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101 Big And Small Ways To Make A Difference In Academia

make_a_difference

Let’s set aside the debate over whether one can, or even should, be an activist in academia.  If you recognize that inequality and other problems exist within academia, then I do not need to convince you that someone should be working to make change.  But, some scholars are skeptical of “rocking the boat,” either because of fear of professional harm or the assumption that one does not have the time.  Making academia a more equitable and humane place is not an easy, quick, risk-free task; if that were the case, we would probably see a lot more progress by now!  But, I believe we can all make small (and big) changes, whether an activist, advocate, or simply a concerned scholar.

Here are 101 ideas of ways to make a difference in academia that I have come up with, either from experience, observation, or wishful thinking.  Please add your own ideas in the comments section!

  1. Educate yourself about the state of higher education, particularly in terms of inequality, increasing student debt, and the growing reliance on contingent faculty.  Learn about the leaky pipelines for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.
  2. Let go of the myth of meritocracy in academia once and for all.  Do not perpetuate the myth by claiming or assuming that things are fair and equal.  Speak openly and honestly with colleagues and students about inequality in academia.
  3. Recognize community service as a form of service for yourself and others.
  4. Learn more about open access and other ways of making academic research and knowledge publicly accessible.
  5. Redefine “impact” to move beyond impact factors and citation rates.  Consider the impact your work has outside of the ivory tower.  Allow yourself to determine the value of your scholarship, rather than relying exclusively on what departments, universities, and disciplines value as important and meaningful.
  6. Stay true to your goals and values.  Do not let tradition limit your imagination.  Thinking outside of the box is good for science and higher education.
  7. Be brave.
  8. Speak up when you feel safe to do so.
  9. Empower your students and colleagues to speak up.
  10. Ask questions.  If a conversation or meeting raises concern, ask for further clarification.  This allows you to appear curious or possibly confused without automatically challenging someone else.
  11. Prioritize self-care.  Encourage others to do so, as well, or at least respect others’ need to make certain decisions at work based on personal and family needs.
  12. Talk to your students and junior colleagues about what academic careers entail for marginalized scholars.  Be clear that you are not attempting to scare them, rather you are preparing them for challenges that may lie ahead in their careers.
  13. Support graduate students no matter their career plans after graduation.  Begin a mentoring relationship with a conversation about their plans, and be sure to revisit this conversation every year or every other year.
  14. Educate yourself about alternative career paths for PhDs, or at least find resources to offer to students considering them.
  15. Be aware of the artificial hierarchies and rankings in academia and higher education, but do not let them influence how you interact with colleagues.
  16. Check your biases, stereotypes, and assumptions.  If you find that you hold them, find out how to eliminate them, or at least to suspend them in interacting with and evaluating others.  Ask trusted colleagues to call you out if you demonstrate bias; when they do, listen without getting defensive or feeling guilty.
  17. Check your privilege.  Avoid dismissing another person’s experiences or perspective just because it does not mirror yours.  Never tell a marginalized student or colleague about their own experience.  Figure out ways to use your privileged status to make a difference and to make space for marginalized people.
  18. Ask your students and colleagues for their preferred name and pronoun, and give your own.  Work to make these seem like a normal practice, rather than a special event when a transgender or gender non-conforming person is present.
  19. Blog and use other forms of social media.  Allow yourself to appear as an imperfect, evolving, thinking, and feeling human — not simply the static, perfectly-put together researcher reflected in articles and books.  Make yourself available outside of the ivory tower.
  20. Share your own narrative with colleagues and students, whether it is one of privilege (which you acknowledge), serendipity, or adversity.  Let’s stop pretending that there is one, clear, linear path toward becoming a professor, and that it is the only possible path after graduate school.
  21. Let go of the myth of color-blindness, gender-blindness, and other forms of “blindness” to others’ identities and experiences.  Rather, be conscious of difference and inequality, and find ways to proactively work against systemic discrimination and exclusion.
  22. Without resorting to tokenizing, be sure to include diverse voices and perspectives on conference panels, course syllabi, references, edited volumes, guest blog posts, etc.
  23. Get comfortable with self-promotion, especially if you are a member of one or more marginalized groups.  And, respect others efforts to promote their work, particularly because it is necessary to be successful in academia.
  24. Promote your colleagues’ and students’ work, particularly those from marginalized groups.
  25. Go beyond telling junior colleagues and grad students to “be careful” — and never say “shut up”/”be quiet.”  If you actually have a reason to worry about a particular individual (that is, stop automatically assuming junior scholars will be reckless anarchists), offer specific advice on navigating departmental, university, and disciplinary politics.  Explain why you are giving that advice, namely that you care about their success, well-being, and livelihood.
