Ethical Research and Publication Within Family Studies and Sociology

As we have been reading and talking about ethics during the last week or so I was reminded of a case that has been continuously in the news within my discipline for almost two years now.  So, instead about reading and talking about ethics in other disciplines, I decided to bring up this one. In 2012 a study conducted by a sociologist from the University of Texas was published that claimed to have produced the first rigorous scientific evidence showing that same-sex families harm children. Following the publication there was an outcry by many in the fields of sociology, family studies, and psychology who have done much research with the exact opposite findings.

As people started digging and looking into the research, the publication process, etc. a lot of things started to emerge about how the study was conducted.

Part of what came out was that the author strategically selected groups for comparison. Part of this was not making the experiences other than having a gay, lesbian, or bisexual parent exactly the same. Those who were in the heterosexual parent group had parents that were continuously married throughout the participant’s life while those in the other group did not necessarily even live with that parent.

The researcher did not contact any other scholars on the subject before starting this research (it was outside his normal research practices), including those within his own department. Which on the surface is not a big deal, but the fact that there has been so much research looking at similar questions, it is surprising that he did not reach out to understand all of the nuances of the topic.

Part of the concern over this researcher’s study is how biased he was in even initiating the study. If you read any of his popular news writings (or even study his CV closely) you can see how biased he was to find the finding he did. There was also the problem that the entire study was funded by the Witherspoon Institute (a conservative group) in which the researcher never disclosed while publishing the research. He even tried to hide the fact during the initial outcry after the publication.

At this point his reputation is almost completely ruined within the field. Even as an “expert witness” courts are viewing his research and opinions as useless. In fact, recently, a Michigan judge said something in that realm. However, as he continues to write and defend himself, he seems to not believe that he has done anything wrong and that he is on the right side of the research ethics.

This is a case that will continue to play out but is also a good teaching point for all of us.

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