Sci-Hub users cost ASA journals thousands of downloads, and that’s OK

UPDATED to include Sci-Hub data from six months: September 2015–February 2016, and correcting a coding error that inflated download counts.

Well, they might not have lost the downloads, but they didn’t get them.

Sci-Hub is a pirate operation that uses stolen university login credentials to harvest, store, and distribute for free virtually every academic article published anywhere. It is a simple, if criminal, solution to a very big problem: the lack of access to published research for people who can’t pay for it. When someone goes to the Sci-Hub site and requests an article, by simply pasting in the DOI or URL, the system either serves them the paper, or goes and steals it for them and then keeps a copy for the next user. For us university people who are used to dealing with the maze of logins and forwarding and proxies that come between us and the information we seek, it’s unbelievably fast and almost never fails.

Their most recent claim is an archive of 76 million papers and 400,000 users per day.

Currently available at or –.tw, it sometimes moves, but this site always lists where you can find it now. Naturally, both civil and criminal authorities are trying to shut it down, preferably by catching its mastermind, Alexandra Elbakyan, the elusive student programmer from Kazakhstan.


That picture is from the excellent (free streaming) documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship. Chris Bourg, the Director of Libraries at MIT (and a sociologist), also interviewed in the movie, said of Sci-Hub:

Those of us who work in scholarly communications, writ large, really have to look at Sci-Hub as sort of a poke in the side that says, “Do better.” We need to look to Sci-Hub to say, “What is it that we could be doing differently about the infrastructure that we developed to distribute journal articles, to distribute scholarship?” … I think we need to look at what’s happening with Sci-Hub, how it evolved, who’s using it, who’s accessing it, and let it be a lesson to us for what we should be doing differently.

Sociology’s stolen papers

Science magazine writer John Bohannon reached Elbakyan in 2016, and she turned over to him a 6-month cache of Sci-Hub server logs for a piece titled, “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone.” He analyzed 28 million downloads, and Science made the data available for analysis, here. Eight million of those hits were from India and China, and the busiest location was Tehran.

The data archive includes only the time and date, the DOI number of each paper downloaded, and the location of the user. I’m not expert in DOI analysis, but Bohannon included a guide that shows the prefix 10.1177 is associated with Sage Publications, which publishes the American Sociological Association’s journals. Looking at the entire six-month series, September 2015 — February 2016, I found 171,000 Sage items, downloaded 377,000 times. Of those (if I got the DOIs right), 805 titles downloaded 1628 times came from the ASA research journals (my Stata code is here).

ASA / Sage downloads from Sci-Hub, Sept 2015 – Feb 2016
Articles Downloads
American Sociological Review 239 693
Teaching Sociology 221 269
Journal of Health and Social Behavior 94 188
Social Psychology Quarterly 77 152
Sociology of Education 73 157
Sociological Methodology 57 76
Sociological Theory 44 93
Total 805 1628

On an annualized basis, that would be 750,000 Sage downloads, and 3,200 from ASA journals specifically. For comparison, the most popular article in ASR in 2017 was downloaded about 10,000 times from the Sage site, so it’s a small share of the legitimate traffic. So over the life of Sci-Hub it cost (and saved) ASA thousands of downloads, probably a few tens of thousands. [Note in the first version of this post, I had a coding error that multiplied the counts, and this read “hundreds of thousands”. I regret the error.]

The most-downloaded ASR paper for the entire period was:

Mears, Ashley. 2015. “Working for Free in the VIP: Relational Work and the Production of Consent.” American Sociological Review 80 (6): 1099–1122. (downloaded 33 times)

The most-downloaded from a different journal was:

Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2010. “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent:” Social Psychology Quarterly, February. (29 times)

I looked at a couple of them in more detail, and found, for example, that Paula England’s 2015 ASA Presidential Address was downloaded by users in Seoul (South Korea), Durban (South Africa), New Delhi, London, Chicago, Washington, and Virgie (Kentucky).

Interestingly, at least one of the popular papers, Lizardo et al.’s introduction to their editorial tenure at ASR, is already ungated on the Sage site, so you don’t need to use Sci-Hub to get it. This suggests, as Bohannon also noted, that some Sci-Hub users are just using the site because it’s convenient, not because they don’t have access to the papers.

Do you Sci-Hub?

I use Sci-Hub a lot, often for things that I also have subscription access to. (I do not, however, contribute anything to the system; I free-ride off their criminality.) Why? I’m not in the paywall game business, I’m in the information business. I am always behind on my work, and adding a few seconds or minutes of hunting for the legitimate way to get each of the many articles I look at every day is not worth it. (And when I find my university doesn’t subscribe? Interlibrary loan is wonderful, but I don’t want to spend more time with it than necessary.) Does my choice cost the American Sociological Association a few cents, by reducing legitimate downloads, which somehow factors into the profits that get kicked back to the association from Sage? I don’t know.

