kids, sex, academia, and politics

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Wed May 23 06:49:38 PDT 2001

Chronicle of Higher Education - web daily - May 23, 2001

Journal Backs Away From Article Critical of Congress and Psychology Association By JENNIFER K. RUARK

The editor of American Psychologist, a leading psychology journal, has reneged on an agreement to publish an article critical of the journal's sponsor and of several members of Congress.

The author, Scott O. Lilienfeld, an associate professor of psychology at Emory University, describes his article -- originally titled "The Bonfire of the Vilifiers" -- as an analysis of what happens "when social science and politics collide." In it, he charges the American Psychological Association with caving in to Congressional pressure when it apologized for an article about childhood sexual abuse written by Temple University's Bruce Rind and others. The article appeared in the association's journal Psychological Bulletin.

Mr. Lilienfeld's article was scheduled to appear in the group's other journal, American Psychologist, in June. But on May 10 the journal's editor, Richard McCarty, wrote a letter to Mr. Lilienfeld overruling the guest editor who had accepted the manuscript based on three favorable reviews, and with Mr. McCarty's initial blessing.

"It may not be censorship but it raises the specter of censorship, and raises concerns about the suppression of writings that are critical of the A.P.A. or that are critical of members of Congress," said Mr. Lilienfeld.

Mr. McCarty wrote in his letter that he was concerned about the manuscript's "narrow focus and tone" and that he had solicited five additional reviews unbeknownst to Mr. Lilienfeld. Noting that the American Psychologist is "a vehicle for organizational policy," he suggested that Mr. Lilienfeld either submit the manuscript to another journal or "delete the first part of the manuscript that deals with the Rind et al. article" and use other examples to illustrate the tensions between scientists and policy makers.

Mr. McCarty refused to comment to The Chronicle, citing ethical obligations not to discuss an article under review.

"The article is not under review," said Mr. Lilienfeld. "One can always claim that he is merely asking for revisions, but what he is asking would entirely eviscerate the article of its content, and I will not be revising it." He is appealing the decision to the association's board of publications.

The association's chief executive officer, Raymond D. Fowler, did comment in a memorandum posted on a psychology e-mail list where Mr. Lilienfeld had aired his case. Although he is editor in chief of American Psychologist, Mr. Fowler said he would recuse himself from any decision making on the Lilienfeld article because he had been directly involved in the original controversy over the article about sexual abuse. In response to accusations that Mr. McCarty's decision had been politically motivated, Mr. Fowler wrote, "I don't think anyone who knows Richard thinks of him as a political animal or particularly politically motivated."

Mr. Lilienfeld suggested that Mr. McCarty should not have been involved in the publication decision either, because he is the psychology association's executive director for science and thus implicitly criticized in Mr. Lilienfeld's article.

But Mr. McCarty initially supported the decision of the guest editor, Nora Newcombe (who is also at Temple) to publish the article. In a January 23 e-mail message to Mr. Lilienfeld, he wrote: "Nora let me know that your paper was accepted for publication in A.P. Congratulations! I understand you are revising it now. I hope you will agree with Nora's suggestions to modify the tone and the title. I think it will be longer lived if you do. Once you and she are satisfied with it, we will get it into the pipeline as quickly as possible."

In a subsequent message, he advised Mr. Lilienfeld to "do the best you can with the 'tone' issue without stripping the manuscript of its essence."

Ms. Newcombe did not return a telephone call seeking comment, but the e-mail messages indicate that Mr. McCarty was referring to advice from three peer reviewers who had recommended acceptance pending a softening of the tone. A fourth reviewer had recommended rejection but agreed instead to contribute a critical commentary to the same issue of the journal. But that reviewer withdrew his commentary after reading Mr. Lilienfeld's revision (retitled "When Worlds Collide"), saying that the new version was "quite a bit more compelling than the original article."

Ms. Newcombe thanked Mr. Lilienfeld for his "responsive revision" and said it had her "final acceptance" although it would be fact-checked.

As far as Mr. Lilienfeld knew, his article was working its way through the publication process. In response to a query in early April, the managing editor, Melissa Warren, informed him that the June issue was full and that she was still processing his manuscript.

A month and a half later, he received Mr. McCarty's letter informing him of the additional peer reviewers. One of the five experts in childhood sexual abuse and science policy feared, with Mr. McCarty, that the article would be taken as "a ringing defense" of Rind et al.

Mr. Lilienfeld says he has no opinion on the Rind research, which analyzed existing studies of childhood sexual abuse and concluded that not all instances of sex between adults and children cause psychological harm to children. The article took care to distinguish between moral or legal "wrongfulness" and scientific "harmfulness," but created an uproar two years ago among religious groups and conservative members of Congress, who said the psychology association was endorsing pedophilia.

Under pressure from Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, and others, the association apologized for the article and sought a review of its findings from an independent panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That panel declined to conduct the review.

"I don't know if [Rind and his colleagues] are right," says Mr. Lilienfeld. "I was objecting to the way it was handled, and the threats to academic freedom. I never expected to become part of the saga myself." On Monday, he resigned from the American Psychological Association.

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