Recently I made the serious accusation that Brad Wilcox and his colleagues plagiarized me in a New York Times op-ed. After the blog post, I sent a letter to the Times and got no response. And until now Wilcox had not responded. But now thanks to an errant group email I had the chance to poke him, and he responded, in relevant part:
You missed the point of the NYT op-ed, which was to stress the intriguing J-Curve in women’s marital happiness when you look at religion and gender ideology. We also thought it interesting to note there is a rather similar J-Curve in women’s marital happiness in the GSS when it comes to political ideology, although the political ideology story was somewhat closer to a U-Curve in the GSS. Our NYT argument was not inspired by you, and our extension of the argument to a widely used dataset is not plagiarism.
Most of that comment is irrelevant to the question of whether the figure they published was ripped off from my blog; the only argument he makes is to underline the word not. To help readers judge for themselves, here is the sequence again, maybe presented more clearly than I did it last time.
Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger published this, claiming Republicans have happier marriages:
I responded by showing that that when you break out the categories more you get a U-shape instead:
Subsequently, I repeated the analysis, with newer data, using political views instead of party identification (the U-shape on the right):
This is the scheme, and almost exactly the results, that Wilcox and colleagues then published in the NYT, now including one more year of data:
The data used, the control variables, and the results, are almost identical to analysis I did in response to their work. His response is, “Our NYT argument was not inspired by you.” So that’s that.
Of course, only he knows what’s in his heart. But the premise of his plagiarism denial is an appeal to trust. So, do you trust him?
There is a long history here, and it’s hard to know where to start if you’re just joining. Wilcox has been a liberal villain since he took over the National Marriage Project and then organized what became (unfortunately) known as the Regnerus study (see below), and a conservative darling since the top administration at the University of Virginia overturned the recommendation of his department and dean to grant him tenure.
So here are some highlights, setting aside questions of research quality and sticking to ethical issues.
Wilcox led the coalition that raised $785,000, from several foundations, used to generate the paper published under Mark Regnerus’s name, intended to sway the courts against marriage equality. He helped design the study, and led the development of the media plan, and arranged for the paper to be submitted to Social Science Research, and then arranged for himself to be one of the anonymous peer reviewers. To do this, he lied to the editor, by omission, about his contribution the study — saying only that he “served on the advisory board.”
And then when the scandal blew up he lied about his role at the Witherspoon Institute, which provided most of the funding, saying he “never served as an officer or a staffer at the Witherspoon Institute, and I never had the authority to make funding or programmatic decisions at the Institute,” and that he was “not acting in an official Witherspoon capacity.” He was in fact the director of the institute’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy, which funded the study, and the email record showed him approving budget requests and plans. To protect his reputation and cover up the lie, that position (which he described as “honorific”) has been scrubbed from his CV and the Witherspoon website. (In the emails uncovered later, the president of Witherspoon, Luis Tellez wrote, “we will include some money for you [Regnerus] and Brad on account of the time and effort you will be devoting to this,” but the amount he may have received has not been revealed — the grants aren’t on his CV.)
You might hold it against him that he organized a conspiracy to fight marriage equality, but even if you think that’s just partisan nitpickery, the fact that the research was the result of a “coalition” (their word) that included a network of right-wing activists, and that their roles were not disclosed in the publication, is facially an ethical violation. And the fact that it involved a series of public and private lies, which he has never acknowledged, goes to the issue of trust in every subsequent case.
Here I can’t say what ethical rule Wilcox may have broken. Academia is a game that runs on trust, and in his financial dealings Wilcox has not been forthcoming. There is money flowing through his work, but the source and purpose that money is not disclosed when the work is published. For example, in the NYT piece Wilcox is identified only as a professor at the University of Virginia, even though the research reported there was published by the Institute for Family Studies. His faculty position, and tenure, are signals of his trustworthiness, which he uses to bolster the reputation of his partisan efforts.
The Institute for Family Studies is a non-profit organization that Wilcox created in 2009, originally called the Ridge Foundation. For the first four years the tax filings list him as the president, then director. Since 2013, when it changed its name to IFS, he has been listed as a senior fellow. Through 2017, the organization paid him more than $330,000, and he was the highest paid person. The funders are right-wing foundations.
Most academics want people to know about their grants and the support for their research. On his CV at the University of Virginia, however, Wilcox does not list the Institute for Family Studies in the “Employment” section, or include it among the grants he has received. Even though it is an organization he created and built up, so far grossing almost $3 million in total revenue. It is only mentioned in a section titled “Education Honors and Awards,” where he lists himself as a “Senior Fellow, Institute for Family Studies.” An education honor and award he gave himself, apparently.
He also doesn’t list his position on the Marco Rubio campaign’s Marriage & Family Advisory Board, where he was among those who “understand” that “Windsor and Obergefell are only the most recent example of our failure as a society to understand what marriage is and why it matters”
Wilcox uses his academic position to support and legitimize his partisan efforts, and his partisan work to produce work under his academic title (of course IFS says it’s nonpartisan but that’s meaningless). If he kept them really separate that would be one thing — we don’t need to know what church academics belong to or what campaigns they support, except as required by law — but if he’s going to blend them together I think he incurs an ethical disclosure obligation.
Wilcox isn’t the only person to scrub Withserspoon from his academic record — which is funny because the Witherspoon Institute is housed at Princeton University (where Wilcox got his PhD). And the fact of removing Witherspoon from a CV was used to discredit a different anti-marriage-equality academic expert, Joseph Price at Brigham Young, in the Michigan trial that led to the Obergefell decision, because it made it seem he was trying to hide his political motivations in testifying against marriage equality. Here is the exchange:
Court proceedings are useful for bringing out certain principles. In this case I think they help illustrate my point: If Brad Wilcox wants people to trust his motivations, he should disclose the sources of support for his work.