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Masturbation study leads publisher to strengthen processes


University and police continue to investigate PhD student’s study featuring erotic comics depicting young boys

Sage Publishing says it has overhauled its ethics and submissions processes following an outcry over a study it published that used masturbation to erotic comics depicting young boys as a research method.

Meanwhile, police and university investigations into the now retracted study continue months after they started when the case blew up on social media last summer.

The US-based academic publisher faced outrage last year after publishing the controversial article by Manchester PhD student Karl Andersson on “using masturbation as an ethnographic method in research on shota subculture in Japan”. Shota refers to comics and illustrations that, as the study described it, “feature young boy characters in a cute or, most often, sexually explicit way”. 

The article—which was published as a ‘Note’ in Qualitative Research—was first removed and then retracted by the journal, as it launched its own investigation into the incident.

Investigations were also launched at the time by Greater Manchester Police and the University of Manchester, and are ongoing.

Research Professional News has approached Andersson for comment. He has not commented on the issue so far.

A spokesperson for Sage Publishing told Research Professional News it had now completed a full investigation into the article “to understand how the work came to be published and to learn lessons for the future”.

Since then, the journal had taken “a number of steps to improve its processes”, including the creation of an Ethics Working Group comprised of members of the editorial board who have “particular expertise in ethics within qualitative research”, they said.

“The group meets with the editors to discuss ethical issues with papers and to consider broader ethical practice within publication.”

In addition, the journal has implemented a “collective review of accept decisions” for Notes by the editorial team, in line with the existing practice for the main articles submitted to the journal.

Under the journal’s previous policy, Notes were sent directly to the editor without any prior scrutiny.

The spokesperson added: “Sage takes its research ethics responsibility extremely seriously and has expanded its team that works on research integrity.

“This team will continue to scrutinise the guidance and support that we provide to authors, reviewers and editors, as well as the workflow we have established across our journals.”

The update follows a blog post published on 15 September on the Sage Perspectives blog, in which Bob Howard, executive vice-president of research at the publisher, said the case “highlights the need to review how we deal with research that covers topics that have the potential to do harm, including research that involves illegal activities, even if those activities are only illegal within certain jurisdictions”.

Police investigation

Critics have questioned the legality of viewing shota in the UK, and Greater Manchester Police are investigating the incident, though no charges have been made yet.

A police spokesperson said it was working closely with the University of Manchester to establish if any offences have been committed.

A spokesperson for the University of Manchester confirmed the investigation was still ongoing and they would not be commenting until an outcome was reached.

Social psychologist and research consultant Petra Boynton said a thorough investigation was “important” and that “transparency will be needed once it is concluded”.

“Clearly, expected checks were not made,” she added. “The research community are still uncertain how so many errors were made across so many areas, and how to ensure this never happens again.

“It is a reminder that ethical issues across research—from teaching, to practice, to publication—remain patchy or poor. This is an extreme example, but not an isolated one, and the harms such cases cause to so many individuals and communities cannot be underestimated.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight