A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The APA Publication Manual: How could a good thing go so wrong?

The professional manual in the news right now is the DSM V, which has drawn quite a lot of criticism. However, we shouldn't forget the other major manual, the APA publication manual. As the fall semester ends, with student papers to grade, and manuscripts to revise, we will all be griping about the publication manual in due course. Some recent reviewers informed me in no uncertain terms, for example, that I was a horrible and insensitive person because I referred to people who like to have intercourse with members of the same sex as "homosexual". A quick check of the new APA manual, which they directed me to forcefully, informed be that such people were "gay". It didn't seem to matter that "gay" was a pejorative term not too long ago, nor that people who like to have intercourse with members of the opposite sex were still called "heterosexual". This type of arbitrary rule making, especially when it leads to blatant inconsistencies of style, have caused many of us to question why the hell we let the APA tell us how to write. How did we get into this mess? Who ever thought this was a good idea?

For those who have felt this way, even a little, I highly recommend an article in this month's Review of General Psychology:

Information overload, professionalization, and the origins of the publication manual of the American Psychological Association, by Sigal and Pettit.
This article traces the history of the original APA's instructions for preparing manuscripts, and it is fascinating. Concerns with publication standards emerged in the early 1900's, but the the manual itself was not conceived until after World War I. It was the last gasping breath of the era in which one could hope to have at least cursory knowledge of everything happening in the field; when, for example, a Ph.D. candidate could be reasonably tested on any psychological research published in the prior 10 years. As the field expanded, this expectation was impossible to maintain... unless... perhaps... something could be done to make the articles more similar, so that they could be grasped more quickly. That is, the original function of the manual was to make the life of the reader easier, and thereby speed the consumption of published material.

There was also an intention to help the editors and publishers. As the number of articles expanded, the old publishing system became overloaded. Did you know, for example, that the journal editor or publisher was typically expected to come up with the running head for a paper, and to write the abstract?!? Not only was this work increasingly difficult to manage, but it often lead to visceral anger on the part of author's who ended up with misleading abstracts and headers.

When things really got underway, several odd moral judgements entered the fray. For example, compliance with uniform writing standards were seen as a way to level the playing field of publication, "circumventing the authority of established brokers." On the other hand, uniform standards could be seen as stripping the life out of scholarly work, destroying the necessary context for creative expression. Titchener particularly detested the trend towards standardization, and the article is littered with scathing quotes that cannot help but make you smile.... especially with knowledge of how much more rigid the most recent manuals have become. For example, Titchener tells those working on the first manual:
Let any one who wants to run a journal do so, in his own way and with his own personality. If we insist upon cramping his style and insisting upon arbitrary form, censorship, and the like, we may make uniform pages, but we kill the life of science.
Others feared we you could not write important work in the short formats being proposed. For example, if we limited articles to a measly 7,500 words.

The first guidelines published publicly were in the form of a seven-page article in Psychological Bulletin. Originally it was supposed to be pamphlet produced by a private publisher, but a last minute offer to put it in the Bulletin serendipitously made it the APA's intellectual property. It would be another 32 years until the first "Publication Manual" was printed, and as we all know large fortunes are now made off of each printing. In that time professional standards and expectations changed tremendously, and they have continued to change since.

I don't want to go into any more details, as the article itself is well worth reading. Though it is clearly a historical research piece, it touches on issues that are profoundly contemporary. What role should journals have as gatekeepers of the publication world? What are the jobs of author, editor, and reviewer? What are the vices and virtues of short reports as opposed to full length articles? And most importantly it leads us to question how the ways in which we write help and hinder the transmission of knowledge on a large scale.

I have a feeling this is the type of article in which different parts will jump out at different readers. So if you get a chance to look at it, please let me know which parts jumped out for you.
 
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Also, on the non-professional front, there is a lot of polarized discussion about the recent events in Newtown, Connecticut. I don't think I it makes sense to discuss those events on this blog, and so I have written some thought elsewhere.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link to the article, I'm just browsing through it and I'll have to read it in full when I get the chance. For now though, I just wanted to comment on this bit (sorry if it slightly sidesteps the main point you wanted to make):

    "Some recent reviewers informed me in no uncertain terms, for example, that I was a horrible and insensitive person because I referred to people who like to have intercourse with members of the same sex as "homosexual". A quick check of the new APA manual, which they directed me to forcefully, informed be that such people were "gay". It didn't seem to matter that "gay" was a pejorative term not too long ago, nor that people who like to have intercourse with members of the opposite sex were still called "heterosexual"."

