A publisher has issued an expression of concern (EoC) about a study that claimed children with same-sex parents were at greater risk of depression and abuse, after posters using statistics from the paper to support a homophobic message appeared in Australia and the US.
On Aug. 21, several news websites reported that these posters were appearing in Melbourne, Australia, citing claims from a 2016 paper published in Depression Research and Treatment, which said that children with same-sex parents are more at risk for depression, abuse, and obesity than children with opposite-sex parents. The poster had also appeared previously in Minneapolis and has been traced to a neo-Nazi group, as reported by HuffPost Australia. Australia is preparing for a national, non-binding, mail-in vote on whether to provide marriage equality for same-sex couples.
The EoC mechanism, which was chosen by the journal’s publisher, Hindawi, is an unusual choice here. The paper’s author, D. Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America and the paper’s author, told Retraction Watch that Hindawi contacted him Aug. 21 about the decision. Initially, he told us he didn’t have any “particular objection to it,” but later told us he changed his mind after he read more about COPE’s guidelines for EoCs:
an Expression of Concern is a step in addressing a possible issue of scientific misconduct. No misconduct of any sort was alleged to me in the review and acceptance procedure of this article, nor at any time since. Hindawi has stated no reason for the expression of concern that relates to the study’s evidential basis or credibility. Instead, the publisher has issued the Expression of Concern only a day or two after two of the study findings were cited on a poster using pejorative anti-gay language in Australia, citing use of study information by other parties that it “believes to be hateful and wrong”. As any scientist who publishes in an open forum, I cannot be responsible for the use or misuse of my research by other parties. Nor does misuse by others impugn the accuracy and credibility of my findings.
In the EoC notice, published Aug. 22, Hindawi said it investigated the peer review process for the paper, but found no evidence of misconduct. Hindawi also said it condemned the “hateful and wrong” arguments the paper had been used to support and noted it had investigated the article’s peer review process after multiple readers raised concerns about it soon after publication.
The original paper, “Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression among Adults with Same-Sex Parent,” was published April 19, 2016 and has not yet been cited, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
Critics had attacked Sullins’ paper as soon as it came out. Nathaniel Frank, a historian of public policy and the director of What We Know, a project at Columbia Law School collecting public policy research related to LGBT equality, slammed the paper in a column at Slate, calling it “a dishonest, gratuitous assault on LGBTQ families.” Frank told Retraction Watch that Sullins hadn’t controlled for family disruption, which is known to affect children negatively and used an overbroad definition of abuse, which included instances where a parent or any other caregiver said something that made the child feel bad.
Frank told Retraction Watch that he wasn’t surprised to see Hindawi’s response, but that he felt it was “too little, too late:”
It was always irresponsible of Sullins to make these claims and for the journal to publish it. That’s even more the case in the current political climate.
What’s good about what happened is that there is daylight and the publisher and author are beginning to be held accountable as part of this process. It should have happened earlier but it’s better that it’s happening now than not at all.
I think people need room to express unpopular beliefs without being accused of being responsible for violence maniacs may perpetrate in citing their beliefs, but that doesn’t mean you can distort reality.
An internal ethics investigation
In the notice, Hindawi described how its research integrity team led an “internal ethics investigation” of the paper in 2016, after the journal received criticisms of Sullins’ paper:
[W]e evaluated the article’s peer review process and brought several concerns to the handling editor’s attention. These included: the study’s small sample of same-sex parents, the lack of discussion of other influences such as family breakup on the wellbeing of the children included in the study, the implied causation in the title “Invisible Victims,” and the potential conflict of interest implied by the author’s position as a Catholic priest.
But the journal’s editor determined the study, despite its limitations, did not warrant correction or retraction and Hindawi did not overrule him.
Concern over how a paper is being cited is not typically accepted as a reason to issue an EoC, under the retraction guidelines set by the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE). According to COPE, an EoC should be reserved for when there is: inconclusive evidence of misconduct, evidence the findings are unreliable but the author’s home institution will not investigate, a belief a misconduct investigation isn’t — or couldn’t be — fair or impartial, or an ongoing investigation that won’t produce a judgment for a long time.
The Hindawi notice is unusual, but not unprecedented: In June, the New England Journal of Medicine issued a similar post-publication comment to a short letter from 1980 that suggested patients rarely developed opioid addiction after hospital prescriptions. Like the NEJM warning — which stopped short of calling it an official EoC — Hindawi’s EoC appears to be a comment on how the paper was used, rather than a signal that there are issues related to misconduct.
When asked why Hindawi chose to post an EoC, Andrew Smeall, head of strategic projects, told us:
an “Editor’s note” would not have been appropriate in this case as this Expression of Concern came from the publisher.
Going forward, we will discuss further with COPE, our editors, and other publishers the most appropriate way to use Expressions of Concern or related terms like the “Publisher’s note.” At the moment, there do not seem to be well established mechanisms for publishers to provide such context while preserving the editorial independence of the journal’s academic editors.
In a blog post, Paul Peters, CEO of Hindawi Limited, said that the publisher decided to issue the EoC after determining its “previous steps to highlight the concerns that had been raised with this article were insufficient:”
[R]eaders who were referred directly to the original study were likely to be unaware of the subsequent critique that was published in the journal. Therefore we felt that it was important for us to highlight the concerns that had been raised about this article in the form of an Expression of Concern, as this would be made clearly visible on both the HTML and PDF versions of the published article.
Retraction of the article was among the “range of options” Hindawi considered; publishing the review reports was also considered, however, Peters wrote:
Following lengthy discussion we agreed that pursuing either of those options could set a concerning precedent by interfering with the editorial independence of our journals’ Editorial Boards or violating the confidentiality of the peer review process.
We asked Hindawi to share the referee’s reports, but a spokesperson declined to release them to us.
Peters also said Hindawi will be reviewing its policies and procedures.
Not unusual: Posters don’t use confidence intervals
Sullins told Retraction Watch that he was “not happy” his paper had been cited in the inflammatory poster:
I unreservedly repudiate any use of my research to justify bigotry and stigmatization….
However, the statistics that [the poster] cites are essentially accurate.
The problem, Sullins told us, was that the figures weren’t given proper context:
They aren’t put in a scholarly context where you would consider the pros and cons of the certainty of the evidence.
“[The poster authors] don’t put the confidence intervals in,” he said, referring to one way that researchers indicate the uncertainty of results.
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