Of course, one of the dumb things about the paywall system is that it’s expensive and time-consuming to manage who has access to what information — it’s not a small task to keep information from reaching millions of determined readers from all around the world. (I assume one of the reasons my university recently introduced two-factor authentication — requiring me to click a pop-up on my phone every time I log in to university resources [even when I’m in my office] — is because of Sci-Hub. Ironic!)

Chris Bourg is right: “let it be a lesson to us for what we should be doing differently.” Elbakyan may have committed the most efficient product theft in history, in terms of list price of stolen goods per unit of effort or expense on her part. Her archive has been copied and distributed to different sites around the world (it fits in a large suitcase). And it was made possible by the irrational, corrupt nature of the scholarly communication infrastructure. Her success is the system’s failure.

For more information, read my report, “Scholarly Communication in Sociology.


ASA’s letter against the public interest and our values


Update 1: I submitted a resolution to the ASA Committee on Publications, for consideration at our January meeting. You can read and comment on it here.

Update 2: The Committee on Publications on January 23 voted to approve the following statement: “The ASA Committee on Publications expresses our opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.”

The American Sociological Association has signed a letter that profoundly betrays the public interest and goes against the values that many of us in the scholarly community embrace.

The letter to President Trump, signed by dozes of academic societies, voices opposition to a rumored federal policy change that would require federally funded research be made freely available upon publication, rather than according to the currently mandated 12-month embargo — which ASA similarly, bitterly, opposed in 2012. ASA has not said who made the decision to sign this letter. All I know is that, as a member of the Committee on Publications, I wasn’t consulted or notified. I don’t know what the ASA rules are for issuing such statements in our name, but this one is disgraceful.

The argument is that ASA would not be able to make money selling research generated by federal funding if it were required to be distributed for free. And because ASA would suffer, science and the public interest would suffer. Like when Trump says getting Ukraine to help him win re-election is by definition in the American interest — what helps ASA is what’s good for science.

The letter says:

Currently, free distribution of research findings is subject to a 12-month embargo, enabling American publishers to recover the investment made in curating and assuring the quality of scientific research content. … The current 12-month embargo period provides science and engineering society publishers the financial stability that enables us to support peer review that ensures the quality and integrity of the research enterprise.

That is funny, because in 2012 ASA director Sally Hillsman (since retired) said the 12-month embargo policy “could threaten the ability of scholarly societies, including the ASA, to continue publishing journals” and was “likely to seriously erode and eventually jeopardize our financial ability to perform the critical, value added peer review and editorial functions of scientific publishing.”

The current letter, at least with regard to ASA, tell this whopper: “we support open access and have a strong history of advancing open access through a broad array of operational models.” They literally oppose open access, including in this letter, and including the current, weak, open access policy.

The ASA-signed letter is very similar to one sent about the same time by a different (but overlapping) large group of publishers, including Elsevier, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claiming the rumored policy would hurt ‘merica. But there are subtle differences. The ASA letter refers to “the current proven and successful model for reporting, curating and archiving scientific results and advancing the U.S. research enterprise,” which should not be tampered with. The other letter warns of the danger of “step[ing] into the private marketplace” in which they sell research. Knowledge philosopher Peter Suber offered an excellent critique of the market claims here in this Twitter thread:

ASA and the other money-making societies really want you to believe there is no way to do curation and peer review without them. If we jeopardize their business model, ASA says, the services they provide would not happen. In fact, the current subscription models and paywalls stand in the way of developing the cheaper, more efficient models we could build right now to replace them. All we need to do is take the money we currently devote to journal subscriptions and publisher profits, and redirect it to the tasks of curation and peer review without profits and paywalls — and free distribution (which is a lot cheaper to administer than paywalled distribution).

The sooner we start working on that the better. In this effort — and in the absence of leadership by scholarly societies — the university libraries are our strongest allies. This is explained by UNC Librarian Elaine Westbrooks in this Twitter thread:

Compare this forwarding thinking librarian’s statement with Elsevier. In proudly sharing the publishers’ statement, Elsevier vice president Ann Gabriel said, “Imagine a world without scientific, medical societies and publishers who support scholarship, discovery and infrastructures for peer review, data archiving and networks.” Notice two things in this statement. First, she does not mention libraries, which are the academy-owned institutions that do literally all this as well. And second, see how she bundles publishers and societies. This is the sad reality. If instead of “societies and publishers” we had “societies and libraries” maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, our societies, including the American Sociological Association, are effectively captured by publishers, and represent their interests instead of the public interest, and the values of our community.

