Op-eds, Opinions

Paxson P’19, Locke P’18: University committed to academic freedom, faculty support

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Op-Ed Contributors
Sunday, September 9, 2018

The University sets a very high bar for the research it publicizes. Among the literally hundreds of research studies published in peer-reviewed journals by University researchers over the course of a year, a small number are chosen to be highlighted on the University’s website and featured in our communications materials. We feel strongly that the research that is featured should reflect Brown’s dedication to the highest standards of academic excellence.

Not only does this align with our values as a research institution, it conveys to our research community the deep respect we have for the intellectual, professional and personal investment its members make in the meticulous practice of inquiry and discovery to advance knowledge.

This commitment to upholding academic standards sets the backdrop for a story that has been widely reported — and misreported — in the media, regarding a research article published by a Brown faculty member. We are writing to set the facts straight and restate our strong commitment to academic freedom for this faculty member and all researchers at Brown.

On Aug. 16, the scientific peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE published an article on “rapid onset gender dysphoria” by Assistant Professor of the Practice of Behavioral and Social Sciences Lisa Littman. Though Brown’s Office of University Communications knew the subject matter of the research could generate controversy, it decided to feature the research in a press release posted on the University’s website Aug. 22. The University does not shy away from controversy in publicizing research that seeks to advance knowledge or debate in a research field.

After the paper was published, the University started to hear serious concerns from leading academics in the field about the paper’s research design and methodology. Apparently, these concerns were also communicated separately to PLOS ONE because the journal announced Aug. 27 that it would take the unusual step of conducting a post-publication re-review of the article. The University has had no contact with the journal and played no part in its decision.

It was in light of the journal’s determination — and consistent with our commitment to only publicize research that unassailably meets the highest standards of excellence — the University chose to remove a news release about the research from Brown’s website Aug. 27, after the journal’s announcement. This decision would have been made regardless of the subject matter of the research.

Any accusation that Brown does not support and defend academic freedom is false. We have seen this accusation articulated in various news media, including in a Sept. 6 Herald op-ed, “University should safeguard researchers’ independence.”

In this age of “tweet first, ask questions later,” it has been assumed (without evidence) that the University “succumbed to political pressure.” In truth, the decision to cease publicity for the article instead reflects the value the University places on research standards and was not a response to any pressure from people unhappy with the content of the study. Neither has the University in any way censored the research, as some in the media have claimed. The article is still available on the PLOS ONE website and on the author’s Researchers@Brown page, which is maintained by the University.

Finally, the University has in no way condemned Professor Littman’s research. In ceasing publicity for the article, the University has not drawn a judgement about whether or not the research meets the standards for research publication. As always, this determination is left to experts in the field through the peer review process.

Given the profound confusion on this matter, it’s important not only to state the facts but also to emphasize the University’s strong commitment to academic freedom. We wholeheartedly share with our faculty and the broader research community deep convictions with regard to academic freedom, intellectual independence and the fundamental role of universities in championing and defending researchers’ right to pursue inquiry on any issues of their choosing. We are committed to vigorously upholding these values along with adhering to the highest standards of academic excellence.

We fully support Professor Littman and others in the School of Public Health and other disciplines in conducting research and seeking publication in the growing field of transgender health, as well as organizing seminars, panels or other forums to discuss scholarship on this topic. We have been steadfast in explaining to people who object to the content of this research that we stand by academic freedom and will not do anything to hinder this (or any) faculty member’s research. We believe deeply that upholding academic standards is not at odds with supporting our faculty and their freedom to pursue their research interests, even if that takes them into areas of inquiry that are controversial.

We believe just as strongly that we can devote ourselves to academic freedom while also confirming our long-standing support for members of the transgender community. We feel it’s critical that members of our community and the public not misinterpret expressions of support for transgender individuals as the motivation for discontinuing promotion of the gender dysphoria research. Brown is deeply committed to both supporting high-quality science and research that informs policy and  practice, and sustaining an inclusive environment that respects the dignity of all members of our community.

In short, academic freedom and inclusion are not mutually exclusive. We’re proud that Brown was among the first universities to include medical care for gender reassignment in its student health plan and that our medical school is a leader in education on care for transgender individuals.

Academic freedom and support for the trans community — or any other group — are values that can and, indeed, must co-exist. They do at Brown.

President Christina Paxson P’19 and Provost Richard Locke P’18 can be reached at christina_paxson@brown.edu and richard_locke@brown.edu. Please send responses to this op-ed to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.