  26. When possible, make every effort to ensure that students or junior colleagues do not fall through the cracks or bear some burden because others could not be bothered.
  27. At least say hello to familiar faces — students, new colleagues, contingent faculty, administrative staff, etc.
  28. Avoid viewing colleagues as potential competition, even if you are applying for the same opportunity.
  29. Have lunch with students and junior colleagues, and make an effort to talk about something other than work or classes (if you/they are comfortable doing so).  It can be incredibly reassuring to see that one’s professors/senior colleagues are human, too.
  30. Don’t be an asshole.  Period.
  31. Learn how to disagree with someone without attacking them as a person.  If it is not really a right-or-wrong issue, find a way to offer a different, rather than “better,” view.
  32. Step up and step back in meetings.  Avoid dominating the conversation.  If you are chairing it, make an effort to allow everyone to speak.  Pay attention to see if junior scholars have remained silent or were silenced.  But, find a way to gently nudge if someone needs encouragement; avoid putting someone on the spot who may really not have anything to contribute.
  33. Learn about your department’s and university’s policies and practices regarding contingent faculty.  Find out whether there is anything you can do to improve the situation.
  34. Do not treat contingent faculty like servants, outsiders, or somehow inferior.  Treat them like humans first, and colleagues second.  Understand that their circumstances may be shitty, if not outright exploitative.
  35. Serve on important departmental, university, and disciplinary committees.
  36. Serve as department chair or a higher level administrator.
  37. Keep an eye on the balance of service in your department.  Definitely watch for disproportionate service falling on women faculty, either assigned or volunteered (especially as men faculty avoid it).
  38. When accounting for and advancing diversity, avoid nominal diversity — that is, simply counting “women and minorities.”  Find ways to embrace and celebrate diversity in the department/university culture.  Once marginalized students/scholars are in the door, make sure that they feel equally supported and included, and are making good progress in their work.
  39. Move beyond considering only race and gender as diversity.  Broaden race to race, ethnicity, nativity, and immigrant status.  Broaden gender to consider the inclusion of women and transgender and gender non-conforming people.  Begin to recognize and advance sexual identity, disability, social class, weight, religion, age, and family structure as other important dimensions of diversity.
  40. Move beyond a single-identity conceptualization of diversity.  Begin attending to the intersections among identities.  This will help to avoid systematically hiring the most privileged members of oppressed groups (e.g., white women, Black men).  This will also help to understand each individual’s lives holistically; for example, be careful not to view Black women simply as women or Black.
  41. Support working parents.  Educate yourself about your university’s family leave and other policies.  If possible, be willing to offer additional support using the (likely conservative) university policies as a minimum level of support.
  42. Go beyond being “not prejudiced.”  Be aware that oppressed groups, as a matter of survival, must be wary of intolerance or even violence.  Do not assume that not intentionally discriminating is enough for others to feel welcomed and included.
  43. Challenge biased comments and microaggressions in your classes.  Do not wait for students to speak up, as they may not feel comfortable doing so, or may even fail to see the problem — you are the instructor.  If you do not want to alienate the student who made the comment, foster dialogue about it rather than silencing or chastising them.
  44. Allow yourself to view your class as somewhat flexible and organic.  If something relevant or important is going on it the world or on campus, spend a few minutes at the start or end of class discussing it.  Having an honest, intelligent conversation about racism on campus, for example, may be more important in the long run than sticking rigidly to the syllabus.
  45. Let go of the myth of objectivity in research and the classroom.  Or, at least acknowledge that some cling to “objectivity” without noting that such a perspective is conflated with (or only afforded to) the view of white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West.
  46. Where possible, include overlooked and marginalized topics in your courses.  For example, cover transgender health in a course on health/medicine to demonstrate the relevance and importance of the topic (and trans communities in general).
  47. If you (must) use a textbook that excludes or distorts the lives of oppressed communities, explicitly point this out to your students and consider adding additional readings by and/or about members of these communities.
  48. Consider countering the systemic invisibility of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other oppressed communities in academia with the systemic exclusion of white middle-class heterosexual cis men without disabilities.  Start with oppressed voices, and only include those of the privileged if they are a useful complement.  Unfortunately, I must also advise being ready to defend this system against charges of “reverse discrimination.”
  49. Speak truth to power.  Do research that challenges others’ exclusive, biased, or distorted research.  Embrace your unique perspective (if you are marginalized) to influence a new way of viewing the world.
  50. Let’s be honest about pervasive mental health problems in academia.  Find out what resources exist on campus, in the local community, and online.  Recognize that many campus health centers fail to effectively address the needs of graduate students.  Be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing others’ well-being as “not my problem.”