I remain very pessimistic about ASA, which is run by a professional group with allegiance to the paywall industry, along with mostly transient, naive, and/or ineffectual academics (of which I am certainly one). But I’m torn, because I want to see a model of scholarly societies that works, which is why I agreed to serve of the ASA Committee on Publications — which mostly does busy work for the association while providing the cover of legitimacy for the professional staff.

Letter of opposition

So I posted a letter expressing opposition to the ASA letter. If you are a sociologist, I hope you will consider sharing and signing it. We got 100 signatures on the first day, but it will probably take more for ASA to care. To share the letter, you can use this link:

It reads:

In light of a rumored new White House Open Access Policy, the American Sociological Association (ASA), and other scholarly societies, signed a letter to President Trump in support of continued embargoes for federally-funded research.

We are sociologists who join with libraries and other advocates in the research community in support of federal policy to make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free. We endorse a policy that would eliminate the current 12-month waiting period for open access to the outputs of taxpayer-funded scientific research. Ensuring full open access to publicly-funded research contributes to the public good by improving scientific productivity and equalizing access — including international access — to valuable knowledge that the public has already paid for. The U.S. should join the many other countries that already have strong open access policies.

We oppose the decision by ASA to sign this letter, which goes against our values as members of the research community, and urge the association to rescind its endorsement, to join the growing consensus in favor of open access to to scholarship, including our own.

Let’s improve the ASA/Sage journal author agreement


I have spoken well of the policy that permits authors to post preprint versions of their papers before submitting them to journals of the American Sociological Association. That means you can get your work out more broadly while it’s going through the review process. The rule says:

ASA authors may post working versions of their papers on their personal web sites and non-peer-reviewed repositories. Such postings are not considered by ASA as previous publication.

The policy goes on to ask that authors modify their posted papers to acknowledge publication if they are subsequently published. That’s all reasonable. This is why SocArXiv and other services offer authors the opportunity to link their papers to the DOI (record locator) for the published version, should it become available. This allows citation aggregators such as Google Scholar link the records.

Unfortunately, the good part of this policy is undermined by the ASA / Sage author agreement that authors sign when their paper is accepted. It transfers the copyright of the paper to ASA, and sets conditions under which authors can distribute the paper in the future. The key passage here is this:

1. Subject to the conditions in this paragraph, without further permission each Contributor may …

  • At any time, circulate or post on any repository or website, the version of the Contribution that Contributors submitted to the Journal (i.e. the version before peer-review) or an abstract of the Contribution.
  • No sooner than 12 months after initial publication, post on any non-commercial repository or website the version of the Contribution that was accepted for publication.

This is not good. It means that if you post a paper publicly, e.g., on SocArXiv, and then submit it to ASA, you can’t update it to the revised version as your paper moves through the process. Only 12 months after ASA publishes it can you update the preprint version to match the version that the journal approved.

This policy, if followed, would produce multiple bad outcomes.

One scenario is that people post papers publicly, and submit them to ASA journals for review. Over the course of the next year or so, the paper is substantially revised and eventually published, but the preprint version is not updated until a full year after that, often two years after the initial submission. That means readers don’t get to see the improved version, and authors have to live with people reading and sharing their unimproved work. This discourages people from sharing their papers in the first place.

In the other scenario, people update their preprints as the paper goes through the revision process, so they and their readers get the benefit of access to the latest work. However, when the paper is accepted authors are expected to remove from public view that revised paper, and only share the pre-review version. If this were feasible, it would be terrible for science and the public interest, as well as the author’s career interests. Of course, this isn’t really feasible — you can’t unring the bell of internet distribution (SocArXiv and other preprint services do not allow removing papers, which would corrupt the scholarly record.) This would also discourage people from sharing their papers in the first place.

So, what possible reason can there be for this policy? It is clearly intended to punish the public in order to buttress the revenue stream of Sage, which returns some of its profits to ASA, at the expense of our libraries, which pay for subscriptions to ASA journals.

I assume this policy is never enforced, as I’ve never heard of it, but I don’t know that for a fact. It’s also possible that whoever wrote the Publications policy I linked above didn’t realize that it contradicted the Sage author agreement, which basically no one reads. I also assume that such a policy does not in fact have any effect on Sage’s profits, or the profits that it kick backs to ASA. So it’s probably useless, but if it has any effects at all they’re bad, by discouraging people from distributing their work. ASA should change this author agreement.

I will be on the ballot for the ASA Publications Committee this spring. If elected, I will add making this change to my platform, which I outlined here. If I’m not elected, I’ll try to do this anyway.

Let’s use award incentives to promote open scholarship (at ASA this year!)

