Study claiming hate cuts 12 years off gay lives retracted

Low Library, Columbia University

After years of back and forth, a highly cited paper that appeared to show that gay people who live in areas where people were highly prejudiced against them had a significantly shorter life expectancy has been retracted.

The paper, “Structural stigma and all-cause mortality in sexual minority populations,”  was published in 2014 by Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University and colleagues. As we reported last year, Mark Regnerus, of the University of Texas at Austin, published a paper describing his failed attempts to replicate the study in 2016:

After Regnerus’s study, Hatzenbuehler hired a colleague at Columbia, Katherine Keyes, to try to replicate the findings as well. She found a variable coding error. Hatzenbuehler requested a correction … in September 2017, despite the fact that the error nullified the main findings. The journal agreed to simply correct (not retract) the paper, and issued the notice Dec. 11, 2017.

The journal’s editors-in-chief Ichiro Kawachi and S.V. Subramanian, both of Harvard University, told us last year:

If the findings do not stand up to peer review, we will proceed to retract the original paper.

Now, the paper — which has been cited 141 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, giving it a “highly cited paper” designation — has been retracted:

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors and the Editors-in-Chief.

The reason for the retraction is that the authors discovered an error in the study, which, once corrected, rendered the association between structural stigma and mortality risk no longer statistically significant in the sample of 914 sexual minorities. The authors published a Corrigendum (Corrigendum to “Structural stigma and all-cause mortality in sexual minority populations” [Soc. Sci. Med. 103 (2014) 33–41], Volume 200, March 2018, p 271), pending a re-analysis of the data. Re-analysis confirmed that the original finding was erroneous and the authors wish to fully retract their original study accordingly.

Although the retraction notice lacks a date — like many published by Elsevier in the past year or so — we understand that it went online on February 7 of this year. Neither of the journal’s editors in chief responded to a request for comment. [See update at end of post.]

More than three dozen of the citations to the paper came after its December 2017 correction. Asked for comment, Hatzenbuehler referred us to a Columbia spokesperson, who said:

In 2017, Dr. Mark Hatzenbuehler and his team hired an independent researcher to re-analyze data from their study, “Structural Stigma and All-Cause Mortality in Sexual Minority Populations” (published in Social Science & Medicine in February 2014). The independent researcher documented a coding error.

Once this error was corrected, there was no longer a significant association between structural stigma and mortality risk in the full sample of sexual minorities, as originally reported. Dr. Hatzenbuehler and his co-authors have now conducted the re-analysis of the data; this new paper is currently in the process of peer-review.

“Unlikely upon first read”

The retraction “makes sense,” Regnerus told Retraction Watch:

After the journal published my article detailing a consistent failure to replicate the original study, Professor Hatzenbuehler’s team issued a brief corrigendum noting the coding error and its profound effect on the study’s key finding. But simply noting it — while the original study remained in print, garnering additional readers and new citations — did not seem sufficient. I commend the journal’s editors for their decision.

Regnerus, who has testified against same-sex marriage, continued:

I do not think Professor Hatzenbuehler and his research team acted in bad faith. However, the whole experience ought to give us pause. The original study’s central finding passed muster with its co-authors, then its reviewers, readers, and the media. Its magnitude — an estimated 12 years of shortened life expectancy — struck me as unlikely upon first read. I can’t be the only one to have wondered that.

ThinkProgress, which published a 2016 story about Regnerus’ attempts to question the paper, has added an editor’s note about the retraction.

Update, 2020 UTC, 2/26/19: Ichiro Kawachi, one of the editors in chief of the journal, tells us:

When Hatzenbuehler submitted the re-analyses, it became apparent to us that the new submission is not actually a “re-analysis” or “corrected & updated” version of the original paper; rather it is an entirely new study. This made their Corrigendum untenable – i.e. an author cannot publish a “Corrigendum” to a study whose main conclusion turned out to be incorrect. Hence we proceeded with fully retracting their 2014 article.

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