  51. If you use images in your lectures or presentations, take a little extra time to ensure that you reflect diverse people and interests.  If you lazily choose one of the first images that comes up, you may end up exclusively with pictures of white men.  (For example, do a Google image search of “professor.”)  Make an effort to counter the stereotypical images that many students will carry.
  52. Educate yourself about universal design for learning.  From the start of developing a course, make efforts to make the material and discussion accessible to all students.  Avoid the pattern of simply accommodating students with disabilities when they are in your courses.
  53. Become critical of standard measures of academic ability and achievement, including the SAT, GRE, and other tests, grade point average, etc.  Educate yourself about the bias inherent in these exams that likely contribute to inequality in admission, retention, graduation, and funding.
  54. Acknowledge the high rate of sexual violence on college campuses — targeted against students and staff and faculty.  Learn about your university’s practices for handling reports of violence, and realize that few incidents are reported, and even fewer yield justice for the victims.  Educate yourself about ways to support survivors of violence.  Consider advocating for improving how sexual violence is reported and prosecuted.
  55. Respect or even encourage your students’ and colleagues’ activist efforts.  Avoid telling them activism is akin to bias, or cannot co-exist with academia, or is a waste of time.
  56. Be authentic.  Let students and colleagues see diversity in academia.  If you are marginalized, do your best to avoid sending the message that one must sell-out in order to succeed in the academy.
  57. Investigate whether your campus offers gender-neutral bathrooms.  If it does not, pressure campus administration to create gender-neutral bathrooms that are of the same quality and are as conveniently accessed as sex-segregated bathrooms.  If it only has one or a few gender-neutral bathrooms, push for the creation of more.  Create a map of campus that pinpoints where these restrooms can be found to publicize their existence and location.
  58. Educate yourself about the conditions for staff on your campus.  Are wages fair and equitable?  Are working conditions safe?  Are staff given a voice in administrative affairs?
  59. Attend your university’s safe zone/safe space training program.  Encourage your colleagues to do so, as well.  If they reply, “but, I am already so LGBT-friendly, I don’t need extra training,” explain that taking that extra step to demonstrate friendliness is necessary because many LGBT people assume the absence of it may mean hostility.  (It is a matter of survival in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic world!)  If your university does not have a safe zone/space program, consider starting one.
  60. Explicitly tell your students that you want them to do well in your courses — and mean it.  (I have always done this, and was told just recently that most professors don’t and, as such, students’ don’t assume it.)
  61. Encourage your students to meet with you during office hours.  It may help to offer an incentive, but I hesitate to encourage that it be required.  Be sure you have explained the purpose of office hours when you mention them.  If there are students whose performance concerns you, do not hesitate to (privately) ask them to meet with you — but, make clear that they are not being punished.
  62. Avoid trivializing students’ health concerns, including (and maybe especially) mental health problems.  Refer them to the proper health professional if necessary.  Do not attempt to assess the problem, how severe it is, or how to “cure” it if you are not a qualified health professional.
  63. When you give advice, still respect that others may ignore it.  Allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them.  Do not pressure a student or junior colleague to do what you think is “best,” especially if you do not know them beyond a professional relationship.
  64. Be mindful of power dynamics, particularly where you are in the higher position.  Students, junior colleagues, and others in the subordinate position may feel that your suggestions are demands.  They may hesitate to challenge you, correct your assumptions about them, and even to share certain (personal) details with you for fear of harm to their grades/job.
  65. If you are a mentor, encourage your mentees to consider having additional mentors.  Avoid presenting your perspective and advice as the only way.  If time allows and mentees are comfortable with it, consider holding joint meetings with their other mentors; this may save them the time of holding individual meetings about one issue, and then having to navigate potentially conflicting advice.
  66. Learn about contrapower sexual harassment.  If you teach about sexual violence, include this topic in your courses.
  67. Write op-eds and letters to the editor to the school’s newspaper about issues on campus or in the local community.  You may even offer a scholarly perspective to demonstrate how our everyday lives are actually connected to what we learn in the classroom.
  68. Make some concept or trend in your discipline accessible by writing op-eds and letters to the editor to local, national, or international media.  Or, write about your own research.
  69. Just as you ensure that working parents are not burdened by work, make sure that colleagues who do not have children are not asked to pick up additional work.  No matter one’s family situation, or reason for needing to leave work by 6pm, every worker’s personal life should be respected (especially if they are not officially paid for extra hours).
  70. On Twitter, participate in #SaturdaySchool, and then help build academic online communities by participating in #ScholarSunday.
