Let us imagine that you do not really know who J. Michael Bailey is, what his previous research output has been, or how his work has been critically discussed inside and outside of his field of study. Let’s assume you have heard his name recently in connection with the retraction of a research article on something called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD). Perhaps you don’t quite know what the fuss is about. Maybe you have seen some posts on social media, come across references to this story in blogs, or it came up in a podcast you listen to. There’s clearly a sense of controversy and disagreement to it and perhaps you don’t have the time to dive into it more deeply. How do you orient yourself to that? Here is a summary of key elements of the case and some tools to approach it.
On March 29, 2023, Suzanna Diaz (a pseudonym) and J. Michael Bailey published a paper together in Archives of Sexual Behavior (edited by Kenneth Zucker) with the title “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria: Parent Reports on 1655 Possible Cases.” Two months later, Bailey — who is the corresponding author and has been the only of the two co-authors to make public statements —noted that the paper had passed 38K downloads and was ranked in the top percentile of articles published at Springer. The article — retracted on June 14, 2023 — at the time this post is published stands at 100K downloads and continues to be in the top percentile (see above image). Bailey emphasizes his article’s popularity in a piece he wrote for Unherd, where he accuses the officers of the journal’s academic society, the International Academy of Sex Research (IASR), of “trying to cancel the article.” It’s not the first time that he has spoken of his work as being subject to attempts at cancellation.
Let me lay out for a moment how Bailey’s Unherd piece about his and Diaz’s article lines up its evaluations. Not because I’m opposed to polemic writing but because looking for patterns of evaluation is often an instructive tool in analyzing research discussions. Bailey’s now-retracted article is the second of its type, the second research project which tries to assert this particular new subcategory of gender dysphoria. Both projects do so through surveys of parents who gather in internet communities skeptical that their children are trans and doubtful about the diagnoses of gender dysphoria their children have received.
Bailey’s blog post connects his project to the previous, similar one by Lisa Littman, and as he does so, he uses mostly neutral, descriptive words to portray his and Littman’s approach. He asserts “rapid onset gender dysphoria” as a legitimate explanation for the fact that increased numbers of youth seek gender-affirming care. A strong criticism of both articles has been that, obviously, one cannot seriously propose to develop a diagnostic sub-category for gender dysphoria without engaging with gender dysphoric youth and their clinical files, and that taking one’s cues from parents who do not believe their children when they say they are trans makes one’s project distinctly biased. Diaz herself is one such parent.
When it comes to describing the criticism that both papers have received, Bailey is not so neutral. The request by Littman’s journal, PLOS One, for post-publication revision is in his view “unprecedented (and shameful)” and he alleges that the journal’s demands for revision were made for no reason but “to mollify its critics.” Published criticism of Littman’s study he considers “polemical” and evidence-driven approaches that refute the concept of ROGD he judges as “few” and “unsuccessful.” He notes that none of the pieces critical of Littman’s work have “provoked attempts to get them cancelled or retracted,” implying that those who called for the retraction of Littman’s work did not have relevant reasons to do so.
Bailey leaves out the possibility that the pieces that were critical of Littman’s work constitute more respected and circumspect scholarship such that they provide little reason for calls of retraction. When researchers’ work on gender dysphoric youth relies on existing diagnostic concepts rather than proposing a new sub-category (that is based on nothing but highly biased surveys of parents who gather on trans-skeptical internet sites), it is by its nature more substantiated. Research that works with already well-defined and firmly established concepts as well as within highly regarded and current frameworks will be less likely to incur calls for revision and retraction from other researchers in this field. In contrast, Littman’s and Bailey’s articles on this new concept of ROGD were immediately critiqued for easily noticeable methodological flaws. Those flaws are key factors in the events that saw them be subjected to post-publication revision and retraction, respectively. These flaws don’t disappear when Bailey accuses his critics of being “increasingly activist” nor when he praises his own work as being carried out with the values of “ideological impartiality, meritocracy and, above all, pursuit of truth and knowledge.”
So, what are these ethical and methodological flaws of Bailey and Diaz’s article? According to an open letter sent to the IASR (as the overseeing association) and Springer (as the publishing company), two key flaws are the following. (1) This research project, before data collection was carried out, did not obtain approval from the institutional review board (IRB) at Bailey’s university. The article itself notes that IRB approval could not be obtained for survey data that was already collected by Bailey’s co-author (who is not affiliated with a postsecondary institution) before the co-authorship was formed. The article remains silent, however, on why the initial survey data before Bailey came on board was not treated as a pilot investigation and IRB approval sought for another, re-designed, and publishable round of data collection where participants would have been presented with an IRB-approved study description and would have signed appropriate consent declarations. Having failed to do so yet published the study anyway, the act of publication “threatens the foundations of research ethics, as it could effectively allow researchers to circumvent IRBs by having an unaffiliated layperson collect data prior to the researcher’s involvement,” notes the open letter. While the journal’s retraction notice does not reference IRB approval specifically, it does note as reason for the retraction that “participants of the survey have not provided written informed consent to participate in scholarly research or to have their responses published in a peer reviewed article.”
(2) The research landscape into which Bailey released his paper was already rich with critiques of the concept of ROGD, particularly following Littman’s publication and the intense discussion around its post-publication revision. Bailey notes as much in his Unherd piece. Yet, observes the open letter, Bailey’s article “does not seriously engage with these critiques nor integrate insights drawn” from them. The open letter highlights that it is a question of academic integrity to engage with this criticism, particularly given that this aiming-to-be diagnostic concept is in such an unproven state but has already been rigorously critiqued and questioned as a viable psychological or psychiatric category. In fact, Bailey and Diaz’s article is noticeably “repeating the severe methodological and interpretive flaws” of Littman’s study, flaws which have been discussed in peer-reviewed and other formats and need not be repeated.
Bailey’s Unherd piece provides some indication that he does not take the methodological criticism all that seriously. In trying to argue against his critics’ push for retraction, he presents their ethical and methodological questions as little more than a rhetorical device. He asks, with hyperbole, “Did we publish the most unethical, most methodologically deficient article ever? Or is something else going on?” These are faux binary options. A paper doesn’t have to be the very worst of its kind to become eligible for legitimate retraction calls given its ethical and methodological missteps.
Let’s note how quickly Bailey wants us to move past the existent ethical problems and methodological deficiencies of his study to land on the conclusion that “something else” must be going on. And he soon provides what he thinks this “something else” is: first, “the IASR is increasingly dedicated to identity politics and activism,” and second, that this “unfortunate decay” has led to “activists, outside and inside, challenging the editorial process of the Archives of Sexual Behavior when it publishes articles they dislike.” It is all too easy in current discussion of trans issues to point at advocates for trans health and call them “activists” in an attempt to devalue the researched and evidence-based nature of their work. Bailey uses a cheap ploy here. And — when faced with clear methodological criticism — to respond that others simply “dislike” your work and therefore don’t want to see it published, that is quite the cop out.