    I was just reading through the reasoning behind it here and it actually seems fairly reasonable to me (the justification for the terms used, not the insults directed at you personally!). By changing the identification of homosexuals to the term 'gay males and lesbians', and by changing the use of homosexual when referring to sexual relationships to things like 'same-gender behavior' or 'male-male behavior', I think the scientific reporting becomes more accurate.

    As the APA manual notes, 'homosexuality' seems to refer to a behavior, or sexual orientation, when we should be referring to a sexual identity - which 'gay male' or 'lesbian' is there to do. And when it comes to reporting sexual intercourse, it can obviously become very complicated and confusing to refer to behaviors as "homosexual" (especially if we wanted to use it as a description of a sexual identity as well) since same-sex intercourse is not necessarily indicative of someone identifying as gay. So it seems more accurate and less dehumanising to me, but it would be interesting to hear the perspective of a gay/lesbian/homosexual/whatever-term-we-should-be-using on what they think.

    I agree with your concerns about the use of the word 'gay' and questioning of their complaints with 'homosexual' on the grounds of negative connotations, as both have recent negative connotations so I don't think that can be used as justification one way or the other (except, perhaps, that the negative connotations with 'homosexual' are directly related to the field of psychology). I think the APA deal with your concerns of the 'inconsistency' with the use of the word 'heterosexual' though, as it does seem to be an accurate description of a sexual identity.

    More problematic, in my opinion, seems to be where they suggest that "gender" and "sex" can be used interchangeably to make sentences easier to understand. This would be a good example of the inconsistencies you mention, given that they seem to be taking extreme care to be accurate and sensitive when dealing with issues surrounding sexual orientation, but blatantly ignore the massive hurt and damage caused by society treating 'sex' and 'gender' as interchangeable.

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  2. Mike,
    Agreed... mostly. At a minimum though, surely if we are going to start talking about "gay men and lesbians" then we should also be talking about "straight men and straight women." This would make the labels parallel. It makes no sense to use common slang for one term and formal Latin for the other. They should have picked one; I don't care so much which.

    This is not as off topic as you might think, however. Taking this back to The Review's article:

    There was much early concern about how a standardized manual would restrict thinking. This example came to mind because it is far more insidious than the guidelines that caused those early fears. It shows how the more modern Publication Manuals are not only trying to tell people what format to write in, but quite brazenly trying to to tell them what to think.

    What if I intend to refer to behavior? Specifically sexual behavior? More specifically whether you typically have it with members of the same sex or the opposite sex? That is, what if I mean exactly what the old terms mean? Let's assume for a moment that the guide-authors are correct that "gay" is now a term that universally and unambiguously refers to someone's "identity" (which I doubt). If they are correct, then then that is definitely NOT the term I want to use in most contexts. (And that is even before I put my behaviorist hat on!)

    Let's also not dwell too long on the the truly obscuring potential of such policies. I.e., What if I am doing a case study of a woman who self-identifies as "homosexual"? Doesn't she get to decide what her identity is?

    ... Blah, blah, blah. Rant, rant, rant...

    At any rate... I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the article itself ;- )

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    1. In the Public Health literature, and also in (at least) the Archives of Sexual Behavior, "MSM" (abbreviating "Men who have Sex with Men") is the de facto standard for those who have behaviorist hats on. (I don't know, or care to try to find out, if it's also a de jure standard. I'm sure that Public Health professionals could give a flying penile-cum-vaginal-intercourse what the APA Publication Manual says, but possibly the ASB might fall under their sway.)

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  3. (Sorry, I'm going to quote certain comments because I find it easiest to respond this way, but I know it can make it look long and messy so just tell me to stop if it becomes a problem).

    "At a minimum though, surely if we are going to start talking about "gay men and lesbians" then we should also be talking about "straight men and straight women." This would make the labels parallel. It makes no sense to use common slang for one term and formal Latin for the other. They should have picked one; I don't care so much which."

