Last night, the University of Texas at Austin announced that it had completed its inquiry into allegations of scientific misconduct and found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Professor Mark Regnerus, who authored a controversial paper about same-sex parenting in the journal Social Science Research. The paper, titled "How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study," has been cited by advocates of male-female marriage and parenting, and has unsurprisingly proved deeply controversial.
Indeed, the debate over the paper has been so contentious that it is difficult to find accounts of the paper’s contents that are not colored by the opinions of the authors. For more information about the contents of the paper itself, I recommend this dialogue between Professor Regnerus and William Saletan of Slate, which presents arguments for both sides and is largely free of bomb-throwing.
Of course, FIRE has no opinion on same-sex parenting and never will. We also have no opinion on the scholarly merits of Professor Regnerus’s research. However, the debate entered FIRE’s area of interest when a blogger named Scott Rose filed a scientific misconduct complaint with UT Austin against Professor Regnerus.
Before we get into the specifics of why FIRE was concerned with that complaint and the resulting inquiry, it’s important to know that UT Austin has now announced that the case is closed (PDF). The official report (PDF) from Research Integrity Officer Robert A. Peterson concludes:
Whether the research designed and conducted by Professor Regnerus and reported in Social Science Research possessed significant limitations or was even perhaps seriously flawed is a determination that should be left to debates that are underway in the academy and future research that validates or invalidates his findings.
Since no evidence was provided to indicate that the behavior at issue rose to a level of scientific misconduct, no formal investigation is warranted. The issues raised by Mr. Rose fall within that portion of the University’s definition of scientific misconduct that states, "ordinary errors, good faith differences in interpretations or judgments of data, scholarly or political disagreements, good faith personal or professional opinions, or private moral and ethical behavior or views are not misconduct."
When the inquiry first hit our radar screen, FIRE investigated Rose’s complaint and UT Austin’s policies governing inquiries into scientific misconduct, and on July 18, 2012, FIRE wrote UT Austin President William Powers Jr. informing him of our deep concern about both the nature of parts of the complaint and the potential for abuse inherent in UT Austin’s scientific misconduct inquiry policies. We urge you to read the letter in full so that you can get the full context of our concerns.
First, let’s address our problems with the nature of the complaint itself. As we wrote in our letter:
[W]e are troubled by the fact that Rose spends a considerable portion of his complaint attempting to bolster his "misconduct" allegations through references to Professor Regnerus’ religious faith and the political viewpoints held by members of that faith (and others), as well as suggestions that Professor Regnerus compromised his research for reasons of politics or funding (suggestions for which Rose provides no evidence).
What were the complaints about which FIRE was concerned? Our letter quoted from Rose‘s complaint as follows:
- "Regnerus converted from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism; his Church is very aggressively involved worldwide in fighting against gay rights, including in the United States, where in June – July 2012, while making use of Regnerus’s study, NOM [the National Organization for Marriage] and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops are joined in running the’Fortnight of Freedom’ event."
- "Regnerus took a ‘planning grant’ of $35,000 from the Witherspoon Institute, where Robert George of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage is a Senior Fellow. That Regnerus took a $35,000 ‘planning grant’ from Robert George/The Witherspoon Institute strongly implies that George/Witherspoon and George’s [sic] The Bradley Foundation might have withheld full study funding, had Regnerus’s study plan not suited their political timetable and purposes. In particular, one wonders if Regnerus offered some sort of formal or informal guarantee to complete the study in time for the funders’ political exploitations of it for the 2012 election."
- "Sociologists from Brigham Young University were involved in the study design. This might in part explain why the study design was so heavily stacked against gay parents, in favor of ‘intact biological families.’ BYU has an ‘Honor Code’ that forbids members of the university community from doing anything that suggests that homosexuality is morally acceptable. To include BYU personnel in a study of gay human beings, is akin to asking the Ku Klux Klan to design a study about Jews."
Rose’s complaint was interspersed with these and other allegations that have no place in a serious investigation of scientific misconduct. A professor’s (or student’s) religion should never be used as the basis for an investigation into their scientific practices. If there is evidence that their personal commitment to their religion is causing them to produce flawed research, that might properly be investigated, but it is appalling and unacceptable to use it as a prima facie reason to launch an inquiry.
