British Medical Journal Open refuses to publish “transphobic” comment.

The BMJ Open has refused to publish a ‘rapid response’ comment by Professor Michael Biggs, on the grounds that he holds views which are “transphobic”. 

Michael Biggs is a professor of sociology at the University of Oxford. In February 2023, the BMJ Open, a leading medical journal, published an article on the demographic characteristics, long-term health conditions and healthcare experiences of transgender adults in England, based on data from the 2021 GP patient survey.  

In April 2023, Biggs submitted a ‘rapid response’, a type of comment which the BMJ describes as “a moderated but not peer reviewed online response”, to the article. In the response, Biggs claims that a number of the results of the 2021 GP patient survey are implausible, for instance, that people living in Newham are more likely to be transgender than people in Brighton and Hove. He refers to a preprint of his where he works to show that, according to the 2021 GP patient survey, people lacking English proficiency or educational qualifications are much more likely to be transgender.  

The explanation of these curious findings, Biggs argues, is that many people were confused by the ‘convoluted’ question used by the survey ‘Is your gender identity the same as the sex you were registered at birth?’ They therefore answered “no” in error. Biggs’ preprint has now been accepted for publication in Sociology, the flagship journal of the British Sociological Association. 

BMJ Open neither accepted nor rejected Biggs’ rapid response for five months, despite several queries and a formal complaint from Biggs. In September, Adrain Aldcroft, editor in chief of the BMJ Open rejected the rapid response on the grounds that it didn’t provide “constructive criticism” and “didn’t add anything beyond what was already presented in your preprint”. 

Biggs then discovered, via a subject access request, that Aldcroft, when stating his reasons for rejecting Biggs in an internal email, wrote: 

His comment was offensive (I’ve copied it below). He’s known for being transphobic. In his comment 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. Somehow he managed to publish a preprint, which is what he’s promoting.

Aldcroft’s claim that Biggs implies that trans people “weren’t able to understand the question” is absurd. Biggs is arguing (explicitly) that people who are not trans failed to understand the question. Further, even if Aldcroft were correct, the fact that a piece of academic work causes offence does not in itself provide grounds for refusing academic publication. The work ought to be rejected or accepted on its academic merits.  

Aldcroft’s claim that Biggs is transphobic cited an Oxford Student article, which links Biggs to an anonymous twitter account expressing gender critical views. Biggs has stated in his response to the article that: 

I treat students and colleagues with respect and so would never call a member of the University by a pronoun which he or she found objectionable. I do not, however, believe that gender identity supersedes sex, any more than I believe that Jesus was the son of God.

Aldcroft’s rejection of Biggs’ rapid response on the grounds that his gender critical views – which in any case, are not expressed in the response – are transphobic, is an appalling violation of academic freedom.