More than a year after its initial publication in Social Science Research, the debate over a controversial study concluding that children with parents who are gay are in some ways less successful as adults than their peers lives on – and is now directed at the journal’s editor.
In a post to his blog, Family Inequality, Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, calls for editor James Wright, professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida, to step down. Cohen says he’ll boycott the journal as a contributor and reviewer until Wright leaves the Elsevier publication and urges others to do so.
Cohen says that Wright relied on paid consultants on the New Family Structures Study for peer reviews and didn’t disclose that when the article was first published in June 2012. He bases his argument in part on the fact that Paul Amato, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, has said publicly that he consulted the study’s author, Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, for two days early on in the project.
Amato says in a recent post to Cohen’s blog that he disclosed that information to Wright, but Wright asked him to proceed with his review. However, Amato says his role in the study did not pose a conflict of interest, and he has reviewed other studies with which he has had some involvement. If there's no self-reported conflict, he says, journal editors in his experience don't care -- in part because reviewers are hard to come by.
It’s also been alleged that W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia with former ties to the conservative Witherspoon Institute that funded the study, served as a reviewer. He also consulted on the study, according to documents made public by the University of Texas. Wilcox, who also serves on the journal’s editorial board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an e-mail, Wright said he has never publicly disclosed who reviewed the articles and doesn’t plan to. But he said that both “Amato and Wilcox mentioned their prior involvement with the Regnerus study in response to my initial reviewing request. I asked, as I always do, whether this involvement precluded their writing an objective review. Both said no and so both were asked to proceed.”
Wright did not respond to a question about stepping down as editor. But he said there are no plans to retract the article, for which some, including Cohen, have called.
“[That] to my mind would require proof of fraudulent behavior, cooking the data, faking the analysis or something similar, none of which (so far as I know) has even been alleged, much less shown,” Wright said.
But Cohen said that instead of “seriously reviewing the paper, he essentially whispered into an echo chamber of backers and consultants, ‘We should publish this, right?’”
The criticism of Regnerus’s study came hard and fast and prompted a commentary package in the November issue of Social Science Research and an investigation by the University of Texas. Many said it was “bad science,” a poorly designed study that proved only what sociology already had established: that children from unstable homes have higher problem profiles later in life than children from stable, two-parent homes. Because many parents of children in the study had conceived their children in heterosexual relationships that ended when or before they came out as gay, the study did not have proper controls for studying the true effects of having parents who are gay, critics said.