Academic Freedom Under Review at Brown University

On August 16, peer reviewed journal PLOS One published “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports” by Lisa Littman, an Assistant Professor at Brown University. In essence, Littman surveyed over 250 parents of children who expressed gender dysphoria with an onset in adolescence or later. She also found that the onset of gender dysphoria took place in the context of peer groups where others in the group became gender dysphoric. On August 22, Brown University published a press release (archived) regarding the study. Then on August 27, Brown removed the news item from the school website, stating:

Brown University Statement — Monday, Aug. 27, 2018

In light of questions raised about research design and data collection related to Lisa Littman’s study on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” Brown determined that removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action.

As a general practice, university news offices often make determinations about publishing faculty research based on its publication in established, peer-reviewed journals considered to be in good standing. The journal PLOS ONE on the morning of Aug. 27 published a comment on the research study by Lisa Littman, who holds the position of assistant professor of the practice of behavioral and social sciences at Brown, indicating that the journal “will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses.” Below is the comment posted on the study in the journal PLOS ONE:

“PLOS ONE is 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 COPE guidelines. As part of our 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 August 27, 2018

Then today, Brown’s Dean of the School of Public Health Bess H. Marcus issued a statement explaining the decision to remove the news item. After repeating the above statement, Dr. Marcus added the following:

Independent of the University’s removal of the article because of concerns about research methodology, the School of Public Health has heard from Brown community members expressing concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.

The University and School have always affirmed the importance of academic freedom and the value of rigorous debate informed by research. The merits of all research should be debated vigorously, because that is the process by which knowledge ultimately advances, often through tentative findings that are often overridden or corrected in subsequent higher quality research. The spirit of free inquiry and scholarly debate is central to academic excellence. At the same time, 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 implications for the health of the communities at the center of research and study.

The School’s commitment to studying and supporting the health and well-being of sexual and gender minority populations is unwavering. Our faculty and students are on the cutting edge of research on transgender populations domestically and globally. The commitment of the School to diversity and inclusion is central to our mission, and we pride ourselves on building a community that fully recognizes and affirms the full diversity of gender and sexual identity in its members. These commitments are an unshakable part of our core values as a community.

In an effort to support robust research and constructive dialogue on gender identity in adolescents and youth, the School will be organizing a panel of experts to present the latest research in this area and to define directions for future work to optimize health in transgender communities. We believe that more and better research is needed to help guide advances in the health of the LGBTQ community. We welcome input from faculty, staff and students about the composition of this panel and scope of the discussion.

Researchers Come to Littman’s Defense

In response to Brown’s actions, a group of sexuality researchers signed a letter in support of Littman. Written by J. Michael Bailey, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, the letter cautions Brown to consider the source of criticism:

We are aware of the very loud opposition to Dr. Littman’s article from some transgender activists. This was predictable to anyone who has followed transgender issues during the past few years. However, you should not overreact to this criticism, for several reasons. First, these activists do not represent all transgender persons. There is no one transgender community that speaks as one. Second, those who are protesting the loudest are trying to silence Dr. Littman by intimidation and false or irrelevant accusations. They are not engaging in good faith scientific criticism. Some of us know this strategy all too well, having been targets of it. Third, and most importantly, ROGD is a very serious public health concern. You should be proud that Brown University has opened the door to its study, and hopefully someday, to its successful treatment.

The study has been criticized on several methodological points summarized in an article by transgender activist Julia Serano. These critiques have been answered by Roberto D’Angelo and Lisa Marchiano of the Pediatric and Adolescent Gender Dysphoria Working Group.

From my perspective, the study is a preliminary examination of a syndrome which was once rare but is now increasingly seen by clinicians. I have heard about these cases more frequently over the past decade and seen several such situations. As such, the study is worthwhile and true to the stated purpose (“A study of parent reports”).

It should go without saying that more data are needed and interviews with the teens who are in the groups identifying as transgender need to follow this study. Even so, that is no reason to walk back on this preliminary effort to examine what parents are seeing in their children.

 

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Image: Public domain