Last week BioEdge reported that PLOS One had published the first serious study of a new condition which Lisa Littman, a researcher at Brown University, called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD). She suspected that teenagers who had suddenly announced that they were transgender were influenced by social media and friendship networks – raising the possibility that they were not genuine.
Almost immediately the journal and the university were attacked for supporting transphobia. PLOS ONE responded that it would do “further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses”. The editor told Science that “This is not about suppressing academic freedom or scientific research. This is about the scientific content itself—whether there is anything that needs to be looked into or corrected.”
And Brown removed a press release about the article from its website and replaced it with a letter from the dean of public health, Bess Marcus, who declared that it was important to listen to “multiple perspective”. She cited concerns that the article “could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”
There was a backlash from academics who felt that academic freedom was under threat. Jeffrey S. Flier, a former dean of Harvard Medical School, penned a vigorous attack on the journal’s response:
In all my years in academia, I have never once seen a comparable reaction from a journal within days of publishing a paper that the journal already had subjected to peer review, accepted and published. One can only assume that the response was in large measure due to the intense lobbying the journal received, and the threat—whether stated or unstated—that more social-media backlash would rain down upon PLOS One if action were not taken.
He also criticised Marcus’s letter and its suggestion that the findings could harm the transgender community:
Virtually any research finding related to human health may be used for unrelated and inappropriate purposes by independent actors. Indeed, this happens frequently in medical science, as when nutrition research is used to promote diets far beyond the validity of the underlying data. When this occurs, responsibility lies with those committing these acts, not the paper or its author.
The controversy raises an interesting question: is it ethical to publish findings which might be used to critique assumptions underpinning the existence of sexual minority groups?
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