Rose’s complaint about Professor Regnerus’ funding sources is similarly flawed. Many organizations with many different agendas fund research all the time. Researchers and universities have standard practices they must follow to ensure that funding sources do not dictate the results of the research. If there is evidence that these practices have not been followed, that is certainly a legitimate matter for an inquiry. But the simple fact that funding organizations have an agenda is not enough to warrant an inquiry, regardless of how objectionable one feels that agenda might be.
Again, I urge that you read FIRE’s letter in full for a more thorough explanation of these issues.
Let’s move on to the second set of FIRE’s concerns, which were procedural. Our first concern among these was that Professor Regnerus be provided with a precise explanation of the exact allegations from Rose’s letter that were being investigated. Section II(E)(1)(a) of UT Austin’s scientific misconduct policy specifies that "[t]he Research Integrity Officer will clearly identify the original allegations and any related issues that should be evaluated during the inquiry process." Because Rose’s complaint was a mix of allegations that might properly be investigated and allegations that should never be a proper basis for an inquiry, it was particularly important that Professor Regnerus be provided a list of what UT Austin thought it was actually looking into. Whether or not Professor Regnerus received that notification, it’s clear that UT Austin ultimately agreed with FIRE about the problems: As the report concludes in an understated fashion, "Several of the allegations were expressly beyond the purview of the inquiry."
Our second procedural concern was that UT Austin’s inquiry process is too easy to use as a tool to interfere with or harass professors researching unpopular or controversial topics. Section II(E)(2) of the scientific misconduct policy demands that all possibly relevant documents be "sequestered" at the very beginning of the inquiry process, before UT Austin has even determined whether an inquiry is completely frivolous. It is important to understand that UT Austin allows any person to file a scientific misconduct complaint against one of its faculty members, so there’s nothing stopping anyone from launching a costly, embarrassing, or otherwise damaging inquiry simply out of a wish to delay or silence a certain line of research.
What does "sequestration" involve? According to UT Austin, here’s what it meant in the case of Professor Regnerus:
On receiving the allegations from Mr. Rose, the Research Integrity Officer notified Dr. Regnerus of them by email and personal meeting in July 2012, followed by an immediate sequestration (by the Security Office of the University’s Information Technology Services) of all four of his laptops and two desktop computers for copying of the files, said to contain all the materials related to the questioned study. Also sequestered were 42,000 of his emails on the University system.
That’s right—UT Austin came in, took away six of Professor Regnerus’ computers (presumably copying their hard drives), and copied 42,000 emails (and presumably looked through many of them for evidence). That’s a major disruption of his scholarly activity. As FIRE wrote in our letter:
Reviewing a researcher’s records and materials is likely to be disruptive and intrusive, as it may involve the reading of personal correspondence (both electronic and printed), the confiscation or duplication of hard drives that are also likely to contain personal data, the removal of paper records from the control of researchers, and so forth. While this review may well be warranted in a full investigation (which would only take place after the inquiry phase is completed), immediately securing a researcher’s materials simply because a complaint was filed provides an unmistakable incentive to those wishing only to harass a researcher, discourage a particular line of inquiry, or manufacture controversy over sound scholarship.
For similar reasons, FIRE stood in opposition when the attorney general of Virginia turned to a state law regarding fraud to attempt to obtain the full records of climate scientist Michael Mann from the University of Virginia, without presenting any evidence of wrongdoing. We noted in that case that if this became an accepted practice, professors would "have reason to fear that publishing results unpopular with the elected officials currently in power in Virginia will lead to time-consuming, expensive, and intrusive investigations." Yet in the case of UT Austin, it appears that not just elected officials but literally every person in the world has already been granted such a power. While many universities maintain procedures to allow for a public check on academic misconduct, it’s not hard to see the danger in taking such a disruptive step as sequestration before a complaint is determined to have any merit.
FIRE is glad to see that UT Austin appears to have conducted its investigation in accordance with its own rules and disregarded the portions of the complaint that should never have been investigated. Following fair procedures, and following them carefully, is most critical when the issue is controversial and the process likely to be distorted for ideological reasons, intentionally or not. Yet it seems to us that UT Austin should take a closer look at its rules to make sure that the provision for sequestration does not become an open invitation to hassle and discourage researchers working within politically charged topics. That’s something that everyone in academia should be able to agree upon, as next time—and there is always a next time—the victim of such abuses may be you.