  71. Work with your department and university — or demand of them — that standards for tenure and promotion be stated as explicitly as possible.  Ask that the rates of successful promotions be provided, including a comparison by race and ethnicity, gender, and other important statuses.
  72. Teach community-based learning courses.  Or, find less intensive ways to encourage working with the community.
  73. Start a scholarship.
  74. Commit to recycling and cutting waste.  Start a recycling program if your university does not already have one.  If you must print documents, use double-sided printing.  Encourage (or even require) students to email assignments.  If you scan documents that will be printed, take the time to eliminate dark areas to reduce wasted ink.
  75. Participate in your department or university’s Dr. Martin Luther King day celebrations.  If your school is closed, take a second to explain the significance of the day — don’t just call it a holiday.  If it is not closed, advocate for closing to observe MLK day or at least hold a meaningful ceremony to honor his legacy.
  76. Participate in Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, LGBT Pride month/week (varies by school), Disability Awareness Month, National Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other national and regional celebrations.  If these celebrations are not recognized, start a committee to plan events for them.
  77. Participate in Take Back the Night and other Sexual Assault Awareness Month events.
  78. Invite graduate students to participate on important departmental committees.  Consider encouraging the graduate students to create and elect a representative position — or even multiple positions — and give them a vote.  When they vote or otherwise participate in discussion, genuinely listen and consider their input.  (Grad students are not dumb.  They will sense that you have only included them out of obligation or to appease them, but do not seriously consider what they have to say.)
  79. Take a developmental, rather than destructive, approach to the peer-review process.  View your role as a reviewer as one to advance a paper, which will ultimately advance science, rather than one of a gate-keeper or critic.  Avoid looking for ways to advance your own research or agenda.
  80. Put extra copies of books that you assign on reserve at the library and announce that you have done so in your classes (twice).  Some students will attempt to find ways around buying expensive textbooks, including some who will never obtain a copy and thus suffer in the course.  Do your best to find cheaper or free options in the first place.
  81. Investigate whether every building on campus is accessible.  Pressure or even work with university administration to renovate buildings that are currently inaccessible to all people, regardless of ability.
  82. Check your own and others’ classist beliefs.  Assume class diversity.  Do not assume that anyone in academia, whether student or faculty, comes from a middle-class or upper-class family.  Where possible, try to minimize out-of-pocket costs for classes, extracurricular activities, conferences, and professional development.  In evaluating students or colleagues, be mindful that some simply cannot afford special, or even some basic, opportunities.  Avoid confusing lack of resources with lack of commitment, motivation, or aptitude.
  83. Advocate for needs-blind admission into your university.
  84. Refrain from criticizing the ways in which oppressed people survive in oppressive institutions and societies.  If you are unwilling to support others’ survival, at least avoid adding to their plight with your judgement, criticism, or questioning their identity and politics.
  85. Teach your marginalized students how to survive in oppressive institutions and societies.
  86. Organize a fair or event with information and resources for maintaining healthy relationships.
  87. Investigate whether racial profiling occurs on/near your campus by campus or local police.  If it does, work to raise awareness about it, and with law enforcement to eliminate unfair and discriminatory practices.
  88. If you serve as an academic advisor, be proactive in reaching out to your marginalized and first-generation students, especially during their first year.  Encourage them to get involved with at least one group on campus or in the local community, and to meet with career services as early as possible.
  89. Honor the work of administrative staff in your department and elsewhere on campus by celebrating Administrative Professionals’ Day.  But, be sure to thank them for their work throughout the year, as well.
  90. Propose a conference panel on professional development tips for marginalized academics or on public scholarship.
  91. Practice random acts of kindness.
  92. Organize a social event for your department to get your colleagues out of their offices.
  93. Propose a newspaper program that provides local and national newspapers free to all students, staff, and faculty.
  94. Serve as a faculty or staff advisor for a student organization related to social justice.
  95. Conduct a campus-wide needs assessment for all or particular communities of marginalized students.  Make recommendations for change based on their needs and the campus climate.
  96. Stage a rally or protest about an issue about which your college has remained unresponsive or ignored completely.
  97. Create a campus resource center for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, international students and scholars, people with disabilities, first-generation students, or another disadvantaged group.
  98. Advocate for the creation of accessible, clean, and private spaces for breastfeeding and other needs of parents with young children.
  99. Challenge yourself to be more educated about social justice, more empathetic, kinder, and open to difference and change.
  100. Create an academic program or department that focuses on marginalized communities (e.g., racial and ethnic studies, women’s studies).
  101. Join the fight to minimize or eliminate the growing problem of college student debt.

