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Gender dysphoria pioneer work under investigation for publishing 'rapid-onset' study of kids

Springer Nature cites unspecified "concerns" about methodology. Kenneth Zucker's defenders, including Jordan Peterson and Olympic medalists, say the criticisms are pretextual.

Published: May 14, 2023 11:27pm

Nearly five years after he secured a hefty settlement from the gender identity clinic he ran at the University of Toronto for allegedly defaming him as a "conversion therapy" practitioner, pioneering gender dysphoria researcher Kenneth Zucker is facing a new threat.

Springer Nature is investigating a March 29 study published in its journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior, which Zucker has edited for two decades, based on suspected cases of rapid-onset gender dysphoria in nearly 1,700 children. 

Coined and first described at length by gender dysphoria researcher Lisa Littman in 2018, ROGD posits that some cases of gender confusion in young people can be traced to "social or peer contagion," especially in adolescent girls. She left Brown University after it tried to discredit her research.

A publisher's note added to the study Wednesday notifies readers that "concerns have been raised regarding methodology," and "further response will follow the conclusion of this investigation." 

It does not specify who raised the concerns, explain them further, or identify materials it was reviewing, and Springer Nature Vice President of External Communications Susie Winter told Just the News she didn't have that information.

"Publishers often receive concerns regarding a research paper’s methodology and therefore, and in accordance with [Committee on Publication Ethics] guidelines, we are currently investigating this matter," she wrote in an email. 

Pretextual concerns include "lack of an Institutional Review Board approval" and reliance on parental reports, according to an open letter defending Zucker organized by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR). Its lead signatories are a distinguished group of academics, journalists and Olympic medalists, and more than 1,800 others have signed as of May 14.

Those criticisms are mentioned in a May 5 letter signed by academics who pledge not to submit papers to the journal, act as peer reviewers "or serve in an editorial capacity" until Zucker is replaced by "an editor who has a demonstrated record of integrity on LGBTQ+ matters and, especially, trans matters."

Signatories will "consider terminating any involvement" with the International Academy of Sex Research (IASR), the sponsor of the journal, and members of the journal's editorial board if "the situation is not remedied in a timely manner," they wrote. Among signatories: World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) President Marci Bowers, a skeptic of puberty blockers before taking over the organization. 

Editor's notes serve as a scarlet letter for research targeted by retraction demands. In recent years, they have been applied especially to research that challenges mainstream COVID-19 narratives.

Another Springer Nature journal has yet to announce an update to its year-old investigation of an Israeli study of COVID vaccines and emergency heart problems. The Scientific Reports note appeared two days after Just the News reported on the study. Winter said staff who could explain the delay were out of the office Friday.

The ROGD study surveyed parents who contacted the website with reports of dysphoria starting between ages 11 and 21, three-quarters of them female. Strong sex differences emerged: Dysphoria onset was two years later in males and relatively few (29%) had started "social transition" compared to females (66%). 

"Pre-existing mental health issues were common, and youths with these issues were more likely than those without them to have socially and medically transitioned," the authors said. A small majority of parents said they felt pressured by a "gender clinic or specialist" to transition their child socially or medically. 

Widely shared by conservative media, the study drew unfavorable attention from the organization that sponsors the editorially independent journal.

IASR notified members April 19 that "significant concerns about the ethical conduct and integrity of the editorial process have been raised about this study" and that it was consulting with Zucker and the publisher.

"Woke-ac[a]demic attempt to cancel our new article on Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. Read it while you can!" corresponding author and Northwestern University psychologist Michael Bailey tweeted later that day

He warned that Springer Nature might try to retract the paper or punish Zucker, "who tries to publish both sides of controversial issues" including Littman's ROGD methodology. Psychologist and bestselling author Jordan Peterson shared the study an hour later.

Known for encouraging young people to be "comfortable" with their sex rather than rush them into puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgical procedures, Zucker is at odds with the "gender affirming" approach that has taken hold in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), WPATH, and other mainstream medical organizations.

WPATH is internally divided on the guardrails around gender affirming care, however, as evidenced by heated debate over draft language for the eighth version of its "standards of care," published last fall.

The chapter on adolescents recognizes that "susceptibility to social influence impacting gender may be an important differential to consider" for a "select subgroup of young people," in line with the draft. But WPATH ditched the age minimums for hormonal and surgical treatment in the draft chapter on prepubescent children, a decision its lead author credited to fear of legal liability.

Zucker's clinic colleague Susan Bradley told the Daily Caller News Foundation this spring that "we were wrong" to prescribe puberty blockers starting in 2000. "I had this skepticism in the back of my mind all the time" about whether they were truly safe and reversible, and now it's clear "nearly all" kids who start blockers move on to cross-sex hormones.

FAIR published the open letter defending Zucker days before Springer Nature announced the investigation, calling for "an academically robust and unbiased editorial process" and "uninterrupted publication" of the paper.

Signatories include Littman and Peterson, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Harvard sex researcher Carole Hooven, Stanford health policy professor Jay Bhattacharya, three-time Olympian Sharron Davies, and WPATH distinguished educator of the year Zander Keig, a transgender member of FAIR's board.

"We condemn and reject the censorious demands" by academics including WPATH President Bowers, which are "inconsistent with WPATH’s own statements" recognizing social influence as a factor in some cases, the letter states. 

IRB approval is irrelevant under the publisher's policies giving discretion to the editor-in-chief. And coauthor Suzanna Diaz, who runs the website that collected the parental reports, has no university affiliation that would require it, the letter also states.

"A highly influential paper in the field that is often cited to support social transition for youth," published in AAP's Pediatrics, "also relied on parental reports" but its methodology was not criticized, seemingly because "the parents supported their children’s gender transition," it says.

Citing reported dysphoria rates of one in 10-to-20 youth, the letter states they "may benefit from less invasive interventions that do not carry the irreversible effects of hormonal and surgical interventions" if the ROGD hypothesis is validated, as early advocates of youth gender transition increasingly concede.