(And Brad Wilcox lied continuously, too.)
It may seem like a footnote to the Regnerus scandal (last summary here), but I think it is worth reporting that we now know Social Science Research editor James Wright apparently lied in his published description of the process by which the Regnerus paper was published.
In the “Introductory Remarks” that Wright published in the November 2012 issue of SSR, he described the sequence of events leading up to the paper’s publication, writing in part (with false portion highlighted):
The [Loren] Marks paper was submitted to SSR on October 3, 2011, and had already been accepted for publication (subject to some pretty significant revisions) when the Regnerus paper was submitted on February 1, 2012. Like most journals, SSR often tries to co-publish topically linked papers … and given the obvious topical similarity of these two papers, publishing them at the same time seemed sensible (assuming, as goes without saying, that both fared well in peer review). The email sent to prospective reviewers of the Regnerus paper therefore stated, “I would greatly appreciate the quickest possible turnaround on your review” but was otherwise identical to the form letter sent to all prospective reviewers when requesting reviews.
In this telling, Wright’s motivation for encouraging a quick turnaround was that he wanted to publish the two papers together, and that’s why (“therefore”) he asked the reviewers to expedite their reviews.
But, Straight Grandmother has published the email that Wright sent to reviewer Brad Wilcox, and it does not match Wright’s published description. In that email, Wright wrote:
We have received a manuscript that we think may interest you. We would very much appreciate your reading it and rendering a critique.
We have also learned that a report on this study will be released sometime this coming summer and if the paper is destined to appear in SSR, it would be nice to have the paper accepted (and available online) before the report is released. So I would greatly appreciate the quickest possible turnaround on your review.
Here is the grainy public-records version, for authenticity:
Clearly, the highlighted passage in the first quote was not the only passage that made the Regnerus request different. In his “Introductory Remarks,” Wright omitted mention of the summer report deadline. And the email to Wilcox does not mention the goal of publishing the Regnerus and Marks papers together.
Why would Wright change the story, from one about trying to publish the Regnerus paper in time for the summer report (told to Wilcox) to one about trying to publish two topically-related papers together (told to the public)? The answer, I conclude, is that in his published accounting Wright was attempting to distance himself from the appearance (fact) of coordination with Regnerus and his backers (including Wilcox).
Wright’s story of the dog wagging the tail is reversed. Regnerus and Wilcox needed to have the peer-reviewed paper accepted and online before they could release the “report” publicly, because they wanted that legitimacy (this is apparent in the first document dump). Wright’s actions made that strategy successful. (When it appeared, the “report” was just an animated website rehashing the contents of the paper.)
Wilcox lies, too
Brad Wilcox will say this was not a lie, because he thinks he carefully did not lie, but it was a lie, because lying is about deception, not just about uttering words that are literally untrue. Take it from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which Pope John Paul II wrote:
[Quoting St. Augustine] “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” … To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.
I don’t know this first-hand, but I’m told God does not give partial credit for lies of omission. In his response to Wright’s reviewer request, Wilcox’s entire reply was this:
I’m happy to do this. Just want to let you know that I serve on the advisory board for this project — as does Kelly Raley and others on the SSR board. Ok?
You could call this a head-fake disclaimer. What is the relevance of the advisory board? It is certainly not the most important fact about Brad’s involvement with the study. We probably don’t know all that he did, but we do know that Brad coordinated the fundraising for the study, recruited Regnerus to be the lead researcher, advised Regnerus on how to handle co-authorship with Cynthia Osborne, suggested to Regnerus that they send the paper to Wright at SSR, and referred to the research project as “our dataset.”
So, sure, the email exchange contains a disclosure — one that puts Wilcox on the same level of involvement as other fleeting consultants — but it is far from the most important thing to disclose. That’s lying.
Did Wright lie some more?
After Brad’s response to the reviewer request, they exchange two more emails, which read, in their entirety:
So why, in his email to Inside Higher Ed, did Wright say this?
Amato and Wilcox mentioned their prior involvement with the Regnerus study in response to my initial reviewing request. I asked, as I always do, whether this involvement precluded their writing an objective review. Both said no and so both were asked to proceed.
Perhaps there was a followup exchange in which Wright wrote to Brad, “Oops, forgot to ask, as I always do: Will this involvement preclude you writing an objective review?” But if there wasn’t, then Wright lied again. One can’t help suspecting that Wright did not expect his actual email exchange to be published.
In Darren Sherkat’s report on the journal’s review process, incidentally, he wrote:
Two of the reviewers indicated that they had a potential conflict of interest related to consulting on the Regnerus paper but both averred that this consulting relationship would not preclude an objective, critical assessment.
If this is supposed to be a description of the Wright-Wilcox exchange Straight Grandmother has published, then it also appears not to be true — Wilcox didn’t tell that particular lie. I don’t know the source of Sherkat’s information on that point, but it might well just be Wright’s say-so.
The shifting boilerplate
I don’t know the content of all of Wright’s requests to reviewers, or what he “always” asks, but I have some circumstantial evidence. A review request that Wright sent to someone I know the same month as the Regnerus paper is identical to the one Straight Grandmother published to Wilcox, except for the part about the summer report and the quick turnaround. So that appears to have been a form letter (the typos match as well). In that letter, Wright says SSR has single-blind reviews because:
…we feel it is important to give our reviewers an opportunity to be forthcoming about potential bias prior to rendering a critique or decline to review for fear of compromising professional ties with the authors.
It doesn’t ask them whether anything “precluded their writing an objective review.” However, the boilerplate seems to have changed. The last review request I received, in early 2013, included a passage that is not in the email he sent to Wilcox or my informant:
Agreeing to review a paper for this or any journal is simultaneously an affirmation that you harbor no conflicts of interest or past or current relationships with the author(s) that would preclude you from writing an honest, objective critique. If this is not the case, our assumption is that you will decline to do the review.
So I guess Wright might say that he “always” asks this now, but it does not appear that he asked it of Wilcox (at least in the documents we have). Maybe he’s improving his practice. Maybe he’s covering his bases.
So, some of you may still be reviewing for James Wright at Social Science Research, or sending your papers to him. My question is, Why?