Please add your own big and small ideas in the comments section.

Protecting Science From Harm, And Against Harmful Science

sosThe activists are coming!  And, so they should.  A supposedly “debunkedstudy by Mark Regnerus that does not employ valid measures of lesbian couples worked its way right into a US Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

We, as sociologists, did all that we could: 1) petitioned the journal in which it was published, Social Science Research, 2) published critiques of his and Loren Marks‘s studies in the journal, 3) wrote to the media to point out the study’s flaws, 4) offered extensive methodological critiques (e.g., blogs), 5),  petitioned the leadership of the American Sociological Association (ASA) to make a public statement against the Regnerus study, 6) conducted an internal audit of the peer review process, and 7) submitted a brief to the Supreme Court as a discipline to make clear no evidence exists to worry about LGBT families.  And, there may have been other efforts of which I am unaware.

But it wasn’t enough.  Regnerus and other conservative scholars submitted their own amicus brief to the Court.  And, somehow, this one study counters all of the other studies enough that Supreme Court Justice Scalia noted:

If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must — you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there’s – there’s considerable disagreement among — among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a — in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not — do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.

Aftershocks

The American Sociological Association released another statement thereafter to clarify that Regnerus’s study was flawed.  While imperfect, every other study suggests no evidence that children of same-gender families are worse off in terms of health, adjustment, academic performance, etc.  And, the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas-Austin held a mini-conference on LGBT families last week, featuring Gary Gates and other big names in LGBT research.  I assume this was part of the department’s effort (which started as soon as Regnerus’s study was published) to show that others in the department are doing great, pro-LGBT work.

But, it is too late.  We do not yet know the outcome of the Supreme Court cases.  And, it is unclear whether Regernus’s “debunked” study will be cited by other researchers, politicians, or in other court cases.  These are, indeed, real possibilities because his study has been “debunked,” but not retracted.  That means it still stands as a peer-reviewed, published academic article — albeit critiqued and discounted.

The lengths that these activists are going makes sense.  Though we got to the point where we felt comfortable with the “debunked” status of Regnerus’s paper, it still caused damage — on our watchDespite our intentions and efforts as a discipline, we did not do enough to prevent this study from having an impact in the fate of LGBT rights (in this case, marriage equality).  Whether it comes from religion, science, politics, education, or some other institution, threats to your rights are just that, so who wouldn’t shift into self-defense mode?