At the American Sociological Association of America meetings in Montreal next month, I will begin a one-year term as chair of the Family Section. I’m honored to have been elected to this position, and will do my best to make a positive contribution in that role. Besides doing the job in the normal ways — organizing our sessions at the conference next year, coordinating committees, and so on — I will bring a proposal to the section’s council to open our graduate student paper award. Here’s what I mean.

Steps toward solutions

Sociology has an inertia problem with regard to open scholarship. Lots of us understand that it would be better if our work was shared faster and more freely. That would be better for the generation and dissemination of new knowledge, it would promote collaboration, reduce costs to the public, and increase our capacity for engagement with each other and the public. Unfortunately, the individual steps toward that goal are unclear or daunting. Many of us need promotion and tenure, which requires prestige, which is still driven by publication in the paywalled journals that work against our open goals: they slow down dissemination, restrict access to our work, and bilk our institutions with exorbitant subscription fees.

To help overcome this inertia, a group of us have created SocArXiv, a non-profit, open access, open source archive of social science research that allows free, immediate publication of papers at any stage of the publication process. When and if the papers are published in a peer-reviewed journal, the preprint version can link to the journal version, providing a free copy of the paywalled paper. (Here’s an example of a new paper published in American Sociological Review, with a free copy on SocArXiv, which includes a link to the ASR version). In the meantime, the paper is available to our peers and the public. It provides a time-stamped record of the development of our original ideas, and is discoverable through Google Scholar and other search tools. People can still get their jobs and promotions, but the quality, efficiency, and reach of our research is improved. And part of what we are rewarding is open scholarship itself.


Using awards

SocArXiv, of which I’m director, is trying to get the word out and encourage the use of our system, and open scholarship in general. One of our new ideas is opening paper awards. This may help people get in the habit of openness — and start to see its benefits — and also work against the negative impression that many people have of open access as a cesspool of low quality work. We hope this intervention will be especially effective coming early in the career of up-and-coming scholars.

Using its grant money and support from academic libraries, SocArXiv is offering sections of the ASA — like the Family Section — $400 to transport their paper award winner to the conference next year, if they using the archive as the submission platform for their awards. I’m bringing this proposal to the Family Section (and one just like it to the Population Section, of which I’m Secretary Treasurer).

We hope the open paper award will become a common best practice in our association — still providing the prestige and reward functions of the award, but also promoting best practices with regard to open scholarship, increasing our visibility, building the scholarly communication infrastructure of the future, and generating buzz for our conference and our research.

There are possible objections to this idea. Here are a few, with my responses:

  • Sharing unpublished work will lead to someone stealing their ideas. You protect yourself by posting it publicly.
  • We shouldn’t promote the dissemination of research that hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. We do this all the time at conferences, and SocArXiv allows posting updated versions that replace the original when it is revised.
  • This would impose a burden on people submitting papers. Being considered for an award is a privilege, not a right; it’s OK to require a short, free submission process.
  • Sharing a paper publicly will compromise its publishability later. All ASA journals, and all journals worthy of our support, allow posting preprints prior to publication. Here’s a list of 25 top journals and their policies.


In the case of the Family Section, it looks like no change in the bylaws is needed, because they don’t specify the submission process for the graduate student paper award. They state:

Best Graduate Student Paper Award. The committee will be chaired by the Section Chair. Two additional members of the Section will be appointed by the Section Chair. The committee will select a best paper from among nominations submitted. Papers, dealing with a family-related topic, may be either published or unpublished and must have been writted by a graduate student (or group of graudate students) while still enrolled in a graduate program. The award, in the form of a Plaque and citation, shall be presented at a Section Reception (or, in the event no reception is held, at a Business Meeting of the Section).

Instead, I think we can just revise the call for award nominations, like this:

The Family Section Outstanding Graduate Student Paper Award

​Deadline: 3/13/2018

Graduate students are invited to submit an article-length paper on the family. The paper should represent a finished product rather than a proposal for future work. The submission can be based on a course paper, a recently published journal article, a manuscript under review at a journal, or a conference presentation. Co-authored papers are acceptable if all authors are students, although the prize will be shared. The paper must have been written when the author was enrolled in a graduate program. The paper may not exceed 30 pages or 11,000 words. Submissions are made by posting the paper on SocArXiv and sending a link to the paper to the committee chair, Philip N. Cohen, at To submit your paper, go to, and click “Add a preprint.” If you don’t yet have an account, you will fill out a short form — it’s free, non-profit, and won’t spam you! For assistance, contact or consult the FAQ page. Please indicate whether you would like your paper to be included in a public list of submissions (this will not affect your chances of winning). The winner will receive a plaque and travel reimbursement up to $400 to attend the 2018 Family Section reception at the ASA meetings.

The Family Section Council will consider this proposal next month in Montreal. Please let us know what you think!

