Remember the assistant professor at Brown University who was vilified for publishing a scientific paper arguing that peer influences could influence teens and young adults to identify as transgender?
Guess what? She’s been vindicated.
Speaking to Quillette’s Canadian editor Jonathan Kay, Lisa Littman, Assistant Professor of the Practice at the Brown University School of Public Health, spoke of her article, titled, “Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents and Young Adults: A Study of Parental Reports,” which was originally published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. After its publication, the harsh criticism from the transgender community prompted PLOS ONE to re-review the paper, which in turn triggered Brown University, which removed the press release from their website.
But as a result of the re-review, only a barely different, slightly modified version of the original paper was published by PLOS ONE this week. PLOS admitted, “Other than the addition of a few missing values in Table 13, the Results section is unchanged in the updated version of the article. The Competing Interests statement and the Data Availability statement have also been updated in the revised version.”
The abstract for the original paper read:
In on-line forums, parents have been reporting that their children are experiencing what is described here as “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” appearing for the first time during puberty or even after its completion. The onset of gender dysphoria seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe. Parents also report that their children exhibited an increase in social media/internet use prior to disclosure of a transgender identity. The purpose of this study was to document and explore these observations and describe the resulting presentation of gender dysphoria, which is inconsistent with existing research literature.
Littman explained the post-publication review process: “The post-publication review was rigorous, and included input from three senior members of the PLOS ONE editorial staff, a statistical reviewer, two academic editors, and an external expert reviewer. The manuscript was meticulously evaluated, and, in response to the resulting feedback, changes were made to several sections of the paper, though the methods and findings remained mostly unchanged.”
Kay noted, “The results from your original version of your paper are identical to the results reported in this republished version. Why was this republication even necessary? To a layperson, it seems that the new paper is just a restatement of the original.”
Littman responded, “It was determined that the research needed to be reframed in a way to emphasize that this is a study in which the data was collected from the parents, to expand the discussion about the limitations of parent reports, and to explicitly clarify that “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” is not a clinical diagnosis … Some of my academic colleagues felt that the amount of oversight applied to my work was above and beyond what it should have been. I felt that my best course of action was to diligently and thoroughly respond, in good faith, to each concern that was raised, which is what I did.”
Asked what prompted her to research the area of her paper, Littman answered, “I became interested in studying gender dysphoria when I observed, in my own community, an unusual pattern whereby teens from the same friend group began announcing transgender identities on social media, one after the other, on a scale that greatly exceeded expected numbers.” She noted, that parents of children who had announced their transgender identity said that the clinicians “were only interested in fast-tracking gender-affirmation and transition and were resistant to even evaluating the child’s pre-existing and current mental health issues.”
Littman stated that she noticed that she found “clusters of people” whose children had started to announce their transgender identity, adding, “Parents online were describing a very unusual pattern of transgender-identification where multiple friends and even entire friend groups became transgender-identified at the same time. I would have been remiss had I not considered social contagion and peer influences as potential factors.”
Littman recalled the intense anger generated by her paper: “Within days of publication, there was a blizzard of social-media discussion. Comments came from angry activists, supportive researchers and clinicians, and grateful parents who engaged in civil and not-so-civil online discussions about it. There were tweets that called the research ‘transphobic,’ claimed that it had already been debunked, and called some of the recruitment sites right-wing hate groups.”
Littman pointed out that after her paper came out, she lost her consulting job. She concluded, “I realize now that other academics have received this type of pushback and more. It’s part of a larger issue surrounding the study of gender dysphoria where, if the research findings or opinions are not consistent with a very specific gender narrative, there are efforts to shut down the discussion.”