Protecting Against Harmful Science

My primary concern, which I have voiced in the discussions among sociologists, is what are we doing to prevent further harm to the community that has been affected by this study?  On our watch, a study that should never have reached publication ended up reaching the Supreme Court.  We alerted others, “watch out!”; we critiqued Regnerus’s actions, “he’s not even measuring it right!; and even issued a formal statement saying, “we’re not with this guy, he’s crazy.”  But, all while we watched Regnerus set up a very calculated assault on LGBT Americans.  Since fellow sociologists have so vehemently opposed releasing the names of the peer reviewers of the study, and do not feel compelled to push for retraction, I continue to ask, so now what?

I cannot believe I have to raise this question.  But, it seems some are more concerned about protecting science than protecting people from science.  There are general principles regarding ethical scientific practice (including discipline specific guidelines), and the universality of Institutional Review Boards to ensure researchers at universities are not causing harm to their participants.  Unfortunately, these guidelines were developed as a response to very unethical and harmful research in the past:

  • During the Holocaust, the Nazis conducted many experiments on Jews (including children)
  • The “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” (1932-1972), in which poor African American men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge nor with treatment: “The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards; primarily because researchers knowingly failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease they were studying.”
  • Similar experiments were conducted in Guatemala from 1946-1948.  Over 80 people died as a result.
  • The use of Henrietta Lacks‘s cells without her or her family’s permission or knowledge in 1951.
  • Stanley Milgram’s 1961 psychological experiments on obedience, in which he deceived subjects into thinking they were delivering shocks (sometimes deadly) as punishment to a person completing a faux task.  Ethical concerns have been raised about the Stanford prison experiment, as well.
  • Tearoom Trade (1970) — Laud Humphreys’s study of same-sex sexual encounters in public spaces without their knowledge or consent; after observing the men, he used their license plate numbers on their cars to track down their home addresses to interview them (sometimes in front of their families).

For all of the positive things that have come from science (even from some of the awful exploitative, dangerous experiments above), science is sometimes used for evil.  Too often, marginalized communities are the targets of harmful science.  Of course, in this case, Regnerus and his colleagues did not have any direct contact with their participants; and, there is little reason to suspect that Knowledge Networks (which carried out the survey) caused any harm.

However, I argue that we have an obligation to ensure that harm is not caused in the activities that come after research is conducted: how the research is used and for what purposes.  Some argue that, even when studies are carried out for good, we owe it to our participants to give something in return — immediate and tangible, not just “thanks for advancing science!” — for opening up about their experiences, backgrounds, thoughts, opinions, and feelings.

So, now what are we doing to protect this marginalized community that has been further harmed by science?  What can we do?  Below are some things that have been suggested, and my thoughts on them.

Speaking Out, In General

It is important that we speak out about this scandal, in general.  Unfortunately, it feels as though some sociologists feel they have done all that they could and just want this to go away already.

But, who speaks for us?  I may be wrong, but many of those — “some sociologists” — do not appear to either be LGBT themselves nor do they study LGBT communities (I’m including here bloggers and those who have left comments).  So, maybe it is simple to walk away from this when you can return home to your legally-recognized spouse after a day’s work.  Unfortunately, it appears that the sociology bloggers at orgtheory and scatterplot are serving as The Voice for the entire discipline, and the LGBT activists are in direct dialogue with them.  I wonder what LGBT sociologists and sociologist of sexualities have to say about this scandal, and whether they feel that we have done enough.

I worry, as I have before: who gets to speak?  The subfield of sexualities in sociology is relatively new and disproportionately young.  We must tread lightly.  And, it is likely that many have remained silent on this issue because they are soon to be or are currently on the job market; or, they are on the tenure-track; or, even with tenure, they are at the margins of their department and the discipline as a whole.  Or, just like other fields, maybe some sexualities scholars see their work as irrelevant to activism.  And, even for those of us who do pursue activism, we risk professional consequences.  But, even those who are not explicitly involved in activism may be the target of political witch hunts or other external threats, or lack of support from the academy to do our research.

silenced

Retract It Already

The retraction of published studies is more common than I realized.  But, it looks like there is no movement to retract the Regnerus study.  There is a lot of shadiness, omission of important details, and conflict of interest sprinkled throughout this entire scandal.  But, within conservative standards of “when to retract,” Regnerus’s study is safe.  It was the peer review process that is problematic.  Specifically:

[T]he paper was submitted for publication 20 days before the end of the data collection, and 23 days before the data were delivered to the University of Texas! That’s fast.

