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How to Ex an "Ex-Gay" Study

A small but critical correction on a new, very moving article.

Gabriel Arana has just published an excellent first-person account of so-called “reparative” therapy of sexual orientation in The American Prospect. I highly recommend “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life.” It’s a beautiful account of the horrific damage that can be done to a young gay man or lesbian who is subject to claims that he or she is mentally ill or defective by virtue of being homosexual.

In reading the article, though, something struck me as off. So I checked it, and sure enough, it’s off.

Arana reports speaking to Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist who played a critically important role in the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. It's fair to say that without Spitzer's efforts in the early 1970s, it would have taken longer (maybe much longer) to end the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.

But then in 2003, Spitzer published an article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior that purported to show that reparative therapy “worked” much of the time. The abstract of Spitzer’s 2003 article reported, “The majority of participants gave reports of change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation.”

Now, in his just-published article, Arana says that Spitzer told him “he spoke with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction [of Spitzer’s 2003 article], but the editor declined. (Repeated attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.)”

This is the thing that struck me as off. I know the Editor of Archives, Ken Zucker, and I know from my own experience publishing in Archives that Zucker is not one to shy away from controversial back-and-forths. It didn’t sound right to me that Zucker would publish such a politically incorrect article only to then suppress a politically correct revision of it by the author himself.

So I asked Zucker to tell me, for the record, what happened. Zucker began by explaining to me that he and Spitzer go back over 25 years in terms of professional association, even publishing an article together, so it’s not as if they are strangers. Zucker had accepted Spitzer’s 2003 article only on the basis that it pass peer review and then be open to commentaries, so that it could be openly criticized by those who might disagree. In fact, Spitzer’s 2003 article went through numerous rounds of review, and was then published with 26 commentaries, to which Spitzer formally responded (as required in the “target article” system).

A few months ago, Zucker told me, Spitzer had called Zucker wanting to talk about the latest DSM revision. During that call, according to Zucker, Spitzer “made some reference to regretting having done or publishing the study, and he said he wanted to retract it. My recollection of the conversation was something like this: I said, ‘I’m not sure what you want to retract, Bob. You didn’t falsify the data. You didn’t commit egregious statistical errors in analyzing the data. You didn’t make up the data. There were various commentaries on your paper, some positive, some negative, some in between. So the only thing that you seem to want to retract is your interpretation of the data, and lots of people have already criticized you for interpretation, methodological issues, etc.’”

Zucker went on: “Did he ask me whether, if he submitted a letter to the editor, I would say no? No. I didn’t say no, I didn’t say yes. I basically think that, in the conversation, I was pushing back in terms of what exactly he wanted to say.” In other words, Zucker was trying to get Spitzer to articulate exactly what he wanted to say now, publicly, about his 2003 article. “And that was the end of the conversation. Now had Spitzer a week later submitted a letter to the editor saying ‘I no longer agree with my own interpretations of the data,’ would I have published it? Of course. Why not?”

Which is exactly what I said to myself when I was reading Arana’s article: Why would Zucker not be perfectly happy to publish such a letter from Spitzer? To be frank, it would only bring attention to the journal and make science look the way scientists like it to look: open to revision.

What about Arana’s claim that “attempts to contact the journal went unanswered”?

Zucker told me that Arana “called me on March 27, but I’ve been out of town most of the last two weeks, and I’ve not yet called back a lot of people. He only called me once and left one message. I think the journalist should have made a more concerted effort to reach me, by email. If he had emailed, which he didn’t, he would have gotten an automated message that said I was out of town. And it would have given him my cell phone number. In the internet era, you can find anyone’s email address within a few minutes.”

Zucker concluded, “If Spitzer wants to submit a letter that says he no longer believes his interpretation of his own data, that’s fine. I’ll publish it.”

But a retraction? Well, the problem with that is that Spitzer’s change of heart about the interpretation of his data is not normally the kind of thing that causes an editor to expunge the scientific record. Said Zucker to me, “You can retract data incorrectly analyzed; to do that, you publish an erratum. You can retract an article if the data were falsified—or the journal retracts it if the editor knows of it. As I understand it, he’s just saying ten years later that he wants to retract his interpretation of the data. Well, we’d probably have to retract hundreds of scientific papers with regard to re-interpretation, and we don’t do that.”

All Spitzer has to do is put in writing that he no longer believes what he said about the interpretation of his data, and Zucker will publish his revision.

And here’s the thing: Spitzer is a real scholar. He ought to know that you don’t retract an article, or otherwise formally revise an article, with a casual phone call. If you want to change something in your publication record, you write to the editor to state what you want done, and why.

And Robert Spitzer should now do that.

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