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Brown University and PLOS ONE have distanced themselves from a controversial, peer-reviewed published study on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” or gender identity issues that present not early and over a lifetime but quickly, in teenagers and young adults. The study, which has been criticized by transgender activists and allies as promoting the idea that being trans is a fad, and as relying on an unsound methodology, was based on anonymous survey responses from about 250 parents of (primarily female) teens and young adults who’d abruptly expressed gender dysphoria. 

A descriptive study, it found that many of those young adults had changed their names and pronouns and had support in changing their hair and dress upon coming out. But the study also raised questions about whether social factors, rather than biological ones, influenced the young adults’ trans identities. It found that many young adults had requested and been offered medical interventions at the time of coming out, with possible lasting implications for their fertility and health, and that most doctors who evaluated these young adults didn’t ask questions about mental health, trauma or other possible reasons for sudden gender dysphoria.

A Brown news release about the study posted last week quoted its author, Lisa Littman, an assistant professor of the practice of behavioral and social sciences at the university, as saying, “This kind of descriptive study is important because it defines a group and raises questions for more research. One of the main conclusions is that more research needs to be done.” But Brown removed the story from its website this week, replacing it with an open letter from Bess H. Marcus, dean of public health, saying, “In light of questions raised about research design and data collection related to the study on ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria,’ the university determined that removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action.” 

While the “spirit of free inquiry and scholarly debate is central to academic excellence, Marcus said, “we believe firmly that it is also incumbent on public health researchers to listen to multiple perspectives and to recognize and articulate the limitations of their work. This process includes acknowledging and considering the perspectives of those who criticize our research methods and conclusions and working to improve future research to address these limitations and better serve public health.” There is an “added obligation for vigilance” in research design and analysis any time there are health implications within a study, she added. 

An additional university statement on the page cites PLOS ONE’s social media statement about the study.  The journal has said it's "aware of the reader concerns raised on the study’s content and methodology. We take all concerns raised about publications in the journal very seriously, and are following up on these per our policy" and other international publication ethics guidelines.As part of that “follow-up, we will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses. We will provide a further update once we have completed our assessment and discussions," PLOS ONE said.

Littman, the study’s author, declined comment on Brown’s or PLOS ONE’s actions. But she said she stood by her methodology. “My study is a descriptive study,” she said via email. “And like all descriptive studies there are limitations which are acknowledged. And although descriptive studies may be one of the less robust study designs they play an important role in the scientific literature primarily because they are a first description of a new condition or population and they make it possible to conduct additional, more rigorous research.”

She added, “When analyzing the methodology of my paper, it should be done in the context of other descriptive studies, not compared to studies employing other research designs. The methodology in my study is consistent with methodologies that have been used in other descriptive research and it has similar strengths and weaknesses, which I acknowledge in the paper.” 

The purpose of the study was to describe “a phenomenon that has been observed by clinicians and parents,” Littman said. “I stand by the conclusion of my study -- that more research needs to be done.”

A related petition asking Brown and PLOS ONE to “defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry” had nearly 3,000 signatures Thursday evening.