There must be some post-hoc excuse Regnerus or the journal could give to clear this up.

That is in addition to the serious methodological problems that the reviewers should have caught.  That is more than enough for some to call for the study’s retraction.  Okay, so, since this is not Regnerus’s fault, per se (short of questionable political motivations and funding sources), retract the study and then invite him to go through the peer review process again — this time with different reviewers who are not his colleagues.

“Out The Reviewers!”

LGBT activist John M. Becker has moved forward in demanding records from Social Science Research, namely to out the reviewers of the Regnerus study.  Some of my fellow sociologists have been talking about this — I’m sure informally, but in this case publicly on blogs.  Some have taken issue with Becker’s efforts, suggesting that it subverts the sanctity of the peer review system for academic publishing; to reveal the identities of anonymous reviewers is a threat to the entire scientific enterprise.   Oh, and does it get ugly when sociologists and activists go head to head.  But, understandably, when outside forces threaten science (e.g., forced oversight, taking away funding), we necessarily lash out in self-defense.

But, I wonder what would happen if we did reveal the names of those scholars who reviewed Regnerus’s study.  Recently, while reading one article about the source of whites’ attitudes toward race-based attitudes, I noticed that the reviewers were explicitly named, right on the first page:

Editor’s note: The reviewers were Lawrence Bobo, Warren E. Miller, David O. Sears, and Susan Welch (p.723).

I decided to search Google for “editor’s note: the reviewers” to see if this was a fluke.  I came across two other journals that have, or at least used to, explicitly name the reviewers of a published article, Teaching Sociology and Sociological Inquiry.  In the case of the former, I thought maybe as it has become more popular, and moved toward publishing more empirically-based articles, the editorial board might have dropped this practice along the way.  But, even a recent article, by sociologist Janice McCabe, dawns the editor’s note, naming each reviewer.  It looks as though Sociological Inquiry published the names of authors just for a few years in the early 1990s.  These are not the top journals of the discipline, but this discovery leaves me wondering what the harm would be to reveal the names of the publishers in this instance — in this case in which the peer review system was abused, misused, or underused (depending on your perspective).

This is not a question of whether sociology or any other academic discipline should maintain anonymous peer review for publishing.  While imperfect, it strengthens science and minimizes (some) concerns about bias.  If anything, I see room to strengthen the peer-review system further.  And, let’s set aside the potential harms of the overwhelming pressure to publish for jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. as well.  The question here is what harm would be caused to the peer review system, or even the entire scientific enterprise, if the reviewers of this one “debunked” study were revealed?

That some journals have revealed the names of reviewers — including articles that are ethically and politically sound — leads me to suggest that the sky will not fall if Becker is successful in his demand for the SSR records.  Science will still exist the following day.  But, I do agree that this may not actually get us any further in squashing Regnerus’s study or the harm caused by it.

Fight Fire With Fire: More Research!

As Fabio Rojas suggested in response to my plea to do something to take this study down, another possibility is to simply beat Regnerus at his own game.  Do more, better research.  Indeed, sociologists Andrew Perrin, Philip Cohen, and Neal Caren have done just that in a forthcoming article in Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health — even using the New Family Structures Study data. (Of course, they find that Regnerus’s conclusions were bogus and methodologically flawed.)  I do hope, however, that awareness of their new study spreads, as JGLMH is a psychiatry journal and has a so-so impact factor.   But, Perrin makes clear that this journal was chosen because of the speedy turn around, and it actually sent out a call for papers to address the Regnerus scandal.

