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Is the Research All Right?

July 13, 2012

The University of Texas at Austin has opened a fact-finding “inquiry” into allegations of research misconduct against a tenured faculty member who concluded in a recent published study that children of same-sex couples may be at a disadvantage when it comes to certain forms of success in adulthood.

While the university has not opened a formal investigation nor taken any action against Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at UT-Austin, the case has provoked spirited critiques of his methodology as well as allegations that the Texas sociologist was unduly influenced by two politically conservative organizations that helped fund his study.

“There are many cases in [the study] where respondents have proven resilient and prevailed as adults in spite of numerous transitions, be they death, divorce, additional or diverse romantic partners, or remarriage,” wrote Regnerus, in a paper published last month by the peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research. However, he continues, the study also “clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults — on multiple counts and across a variety of domains — when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.”  

Regnerus took care to mention in his paper that the conclusions of his study ought not to be wielded to “undermine or affirm any legal rights” of gay and lesbian couples with respect to child-rearing. But he does intend to undermine the “tenor of the last 10 years of academic discourse about gay and lesbian parents” — which, he claims, overall “suggests that there is little to nothing about them that might be negatively associated with child development, and a variety of things that might be uniquely positive.”

The paper nevertheless drew immediate criticism from activists and academics alike — including from his colleagues down the hall. Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology at Austin, reviewed Regnerus’s research with three other colleagues before penning a blistering essay for the Huffington Post accusing him of “bad science.”

“As a family sociologist at the University of Texas, I am disturbed by his irresponsible and reckless representation of social science research, and furious that he is besmirching my university to lend credibility to his ‘findings,' " Umberson wrote.

In particular Umberson took issue with his sampling methods, which she says seemed rigged to draw on children who had experienced hardship for reasons unrelated to the sexual orientation of their parents.

“Had Regnerus walked down the hall and knocked on my door,” she wrote, “I would have been happy to explain that stress and instability harm children in any family context.”

Regnerus declined to be interviewed. But in a statement to Inside Higher Ed, he insisted that his findings drew no explicit link between same-sex parentage and maladjusted offspring.

“The published study’s conclusions suggest that there are differences in outcomes for young adults raised in various environments with different family experiences,” he wrote. “No claims about causation were made.”

Regnerus added that the full data sets for the study would be released later this year. He also defended his methodology. “The research protocol development team for this scholarly, comprehensive, peer-reviewed research study consisted of leading scholars and researchers across disciplines and ideological lines who met in a spirit of civility and reasoned inquiry,” he wrote. “Significantly, the University of Texas’s Institutional Review Board approved the protocol.”

Scott Rosensweig, a novelist and gay rights advocate who has blogged extensively about the study since it was published (under the pen name “Scott Rose”), has added that the study was funded by the Bradley Foundation and the Witherspoon Institute, which have ties to various conservative political causes — including the prohibition of same-sex marriage.

Regnerus disclosed the Bradley Foundation and Witherspoon Institute’s sponsorship of the study, acknowledging their conservative pedigrees and asserting that “the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.”

His disclosure squares with the code of ethics of the American Sociological Association, which does not prohibit sociologists from taking research funding from any particular funding source as long as the researcher discloses that relationship.

However, UT-Austin's standard appears to be stricter. “It is the policy of the University of Texas that research is conducted with integrity and free from any actual or apparent institutional or personal conflict of interest,” says the university’s Compliance and Ethics Guide. Texas researchers, the policy says, “must insure that there is no reasonable expectation that the design, conduct, and reporting of the research will be biased by any significant financial interest of an investigator responsible for the research or other educational activity.”

The university is currently conducting a pre-investigatory “inquiry” in response to a formal complaint lodged by Rosensweig. (The writer posted a copy of his complaint to his blog on The New Civil Rights Movement, a website dedicated to LGBT activism.) The difference between an inquiry and a full-blown investigation is that “the scope of the inquiry does not include exhaustive interviews or extensive analyses of research records,” according to the university’s Revised Handbook of Operating Procedures.

“Whenever we receive a complaint of scientific misconduct our policy automatically triggers a preliminary inquiry,” says Gary Susswein, a university spokesman. “It is a fact-finding mission to see if a full-blown investigation is warranted.” The inquiry will last no longer than 60 days and will be led by the university’s research integrity officer, Robert Peterson, with help from selected “experts” whose identities will not be public, says Susswein.

The spokesman tells Inside Higher Ed such formal complaints are rare, and that Austin usually receives only a handful, if any, each year. It does not matter whether the complaint comes from inside or outside academe, says Susswein. “We want our professors to be out there tackling the important issues of the day in a responsible manner,” he says.

Still, some believe that disputations over methodology should remain the province of scholarly communications rather than administrative investigations. While he has not delved into Regnerus’s study or its criticisms, Erik Olin Wright, the president of the Association of American Sociologists, says he does not expect much to come of the formal inquiry. The study’s long-term impact will probably turn on how seriously it is taken by others in the discipline.

“Most sociologists,” he wrote in an e-mail, “even those who oppose the conclusions of this study, would take the position that the appropriate way to respond to systematically biased or flawed research is with academic criticism and good research rather than censure and other forms of administrative control.”

 

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