Gender-critical scholars claim discrimination over BMJ rejections

Researchers say emails suggest disapproval of social media posts on transgender issues contributed to rejections

May 23, 2024
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Two academics have raised concerns about “ideological filtering” of submissions to a BMJ journal after emails revealed that an editor had labelled one of them “transphobic” and that the other’s “opinionated” social media posts had “coloured our impression of [his] manuscript”.

The claims centre on papers submitted to BMJ Open by John Armstrong, a mathematician at King’s College London, and Michael Biggs, a sociologist at the University of Oxford.

In Dr Armstrong’s case, a paper co-authored with UCL sociology professor Alice Sullivan was submitted in July 2022 and sent out for review that month. Despite the journal stating that its median time to review is 105 days, it took nearly nine months to make a call on the paper, which was rejected in May 2023 – despite two reviewers recommending its acceptance and another offering only a “few minor comments” on a “well-presented study”.

After an appeal to reconsider was successful and minor revisions responding to criticisms were submitted, the paper was again rejected with no option to appeal in September 2023, despite further endorsement by reviewers.

The paper – which challenged a 2020 BMJ Open paper by US- and Hong Kong-based researchers that asserted institutions with Athena Swan accreditation had more diverse leadership teams – was turned down, the journal said, because of “editorialising throughout the manuscript [which] was not appropriate for a research article” and because “conclusions are not supported by the data”.

However, emails obtained by Dr Armstrong through a subject access request reveal that a member of editorial staff had told a colleague that the “author’s social media account also coloured our impression of the manuscript as the author is very outspoken on issues relating to EDI”, claiming that Dr Armstrong had a “broader agenda, rather than just questioning the statistical approach taken on the original article”.

“Short version: he’s quite argumentative and opinionated. Here’s his Twitter,” one email summarised, referring to posts written in a time period when Dr Armstrong had retweeted J. K. Rowling’s well-known tweet in December 2019 in support of feminist campaigner Maya Forstater, who had lost her job after talking about gender ideology with colleagues.

Campus collection: Resources on academic writing

Emails obtained by Dr Biggs using the same method show that BMJ staff had also raised concerns about postings attributed to the Oxford academic by a student newspaper in 2018, claiming that he was “known for being transphobic”.

It follows the rejection last year of a rapid review paper submitted by Dr Biggs that raised concerns that a UK census question regarding sex and gender might have been widely misunderstood.

According to staff emails, Dr Biggs’ piece was “offensive”, adding that “he portrays trans individuals as uneducated and implies that they weren’t able to understand the question about gender identity on the census so answered incorrectly” – a claim that Dr Biggs insists is a misreading of his research, published in Sociology, suggesting that people who did not speak English as a first language had answered the question incorrectly.

A BMJ spokesperson said the journal would “not comment publicly on individual editorial decisions, but den[ies] absolutely any suggestion that BMJ would reject a paper for political or ideological reasons”.

They added that the BMJ “has extensive editorial due diligence procedures which it applies to all papers that are submitted for publication. External reviewers advise on a range of factors, including importance, originality, and scientific quality; and editors consider those comments before making a final decision on a paper.”

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Biggs said the apparent “political and ideological filtering” of submissions on transgender issues was concerning.

“Science should be about empirical evidence, not about making judgements on whether the authors’ views are illegitimate or not,” he said.

Dr Armstrong added: “If a journal censors findings because they don’t like the results or they don’t like the author, it has abandoned science. The Cass report [on gender identity services for young people] tells us we urgently need objective evidence on questions of sex and gender, so it is vital that our medical journals reclaim scientific objectivity.”

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Reader's comments (1)

I find it very disappointing that the BMJ appear to be captured to the point where they’re denying biological and scientific reality.