Paul Amato on reviewing Regnerus

I recently discussed Paul Amato’s role in the Regnerus Affair. I offered my opinion that, if Amato was a reviewer of the Regnerus article, he should not have been, mostly because he had served as a paid consultant on the study. (My long version of the Affair is here, a critique of the paper I co-authored is here.)

I regret that before writing that post I didn’t directly ask Amato if he wanted to discuss his role and whether he served as a reviewer. After the post appeared he sent me this statement, which I agreed to post. I added some more comments of my own below. (He also reminded me that he had voted for the Family Section Council resolution asking ASA to respond to the Regnerus study, which they did.)

Amato is President Elect of the National Council on Family Relations and a Distinguished Professor at Penn State University.

Thoughts on the Mark Regnerus (2012) study, by Paul Amato

One year has passed since Mark Regnerus (2012) published a highly controversial article on the children of parents who have same-sex relationships. Given that time tends to improve one’s perspective, this seems like a good time to reflect on the study and its aftermath.

My involvement

I worked for two days at the University of Texas as a consultant on the New Family Structures Study (NFSS). As I recall, seven consultants were at the meeting, along with a statistician from the survey research organization that later collected the data. I consulted primarily on sampling and measurement issues, and I was paid for two days of my time, plus travel expenses for myself (and my wife, who accompanied me). I charged for two days at my usual fee, which is $150 per hour. So I earned about $2,400. I received no further compensation after that.

About six months later, the editor of Social Science Research (SSR) asked me to review a manuscript written by Mark Regnerus. I informed the editor that I had worked as a paid consultant on the survey on which the manuscript was based. The editor said that he would like to have my views on the paper anyway, so I shared my views as honestly as I could.

This situation comes up now and then in my experience. When reviewing manuscripts for journals, I occasionally discover that I know the author and have some sort of relationship with the author or the study. In one case, for example, the author was a friend and colleague of mine, and I had read an earlier version of the paper and provided comments to the author. In this and every other case in which I have brought information like this to the editor’s attention, the editor has asked me to do the review anyway. Journal editors often have a difficult time getting reviews, and I assume they treat these reviews as one more data point. So the editor of SSR was doing what other editors do, as far as I know.

Was this particular case a conflict of interest for me? The American Sociological Association (ASA) defines a conflict of interest in the following manner:

Conflicts of interest arise when sociologists’ personal or financial interests prevent them from performing their professional work in an unbiased manner.

With respect to the Regnerus manuscript, I had no personal or financial interest in whether the paper was published. So by this definition, there was not a conflict of interest. Of course, sometimes there is the appearance of a conflict of interest. In these cases, the ASA code states:

Sociologists disclose relevant sources of financial support and relevant personal or professional relationships that may have the appearance of or potential for a conflict of interest…

As noted earlier, I disclosed to the editor that I had worked as a paid consultant on the NFSS. I also disclosed my role as a paid consultant in the commentary that I wrote for the Regnerus article, which appeared in SSR. I never attempted to hide the fact that I was part of the team that consulted on survey design.

In retrospect, I understand that providing a review was not a good idea, because one should avoid even the hint of impropriety in matters like this. At the time, however, I simply felt that I was helping the editor and being a good colleague.

Contrary to the views of some (but not all) of my colleagues, I thought the Regnerus manuscript was worth publishing. My key recommendation, however, was that the editor should publish the paper with commentaries from authors who hold a variety of perspectives, including gay and lesbian scholars who had published in this area. I believed that the Regnerus paper, accompanied by a diverse set of commentaries, could represent a useful contribution to the literature on LGBT families. Unfortunately, the editor was unable to recruit any gay or lesbian scholars to contribute commentaries, so my idea for an exchange of views fell flat. (The subsequent issue of SSR devoted to the controversy came closer to what I had envisioned.)

Almost everyone got it wrong

When the study was published, criticism from the political left was swift and harsh. Unfortunately, some commentary devolved into ad hominem attacks, accusations of fraud, and name-calling. Rather than intellectually engage the findings, the goal of some critics was to thoroughly discredit the study—and the author. While they were at it, many critics also attacked the editor, the reviewers, the consultants, those who wrote commentaries—even the survey research firm that collected the data! Anyone with any form of contact with the study became an enemy of the people.