    I get what you mean but I don't think the manual limits you to referring to heterosexual people as 'heterosexual' - you can, I presume, refer to them as 'straight men' and 'straight women' (as long as the language was formal enough for the journal you're submitting to). The point, I think, is that 'heterosexual' and 'straight' have no problematic connotations, there is no split in the community over which they prefer to identify with, and so on. As such, there is no need to set out guidelines as they are both accurate and applicable, whereas 'gay' and 'homosexual' can be inaccurate and problematic when used in the wrong circumstances.

    "What if I intend to refer to behavior? Specifically sexual behavior?"

    The guidelines cover that:

    "Same-gender behavior, male-male behavior, and female-female behavior
    are appropriate terms for specific instances of same-gender sexual behavior
    that people engage in regardless of their sexual orientation (e.g., a married
    heterosexual man who once had a same-gender sexual encounter). Likewise,
    it is useful that women and men not be considered "opposites" (as in "opposite
    sex") to avoid polarization, and that heterosexual women and men not be
    viewed as opposite to lesbians and gay men. Thus, male-female behavior is
    preferred to the term "opposite sex behavior" in referring to specific instances
    of other-gender sexual behavior that people engage in regardless of their
    sexual orientation."


    This is the least controversial bit, to me, as most research in the area already follows this general approach because of the recognition of the fact that "homosexual" or even "heterosexual" are inaccurate terms for the behavior being described. As behaviorists, this is certainly a preferred change in direction for us.

    "Let's assume for a moment that the guide-authors are correct that "gay" is now a term that universally and unambiguously refers to someone's "identity" (which I doubt)."

    I don't think we need to argue that it's universally used to refer to someone's identity; rather, we just need to acknowledge that it is the standard term used to refer to their identity (perhaps most importantly, by the minority groups themselves - i.e. LGBT groups).

    Sorry, still haven't had a chance to read the article fully yet - I'll do my best to do so as soon as I can and make some on-topic comments!

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  4. Mike,
    That makes a lot of sense, and in-principle the guidelines mostly seem good. I agree that a more detailed description of the actual behaviors is often better... especially if the actual behaviors are relevant to your study. But the question is still whether or not I, as the author, should have the right to feel differently.

    If I, as the author, think the world is made of two types of people, one heterosexual, one homosexual (with a possible allowance for bisexuals)... I might be wrong... or I might be right... and scientific investigation (using taxonomic techniques) should determine that, not the self-identification methods of the groups or the "politically correct" sensibilities of small group of non-expects.


    Maybe a more scientific sounding way to say all this would be:

    1) Different ways of categorizing people are useful for different functions. The scientist should be free to group them in a way useful for a particular study, by which I mean, a way they suspect is useful. The scientists should also be able to label them in any way that reasonably matches the characteristics of the group.

    2) The reviewers should, in general, stick to reviewing the scientific merits of the paper, and its importance to the field. They should not act as category-label police, except in cases where the labels would be misleading to fellow scientists (e.g., "Hey, someone already uses that very specialized label to mean something else, pick a new label to avoid confusion.").

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    1. I think we're agreeing but are discussing slightly different issues.

      "1) Different ways of categorizing people are useful for different functions. The scientist should be free to group them in a way useful for a particular study, by which I mean, a way they suspect is useful. The scientists should also be able to label them in any way that reasonably matches the characteristics of the group."

      Yes, different labels can have different functions but we're not talking about studying a potential new issue that calls for idiosyncratic terminology, we're talking about standards issues in the field and agreeing upon common language (that is accurate and, if possible, non-discriminatory).

      When it comes to standard issues (like discussing gender identity, or sexual interactions, etc) I think the committee draws up good reasons for using the terms as they are defined. They have the advantage of being most accurate, as well as being "politically correct".

      "2) The reviewers should, in general, stick to reviewing the scientific merits of the paper, and its importance to the field. They should not act as category-label police, except in cases where the labels would be misleading to fellow scientists (e.g., "Hey, someone already uses that very specialized label to mean something else, pick a new label to avoid confusion.")."

      I agree but I think the second half of your paragraph is exactly why peer review should be judging these issues. Using terms like "homosexuality" is clumsy in most scientific texts and can be misleading. I think it's like describing a behavior as an "instinct", where people generally know what you mean and might be able to derive the correct definition from context, but it's ultimately ambiguous and can be misleading. I'd personally agree with a peer reviewer asking a researcher to change the terminology in that situation and specify exactly what they mean.

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