The peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems with a controversial and widely publicized study that seemed to raise doubts about the parenting abilities of gay couples, according to an internal audit scheduled to appear in the November issue of the journal, Social Science Research, that published the study.
The highly critical audit, a draft of which was provided to The Chronicle by the journal’s editor, also cites conflicts of interest among the reviewers, and states that “scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from the review process.”
Since it was published last month, the study, titled “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?,” has been the subject of numerous news articles and blog posts. It has been used by opponents of same-sex marriage to make their case, and it’s been blasted by gay-rights activists as flawed and biased.
The study’s author, Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, even made the cover of The Weekly Standard. In the illustration, he is strapped to a Catherine wheel that’s being tended by masked torturers.
Like Regnerus, the editor of Social Science Research, James D. Wright, has been at the receiving end of an outpouring of anger over the paper. At the suggestion of another scholar, Wright, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida, assigned a member of the journal’s editorial board—Darren E. Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale—to examine how the paper was handled.
Sherkat 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 bullshit,” 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.”
At the same time, he sympathizes with the task of the overburdened reviewer inclined to skim. Because of how the paper was written, Sherkat said, it would have been easy to miss Regnerus’s explanation of who qualified as “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers.” If a reviewer were to skip ahead to the statistics in the table, it would be understandable, he said, to assume that the children described there were, in fact, raised by a gay or lesbian couple for a significant portion of their childhoods.
In reality, only two respondents lived with a lesbian couple for their entire childhoods, and most did not live with lesbian or gay parents for long periods, if at all.
The information about how parents are labeled is in the paper. Regnerus writes that he chose those labels for “the sake of brevity and to avoid entanglement in interminable debates about fixed or fluid orientations.” Sherkat, however, called the presentation of the data “extremely misleading.” Writes Sherkat: “Reviewers uniformly downplayed or ignored the fact that the study did not examine children of identifiably gay and lesbian parents, and none of the reviewers noticed that the marketing-research data were inappropriate for a top-tier social-scientific journal.”
He also had harsh words for an accompanying paper in the same issue by Loren D. Marks, an associate professor of family, child, and consumer sciences at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Marks wrote a review of papers that had been published on the children of same-sex parents, taking the authors of those papers to task for using “small convenience samples” that are not generalizable, among other failings.
Sherkat writes that the Marks paper is “a lowbrow meta-analysis of studies” that was “inappropriate for a journal that publishes original quantitative research.” Sherkat, in an interview, said that Marks didn’t perform a true meta-analysis of the studies and instead simply wrote summaries of the results. Marks could not be reached for comment.
That said, Sherkat did not find that the journal’s normal procedures had been disregarded, or that the Regnerus paper had been inappropriately expedited to publication, as some critics have charged. He also vigorously defended Wright, the editor. “If I were in Wright’s shoes,” he writes, “I may well have made the same decisions.”
Because the reviewers were unanimously positive, Wright had little choice but to go ahead with publication, according to Sherkat. He goes on: “My review of the editorial processing of the Regnerus and Marks papers revealed that there were no gross violations of editorial procedures—the papers were peer-reviewed, and the ‘peers’ for papers on this topic were similar to what you would expect at Social Science Research.”
As for accusations that Wright was part of a conservative conspiracy, as some have suggested, Sherkat deems that “ludicrous.”
Sherkat was an early critic of the paper, even before he was chosen to conduct the audit. He also said in an interview that he had “little respect for conservative religiosity” and believes that Regnerus and some other socially conservative scholars push a political agenda in their academic work. In a paper published last year, he wrote about how religion and political affiliation affects support for same-sex marriage.
“There should be reflection about a conservative scholar garnering a very large grant from exceptionally conservative foundations,” he writes in the audit, “to make incendiary arguments about the worthiness of LGBT parents—and putting this out in time to politicize it before the 2012 United States presidential election.”
Sherkat considers Regnerus to be “a bright young scholar,” and, years ago, he wrote a letter of recommendation for him. Sherkat believes that Regnerus, whom he has known for two decades, made a decision to push a conservative political agenda in his academic work a number of years ago, and that this paper is evidence of it.
Regnerus wrote in a blog post that he is “at a point in my career where I’m less concerned about making my professional peers happy.”
Regnerus declined to sit for an interview, citing the University of Texas’ continuing inquiry into the paper. But when asked by e-mail if Sherkat was a fair arbiter in this case, he replied: “He was appointed to undertake the audit. I won’t offer subjective perceptions of fairness or lack thereof.”
Wright, the editor, provided The Chronicle with a draft of his response to the controversy, which will also appear in the November issue of the journal. He writes that two of the six reviewers were paid consultants to the New Family Structures Study, of which this paper is a part (in addition, two of the three commentators on the paper in the journal had been paid consultants on the new-family study, a fact that was divulged at the time the paper was published).
Wright mentions that they made this known to him, assured him it would not affect their judgment, and said that he trusts his reviewers to “check their ideological guns at the referee’s door.” He notes, too, that it’s not unusual for scholars who have been consultants at some point on a project to later serve as referees.
Wright has suffered sleepless nights since the publication of Regnerus’s paper, and has received a steady stream of angry e-mails, from both colleagues and irate strangers. In his response, he writes that accusations that he was trying to foster gay-bashing are “hurtful and preposterous” and that he also believes, along with critics of the paper, in civil rights for gay people and lesbians.
In his audit, Sherkat reveals that all the reviewers declared that the paper would generate “enormous interest.” Enormous interest leads to citations and downloads, which is how a journal’s relevance is judged. The higher the impact of its papers, the greater its prestige. Wright acknowledges that he was excited about the interest the paper would no doubt inspire, and he wonders in retrospect if “perhaps this prospect caused me to be inattentive to things I should have kept a keener eye on.”
That excitement was backed up by unanimous positive support from all reviewers. As Sherkat writes: "[I]t is unfair to expect Wright to hear the warning sirens when none were sounded by the reviewers.”
Wright points out (as Regnerus himself wrote) that the paper could be read as supportive of gay marriage because it seems to indicate that more-stable households produce less-troubled children. “This does not sound like spiteful gay-bashing to me,” Wright contends in his response. “It sounds like a perfectly reasonable conclusion.”