Psychologists want to retract old papers about conversion therapy. Elsevier says no.

Over the past year, a professional society for cognitive therapists has been pondering what to do with dozens of decades-old articles about conversion therapy – the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity – in the archives of the journals it publishes. 

The society, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), was considering a variety of options, including retraction. 

But in a statement the group published earlier this month, ABCT said Elsevier, the journals’ publisher, would not allow retraction of the articles. 

According to the statement, Elsevier told ABCT that articles on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts (SOGICEs) “do not qualify for retraction consideration per Elsevier policy,” because the publisher “strictly adheres to COPE guidelines.” 

The full statement reads: 

Yesterday, the ABCT Publications Committee unanimously approved a number of options to be considered by Editors related to reducing harms from articles related to SOGICEs. Approved actions reflect the Publications Committee’s commitment to scientific principles and harm prevention. This unanimous vote followed Elsevier informing the Committee that ABCT may not take actions on articles inconsistent with Elsevier policy. Elsevier strictly adheres to COPE guidelines, and articles on SOGICEs do not qualify for retraction consideration per Elsevier policy. Thus, Elsevier will not consider retraction of articles related to SOGICEs in our journals. [emphasis original] In light of this, ABCT is removing the retraction policy previously open for comment. We know this is not the outcome that all members wanted. We remain receptive to feedback from membership on this important issue and the portal for feedback remains open

ABCT denounces the practice of SOGICEs and is committed to the work of reducing the harms from these articles. The Board is actively outlining proactive steps to guide and energize our systematic efforts in this area. The vote yesterday from the Publications Committee supports the editorial teams of all ABCT journals in using several options to appropriately flag content related to harmful practices in its journals and link to corrective information. We will be sharing examples of corrective actions in the near future. But, in the meantime, it was important for us to share this update to keep things as transparent as possible.

Elsevier publishes three journals for ABCT: the Behavior Therapist, Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, and Behavior Therapy. A spokesperson for the publisher has not yet responded to our request for comment. 

We asked David Teisler, ABCT’s director of publications, how many papers in the society’s journals addressed SOGICEs, and what options the publications committee had approved for editors. Teisler shared this statement from the ABCT board: 

ABCT governance, and its Publications committee, which is tasked with overseeing the organization’s media and publications, has been working to address articles on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts (SOGICEs) over the past year. Approximately 40-50 years ago, ABCT journals published several articles on the practice of SOGICEs (e.g., up to 23 articles contain keywords related to SOGICEs), many of which were co-authored by ABCT members. The ABCT Publications committee had thoughtful discussion of all possible options including removal and/or retraction of previously published articles, application of disclaimers and expressions of concern, and production of peer-reviewed commentaries linked to the articles. Decisions were guided by the dual goals of reducing harms (past, current, and future) related to the articles in question and upholding the integrity of the scientific peer review process. ABCT is also informed by Elsevier, its publishing partner for the ABCT journal, which advised that removal and retraction of these papers is not currently possible under COPE guidelines and publisher policies. Ultimately, it was determined that use of both disclaimers and the development of new research, such as commentaries that correct misinformation and use of harmful practices, will optimize harm reduction while ensuring transparency and scientific rigor.

The episode reminded us of something our cofounders wrote for Wired in 2020, after journals retracted three deeply flawed articles with racist and sexist premises – to repeat, these are bad science, not just racist or sexist – following outpourings of outrage on social media:

Journals want us to trust what’s in their name, even more so now that their monopoly on scientific communication has begun to falter. But every time a reader sees a paper with fatal flaws that hasn’t been retracted, that trust erodes a little further. The double-standard doesn’t help. By all means pull all the racist, sexist papers built on faulty premises. But then, let the purge continue: keep digging deep into the archives to remove the science that’s bad for other reasons, too.

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10 thoughts on “Psychologists want to retract old papers about conversion therapy. Elsevier says no.”

  1. What does this mean, “In light of this, ABCT is removing the retraction policy previously open for comment.”?

    It makes it sound like they are removing a policy that people could reference to see how they make decisions. Curious to know if I’m interpreting that correctly.

  2. Sounds like an excellent reason to discontinue Elsevier’s rights to use the society’s trademarks in any manner or fashion, for cause. Follow Glossa’s lead!

  3. I don’t think this is a productive use of people’s time. The articles are decades old, but they were published and, I assume, met the standards of their era. Maybe put an editorial notice on the online editions saying the society has disavowed the practice because it’s inhumane and harmful etc but why spend so much time fighting the past when there are so many battles to be fought today?

    1. Today’s battles began in the past. Yes it’s important to address the present, but it’s equally important to acknowledge how we came to these problems in the first place.

      At the minimum, these articles should be flagged as harmful — with a note that updates will be provided as they become available.

  4. Money first when it comes to Elsevier. It is refusing to lift a finger. Unlike democratically elected governments Elsevier does not have to stand for re-election, but goes on its autonomous own way and makes more money. Bank balance first, science last!

  5. ‘According to the statement, Elsevier told ABCT that articles on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts (SOGICEs) “do not qualify for retraction consideration per Elsevier policy,” ‘

    “Gender Identity”, really?

    “Approximately 40-50 years ago, ABCT journals published several articles on the practice of SOGICEs (e.g., up to 23 articles contain keywords related to SOGICEs), ”

    That period really sounds like it was only in the context of sexual orientation. “Gender Identity Disorder” was only introduced in DSM 3 in 1980 (a little more than 40 years ago).

    It is so dubious to conflate conversion therapy in the context of sexual orientation and conflate it with the nebulous concept of ‘gender identity’. Many organizations do this. Retraction Watch is quoting the matter accurately, but really ought to ask if the claim is accurate here.

    James Cantor has written about the dubious and common conflation when the AAP chose to engage in it:

  6. In this case, I don’t actually disagree with Elsevier. The fact that a paper is wrong about something, or is now considered unethical but not so at the time of publication, are not reasons for retraction. What are the reasons ABCT demands retractions? Is there data fraud, or plagiarism?

    1. I guess it depends upon what “retraction” actually means. And that sorta depends upon how we think of the “scientific record”. Is it the historical record of scientific progress? Or is it the commonly accepted body of knowledge? We’ve sorta decided (and your statement makes it seem like you agree) that the scientific record is the historical record, so it should only get removed in cases of plagiarism, fraud, or gross incompetence (which is often difficult to distinguish from fraud). But if you think that the scientific record is currently accepted knowledge, then when there’s a consensus that a belief is no longer part of the commonly accepted body of scientific knowledge, then retraction is simply a recognition of that fact.
      Personally, I think retractions should be much more common, and also less stigmatised (except for cases of fraud, etc.). That doesn’t mean it is always easy to say what should or should not be part of commonly accepted body of scientific knowledge. But I don’t think removing work that is now shown to be incorrect should be equated with Stalin’s practice of erasing political opponents from pictures. But I don’t think of the scientific record as history

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