PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Aug. 22, 2018, Brown University published a news story detailing a research article in the journal PLOS ONE on "rapid-onset gender dysphoria." On the morning of Aug. 27, PLOS ONE issued a comment on the study, and Brown responded by removing the news story from news distribution the same day. The University issued the statement below regarding the decision to remove the article, and due to inaccurate reporting about the nature of events, Brown on Sept. 5 issued an expanded statement regarding its decision.
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
Expanded Brown University Statement – Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2018
Brown does not shy away from controversial research. The University’s Office of Communications decided to publicize research on Brown’s website on “rapid onset gender dyspohoria” recognizing the topic to be a subject of rigorous debate in the field of study.
After the research paper was published in the Journal PLOS ONE, concerns were raised about the paper’s research design and methodology by leading academics in the field. These concerns were serious enough that PLOS ONE announced that it would conduct a post-publication re-review of the article to “seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses.”
Given the concerns about research design and methods — not the controversial nature of the subject — the University decided to stop featuring this news story on its news site. However, the research article is still available on the journal’s website and on the author’s Researchers @ Brown page. The University does not know how long the re-review of the paper will take, or what (if any) actions the journal will take.
The University feels it is important to make the following three points about this incident:
1. This is not about academic freedom, as some news outlets have made it out to be. This faculty member — and, indeed, all Brown faculty members — have the right to conduct research on topics they choose. This is the case even for research that leads them into politically controversial territory. Brown gives its full support to this faculty member to conduct her research and publish her work.
2. This is about academic standards. Brown can publicize only a small subset of the great research conducted by our faculty. As a research institution, we feel we must ensure that work that is featured on the University website conforms to the highest academic standards. Given the concerns raised about research design and methods, the most responsible course of action was to stop publicizing the work published in this particular instance. We would have done this regardless of the topic of the article.
3. Academic freedom and inclusion are not mutually exclusive. This paper has attracted wide attention due to its politicized nature. Brown is steadfast in conveying to people who object to the content of the research that we stand by academic freedom, and will not do anything to thwart this (or any) faculty member’s research.
At the same time, we’ve confirmed our long-standing support for members of the trans community. Brown is proud to be among the first universities to include medical care for gender reassignment in its student health plan, and that our medical school is a leader in education on care for transgender individuals. Academic freedom and support for the trans community — or any other group—are not mutually exclusive. These values can and, indeed, must co-exist.
Link to Study in PLOS One
The original study, titled "Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports," is available on the PLOS One website: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0202330
Dean's Letter to the School of Public Health Community — Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018
In addition to the University’s statements, Dean Bess Marcus of the Brown University School of Public Health (SPH) on Aug. 28 addressed the following letter to the SPH community. The text of that letter is below.
Dear Members of the Public Health and Brown Community,
As you may be aware, Brown late last week posted a news announcement regarding research on gender dysphoria published by a faculty member in the School of Public Health. 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.
The research had been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, which stated in a comment posted on the study August 27 that the journal “will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses.” 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.
Bess H. Marcus, Ph.D.
Dean, Brown University School of Public Health