sanctioned in the past. The allegations are presented to UT for an Inquiry, the purpose of which is to determine whether proceeding to an Investigation is warranted. The totality of considerations in the Regnerus matter irrefutably warrant an investigation. Regnerus's funders have a long-established history of distorting the scientific record to carry out their gay-bashing and their political gay bashing. Their reliance on Paul Cameron is only one example. It absolutely is scientific misconduct for a funding source improperly to influence the design, conduct and/or reporting of the study. Regnerus's study is inappropriate and inadequate in its design, conduct and reporting. We now know additionally that at least some of the peer reviewers had conflicts of interest, and that the journal editor decided to publish on commercial, not on scientific grounds. The evidence that misconduct has occurred is overwhelming, and in order to determine if, how and among whom the alleged misconduct occurred, a full and thorough investigation is warranted. Not to proceed to a full investigation, given everything we know, would be to sweep the dirt under the carpet.

    Posted by: Scott Rose | Jul 30, 2012 1:38:35 PM

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