This is unfortunate, because the political left could have benefitted from a strategic appropriation of the findings. The study involved a national sample of young adults with an LGBT parent. As the study noted, few of these young adults spent long periods of time in households with two parents of the same sex. Instead, most were born into heterosexual families that later broke up, presumably when one parent came out as gay or lesbian. Many of these youth went on to experience a variety of other family structures before reaching adulthood. One out of seven spent time in foster care. Previous research shows that instability in the family of origin increases the risk of a variety of long-term social and psychological problems for offspring. Consistent with this research, young adults in the study had modestly elevated problem profiles. It is reasonable to conclude that the elevated number of problems observed in these young adults was due to family instability rather than the sexual orientation of parents. For this reason, most observers have noted correctly that this study contributes nothing to our understanding of how children fare when raised by same-sex parents in stable households

Rather than dismiss these finding as being irrelevant, however, it’s useful to dig more deeply into the results. Why did these marriages end in divorce? More importantly, why did gays and lesbians wind up in heterosexual marriages in the first place? The explanation probably would go something like this: Like heterosexuals, many gays and lesbians wish to have families and raise children. But a generation ago, intolerance was the rule and discrimination against gays and lesbians was endemic. For many, forming heterosexual unions appeared to be the only way to achieve the dream of family and children. But these unions tended to be unstable, with problematic consequences for adults and children. Presumably, as our society becomes more accepting of LGBT families, the unfortunate circumstances of children and parents described in the Regnerus study will become less common. The freedom to marry, in particular, should increase stability in the lives of children with gay and lesbian parents.

In short, findings from the Regnerus study can be interpreted as strong evidence in support of same-sex marriage. The American Psychological Association and ASA research briefs emphasized the fact that almost all prior studies found no differences between children with heterosexual parents and children with gay or lesbian parents. The “no difference” perspective suggests that children will not be harmed by same-sex marriage. The lesson from the Regnerus study, however, is that children thrive on family stability, including children with gay and lesbian parents. We know that marriage tends to stabilize relationships, yet same-sex marriage is not allowed in most states. Given that children benefit from the stability provided by marriage, it is unfair and unkind to deny children the right to live with married parents. In contrast to the “no difference” perspective, a “family stability” perspective implies that we need to change our laws NOW to protect and benefit children.

If the political left missed an opportunity by failing to understand the full implications of the Regnerus study, the political right made even more serious blunders. Many conservative observers have cited the Regnerus study as if it provided evidence that being raised by gay or lesbian parents is harmful to children. This claim is disingenuous, because the study found no such thing. A noteworthy example came from Regnerus himself, who signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court citing his study as evidence against same-sex marriage. This is curious because on page 766 in his 2012 article, Regnerus stated that his study was not intended to either affirm or undermine the legal right to same-sex marriage. And on page 768 of his response to the commentaries in the same issue, he stated that his data should not be used to press any political program. Given these cautious early statements, it is exasperating to see Regnerus later cite his own study as evidence against same-sex marriage.

Concluding thoughts

Many observers have argued that the Regnerus study should never have been published. It is important, however, to focus on what the study actually showed, and not on what people claim that it showed or wanted it to show. The study showed that family instability is not good for children, and many children with gay and lesbian parents, a generation ago, experienced a lot of family instability. It is not difficult to see how the personal problems of these families were affected by the restrictive social milieus in which they lived.

Since the Regnerus study was published, studies by Potter (2012) and Allen, Pakuluk, and Price (2013) have shown associations between having same-sex parents and child problems. Like the Regnerus paper, both of these articles survived the peer review process and, in fact, were published in top-tier social science journals. Rather than try to discredit these studies (and any future studies that may show similar results), it is better to examine the findings carefully and figure out what is going on. In fact, both studies are entirely consistent with the family stability perspective described earlier.

In conclusion, the political left discredited the Regnerus study without fully considering its findings, and the political right used the study disingenuously to further their political goals. Few people have focused thoughtfully on what the data actually show and what we can learn from the study. The controversy over the Regnerus study provides a sobering illustration of what can go wrong when ideology distorts social research.


Allen, Douglas W., Catherine Pakaluk, and Joseph Price. (2013). “Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress through School: A Comment on Rosenfeld.” Demography 50:955-961.

Amato, Paul R. (2012). “The Well-Being of Children with Gay and Lesbian Parents.” Social Science Research 44:771-774.

American Sociological Association. (undated). American Sociological Association Code of Ethics (

Potter, Daniel. (2012). “Same-Sex Parent Families and Children’s Academic Achievement.” Journal of Marriage and Family 74:556-571.

Regnerus, Mark (2012). “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Social Science Research 41:752-770.

Regnerus, Mark (2012). “Response to Paul Amato, David Eggebeen, and Cynthia Osborne. Social Science Research 41:786-787.


Philip’s followup comments

I don’t think it was a gross ethical violation for Amato to review the paper, in which material or ideological gain lay behind his decision to do the review and led him to recommend publishing the paper against his better professional judgment. Rather, he thought it was a reasonable paper and offered that opinion when asked — which is unsurprising given his involvement in the project. So my real disagreement with Amato is over the value of the paper. I think it’s a worthless paper, done wrong, and only advanced because of the author’s ideological attachment to its results; that it accidentally helps reveal something true about family instability does not make it worth publishing.