As Michael Bader notes, this scandal has sparked even better work, and maybe science will be even stronger in the first place.  But, shouldn’t we be getting it right the first time?  Isn’t that what peer review is for?  Sure, with time, maybe we will set the record straight.  But, for now, the damage has been done for LGBT people.  With so much that we have yet to study about LGBT families, it also warrants asking whether we should be worried about having to spend time, energy, and resource on redoing research.

Other Suggestions

Fabio also suggested:

  • [Realize] that that history is on our side. Increasingly, public opinion polls show greater and greater majorities favor LBGT equality. So if we are winning already, I wouldn’t go and ruin one of academia’s most valuable assets – blind review.
  • [R]elentlessly critique garbage and draw attention to the body of research.
  • I would engage the other side with sincerity and fervor. I would show people how to maintain the high ground.

In other words, don’t worry, keep blogging, and be the bigger person.  As gay people, my partner and I still cannot get married, not in the state in which we currently live nor the one we are moving to this summer.  I am pretty worried about the outcome of the Supreme Court case.  And, I am worried how easily this one study breezed through the peer review process, to publication, to press, to the courts.  Shouldn’t more sociologists be worried about this, too?  And, I am not sure what to say about maintaining “the high ground”.  It seems, for the oppressed, playing nice and playing by the rules does little to protect your rights being debated and denied on a daily basis — and my colleagues seem less concerned with my well-being as a human than with the well-being of science.

A Final Plea

“You don’t know what the heck you’re talking about!”  Exactly.  I am just days away from receiving my PhD, and have little experience publishing and providing reviews for journals compared to the sociologists at the fore of these debates.  What do I know?

That is a problem, in my opinion.  A systemic problem.  With a few research scandals going on these days, I am surprised that my colleagues and I are not in dialogue about science and research ethics.  In fact, all that I recall is one week in my research methods course devoted to ethics.  We read ASA’s code of ethics, Van Maanen’s (1983) “The Moral Fix: On the Ethics of Fieldwork,” Allen’s (1997) “Spies Like Us: When Sociologists Deceive their Subjects,” and Simonds’s (2001) “Talking with Strangers: A Researcher’s Tale.”  

I read Tearoom Trade for another course, though we did not discuss Humprhey’s unethical methods.  My knowledge of the Milgram experiment comes from a brief coverage of ethics in my undergraduate psychology and sociology methods courses.  And, much of my knowledge about eugenics, the Tuskegee experiments, and other exploitative practices on communities of color comes from my knowledge of Black history rather than science.

In speaking with other LGBT sociologists, I know that I am not alone in my anger, disappointment, and frustration — and, my ignorance about what I can do.  This is partly due to our relative lack of power, as a subfield in general (soc of sexualities) and as individuals (pre-tenure).  But, it is also due to our lack of access to memories of prior scandals of this sort.  For example, while I did read Richard Udry’s “Biological Limits of Gender Construction” (ASR 2000), and even Barbara Risman’s and otherscritical responses in a class, we never talked about the broader context.  What happened after the article and the responses were published?

seminar

Why don’t we talk about these types of events in our graduate courses?  Why does our training on research ethics only cover the stages leading to submitting an article for publication, ignoring ethical and professional practices that follow publication?  In general, I think we could benefit from a bit more reflection on science as an institution.  It would be nice (I would even say crucial) to discuss the contexts behind published articles and books.  A sociology of sociology, if you will.  Why are the authors in certain journals overwhelmingly women, while the top sociology journals are about two-thirds men authors, and the most male-dominated journals are on methods and mathematics?  Why are broken barriers in publishing somehow undermined as “affirmative action in publishing” or “trendy, but not really important” (yes, I have heard scholars say this).

If anything, I ask that we stop trying to make this scandal go away in hopes that history will stop repeating itself.  Just 12 years after the scandal surrounding Udry’s study, we are faced with a similar problem.  And, my generation of sociologists barely knows about it.  How can we learn from the mistakes of our discipline if we are not teaching new members about them — what happened and how we resolved it?  C’mon colleagues — we have got to do better, for the future of our discipline, but also for society as a whole.

UPDATE (05/02/13):  And, now we have an example of the potential impact Regnerus’s study can have outside of the courtroom: the everyday harassment of LGBT people.