Harvey Marcovitch on censorship, squeamishness, and same sex desire

Harvey Marcovitch Older readers will remember when the Medical Defence Union had a telegraphic address – Damocles. Younger readers may not know that he was another of those Greek mythological characters to whom the gods or their employers gave a tough time – in his case suspending a sword over his head by a single hair. Oh, and a telegraphic address is what you sent telegrams too. And telegrams were a sort of hard copy Twitter.

When I left clinical practise my personal Damocletian weapon evaporated instantly although it returned to hover about a bit in a desultory way when I chaired COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, largely because disaffected complainants had a habit of leaking my letters to their local press as though they had come from the UN secretary general.  COPE now has a new chair and I am again relieved.

Earlier this month it received a new sort of allegation, namely that a publisher who had signed up all its journals to COPE was itself guilty of heinous misconduct in its handling of an editor and his hard working authors.

The story goes like this. In 2005, the Journal of Homosexuality, owned by Haworth Press, was due to publish a theme issue and an accompanying book entitled Same-Sex Desire & Love in Graeco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West.  One of the contributors was Professor Bruce Rind from Temple University, Philadelphia. I learned that his article examined pederasty from a combination of contemporary psychological, anthropological and biological, including cross-species, perspectives.

Advance online publication of the abstract led to controversy, if not uproar, after a US conservative pressure group made what the co-editor of the theme issue, Prof. Beert Verstraete of Acadia University, Nova Scotia called “the baseless accusation that [Rind] was not only condoning but even advocating sex with children”.  Eventually a compromise was reached to publish the theme issue without Dr Rind’s paper; but he was invited to revise and expand it for publication in a future theme issue; it would be accompanied by several commissioned critiques by scholars from various countries and disciplines, to which Rind would be invited to respond.

The revision was ready by February 2007, the invited authors wrote their critiques and – by February 2009, Rind had responded and Verstrate had prepared a preface and introduction. So far, so good.

However, during this prolonged gestation, Haworth Press was purchased by the major academic publisher Taylor & Francis and, in April, their acquisitions editor announced the proposed special issue would not be published. Professor Verstraete suspects the decision, for which he says he has received no explanation, was made at a senior level in the publishing house.

It seems Professor Rind has form (thank you Wikipedia). In 1998, he and others published data which failed to confirm the widely-held view that a population of persons who experienced child sexual abuse (CSA) would have a greater prevalence of clinically significant problems than a control group.   He concluded that the commonly conceptualised construct of CSA by researchers was of questionable validity and that the degree of psychological damage was associated with whether or not the person described their childhood experience as consensual or not.

The learned society owners of the journal in which Rind had published came under great pressure to repudiate the article, albeit that its methodology had apparently satisfied National Institutes of Health criteria for guideline development and it had been appropriately peer-reviewed, including statistically. The US House of Representatives went so far as to pass a resolution condemning the study on the grounds that it had been exploited by paedophiles to support their opinion of the harmlessness of their behaviour.

The first question that springs to my mind is what did Taylor & Francis think they were buying when the Journal of Homosexuality came under its imprint? The journal mission statement is pretty clear, namely that it is “devoted to scholarly research on homosexuality, including sexual practices and gender roles and their cultural, historical, interpersonal and modern social contexts.” So did they think it would all be motherhood and apple pie?

Thirty six years ago, Robert Merton of Columbia University proposed the acronym CUDOS to describe the process of scientific research and, by extension, publications. [1]  C stands for communalism – namely the need for openness in sharing information, something with which publishers are hesitatingly being dragged into, many of them kicking and screaming the while. U represents universalism– that scientific research relies on its intrinsic merit rather than the reputation or position of those whose names are attached to it. Disinterestedness implies that the analysis and conclusions of research should be uncommitted to ideology while OS is organised scepticism – nothing should be taken on trust.

I don’t expect Taylor & Francis to be too interested in the opinion of this superannuated journocop, but they do seem to me to be in a bit of a state about the last two of these, as they duck and weave to avoid getting involved in the latest ramifications of what I suppose the eventual stage play will be entitled – The Rind Affair.  Any nominations for leading man?
1. Merton RK (1973) The Sociology of Science. Chicago. Chicago University Press