Being a consultant on a small project like the NFSS is not like being a consultant on a giant project like the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Consulting on Add Health, which has yielded thousands of publications and involved dozens of experts at many agencies, does not disqualify a person from reviewing a study using that data. In contrast, the NFSS has so far yielded one paper, solo-authored by the PI, who personally invited the several consultants. With only a few people involved, being one of them matters more.

Anyway, beyond the appearance of conflict, the problem with Amato serving as a reviewer is that it did not provide an outside perspective to the editor, James Wright. How could Amato’s review help Wright make the decision? Getting the input of a consultant on the project might help an editor shape a revision or build a special issue, but given Amato’s involvement his endorsement should not have counted as part of the peer review process. When Amato revealed his role, Wright should have declined his review.

Taking for granted the unethical behavior of Regnerus, and Brad Wilcox, on whose behalf Regnerus acted, the real failure here is by Wright. Instead of seriously reviewing the paper, he essentially whispered into an echo chamber of backers and consultants, “We should publish this, right?”

I believe the paper should be retracted because the conclusions are demonstrably wrong, because the author lied in the paper about the involvement of the institute that funded it, and because the peer review process was compromised by conflicts of interest. As long as this remains uncorrected, and James Wright remains editor, the integrity of the journal is indelibly tarnished.

While Wright is editor, I will no longer review for or submit to Social Science Research. I hope others will join me in that decision.

Comments that rehash well-known opinions or make person attacks will be shortened or deleted.

Paul Amato, Regnerus postscript

Scott Rose has a new post excoriating Paul Amato as a “villain” in the Regnerus Affair (here is the background).

Amato was arguably the most prominent sociologist involved in scandal: He is the President Elect of the National Council on Family Relations, the leading professional association for family scholars; he has been chair of the Family Section of the American Sociological Association; and he has a named chair at Penn State University, where he is a Distinguished Professor.

We know from his own commentary on the study in Social Science Research that Amato was a paid consultant to Regnerus (confirmed by UT-released documents). In that commentary, he cautioned that Regnerus’s results shouldn’t be used to undermine gay and lesbian civil rights, but he also lent legitimacy to the study and did not criticize its obvious flaws. I have seen the emails between Amato and Mark Regnerus that Scott Rose writes about here, which were obtained through public records document requests. I’m not revealing anything Rose hasn’t.

There are three new things in the emails:

  1. Amato apparently asked for, and received, money from Regnerus to bring his wife with him to Austin in addition to his own travel expenses and fees (“…about that second ticket…”, “…consider it done.”)
  2. Regnerus says he suggested Amato to Social Science Research editor James Wright as a reviewer for the study, and flatteringly urged Amato to accept the request if asked. (“I’d hope that if you’re asked to review it, you would consider doing so. I think you’re one of the fairest, level-headed scholars out there in this domain.”)
  3. Amato told Regnerus he defended Regnerus’s credibility after the study was published, and asked for access to the data for additional research.

However, Rose goes further and asserts that Amato also was a peer reviewer of the study for the journal Social Science Research, which he has said before. I believe I have seen the evidence Rose has for that and, although suggestive, it is not conclusive: Amato’s name is on a list that seems to be of reviewers for the Regnerus paper and the paper that accompanied it in the journal, which Darren Sherkat used for his investigation on behalf of the journal).


It is already well established that Regnerus acted shamelessly and unethically. We now know that extended to not only suggesting his own consultant Amato as a reviewer to SSR, but also telling Amato he had done that and urging him to agree to do the review. I’m not sure what rule that breaks, but it’s wrong in my book. The fact that he had previously agreed to give Amato tickets for his wife’s travel just makes it a little worse, because it seems like calling in a favor. I assume Witherspoon, which bankrolled the study, didn’t care about that kind of slush, although the University of Texas Population Research Center might not appreciate that use of money they were managing. (At my state university, even money I have discretion over can’t be spent on things like family travel. If I want to pay for my family to travel, I can take the money as summer salary, pay taxes on it, and then spend it on whatever I want.)

Anyway, Regnerus isn’t an issue anymore. But what about Amato? Based on the new emails and the rest of the background, I have drawn these conclusions about so far:

  1. If Amato wants to take conservative foundation money from Regnerus for his family’s travel, that’s fine with me (I recommend he check with his tax adviser, however).
  2. If Amato wants to defend Regnerus’s credibility and use the data for additional research, that’s up to him.
  3. But if Amato was a reviewer for the paper in SSR, I believe he should not have been, even if he disclosed this to James Wright. Unless the anti-Regnerus activists are successful in getting SSR‘s files through public records requests we may never know for sure, unless Amato publicly discloses it. I hope he will.

I have no beef with Paul Amato, and no personal relationship with him. I served as a member of the Family Section council for some of the time he was the chair. Under his leadership, the Family Section accepted my proposal to request an amicus brief from the American Sociological Association on the Regnerus study claims. I don’t remember if he voted or abstained on the decision to make the request, but he didn’t block it, anyway.

Comment briefly, please.

The Regnerus study goes to court, trailing briefs

The Regnerus study is going to court.

I wrote about the study previously here and here, and 200 researchers signed a letter about it. The claim of the study is that gay fathers and lesbian mothers are bad for children, and the basic critique is that the study doesn’t address that question (and, what it does address, it does poorly).

The paper was rushed into print with fanfare and press releases, just in time for it to be referenced in the case of Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management, in which the federal Defense of Marriage Act is being challenged, currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In fact, as Neal Caren pointed out to me, the brief was filed the day after the study was published online, June 11. (On a related DOMA case, here’s my take.)

Karin Golinski (right) with her spouse, Amy Cunninghis.

That reference came in a brief submitted by the American College of Pediatricians (not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatrics). Taking Regnerus at his word that the study actually measured outcomes associated with “gay fathers” and “lesbian mothers,” they wrote:

A brand new study in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research uses a large random national sample to assess these outcomes. The study is based on interviews with 3,000 respondents, 175 of whom were raised by two women and 73 by two men. It looked at “social behaviors, health behaviors, and relationships” comparing child outcomes (as reported by the adult children rather than by those who raised them) among various groups including married biological parents (labeled as IBF for “intact biological family”) and children raised by same-sex couples (labeled LM for lesbian mothers and GF for gay fathers). On the forty outcomes measured, there were significant differences between those in the IBF and LM groups on twenty of those measures (the smaller sample size for fathers did not allow for as many findings of significance). Some of the statistically significant differences where children raised by two women fared worse than children raised by married biological parents included: cohabitation (9% of the IBF and 24% of the LM group), receiving welfare while growing up (17% of the IBF and 69% of the LM group), currently receiving public assistance (10% of the IBF and 38% of the LM group), current employment (49% of the IBF and 26% of the LM group), current unemployment (8% of the IBF and 28% of the LM group), having an affair while married or cohabiting (13% of the IBF and 40% of the LM group), having been touched sexually by a parent or other adult (2% of the IBF and 23% of the LM group), and ever having been forced to have sex against their will (8% of the IBF and 31% of the LM group). In addition, the children raised by two women were significantly less likely to identify as heterosexual (90% of the IBF and 61% of the LM group). Other measures where the children of same-sex couples had significantly greater experience than the children of married biological parents include marijuana use, smoking, being arrested, and numbers of sex partners.

In response, a brief by the American Psychological Association and others offered this correction:

Amicus American College of Pediatricians – not to be confused with amicus herein, the American Academy of Pediatrics – seriously mischaracterizes a recent study (“the Regnerus study”) as having compared children of married heterosexual parents with those “raised by same-sex couples.” Amicus Brief at 6. The Regnerus study placed participants (individuals between the age of 18 and 39) into one of eight categories, six of which were defined by the family structure in which they grew up — e.g., married biological parents, divorced parent, divorced but remarried parent, etc. There was no category for “same-sex couple.” Instead, the final two categories included all participants, regardless of family structure, who believed that at some time between birth and their 18th birthday their mother or their father “ever ha[d] a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex.” Hence the data does not show whether the perceived romantic relationship ever in fact occurred; nor whether the parent self-identified as gay or lesbian; nor whether the same sex relationship was continuous, episodic, or one-time only; nor whether the individual in these categories was actually raised by a homosexual parent (children of gay fathers are often raised by their heterosexual mothers following divorce), much less a parent in a long-term relationship with a same-sex partner. Indeed, most of the participants in these groups spent very little, if any, time being raised by a “same-sex couple.” Hence the Regnerus study sheds no light on the parenting of stable, committed same-sex couples – as Regnerus himself acknowledges – and thus it is gravely misleading to say, as the American College of Pediatricians does (p. 6), that the study involved 175 participants who “were raised by two women and 73 by two men.”

What is an association to do?

Should the American Sociological Association get involved?

Last year there was a spirited debate on the blogs and around the ASA about the ASA’s brief intervening in the Wal-Mart class-action discrimination case. See it at Orgtheory here, here, and here; and at Scatterplot here.

The association can take a minimal approach and simply point out that the Regnerus study doesn’t support the claims it’s carrying here, or it can take a maximal approach and evaluate the research on homogamous-couple parenting, as the APA and other organizations have done. Or it can do nothing.

It seems to be too late to submit something to the Ninth Circuit on the Golinksy case, but if it goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, or when one of the other marriage rights cases rises to this level, the opportunity — or obligation — will arise again.