Paper on Psychopaths, Delayed by Legal Threat, Finally Published

More than 3 years after initially passing peer review and being accepted, a controversial paper addressing how to diagnose psychopathy and whether past criminal behavior is central to the condition has been published in the June issue of Psychological Assessment. The paper has privately circulated among forensic psychologists since 2007, but some of the explanation behind its publishing delay became evident last month when a commentary in International Journal of Forensic Mental Health made it a matter of public knowledge that forensic psychologist Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia,Vancouver, had threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against the authors and the journal's publisher. The Psychological Assessment article, by Jennifer Skeem, a forensic psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, and psychologist David Cooke of Glasgow Caledonian University, is critical of a widely used diagnostic tool developed by Hare called Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) and what the article labels as Hare's construct of psychopathy.

Hare, however, saw a copy of the paper prepublication and took exception to Skeem and Cooke's portrayal of PCL-R, his work, and his writings. On 8 November 2007, lawyers representing Hare sent an e-mail to the American Psychological Association (APA), Skeem, and Cooke threatening a defamation lawsuit. "In 40 years, I've engaged in some heated academic debates, but in the journals. This time was different because it had little to do with scientific/academic discourse and everything with taking unwarranted shots at me as a straw man," Hare says.

Skeem and Cooke rejected the accusations from Hare's lawyers, but after APA, publisher of Psychological Assessment, conducted another review of the paper, the authors did agree to some revisions. They also demanded APA publish the paper without any further changes. Around the same time, APA agreed to let Hare publish a simultaneous response, and he provided one. This was in 2008, and the paper has been in apparent limbo since, prompting the May commentary by psychologist Norman Poythress and attorney John P. Petrila, both of the University of South Florida. They wrote that the litigation threat had impeded psychopathy research and could allow lawyers challenging PCL-R to claim that its flaws were being suppressed. They further asserted that such threats "strike at the heart of the peer review process, may have a chilling effect on the values at the core of academic freedom, and may potentially impede the scientific testing of various theories, models and products."

Hare counters that he hoped and expected that the Skeem and Cooke paper, and his response, would be published back in 2008. Although Hare says he abandoned his lawsuit threat, APA and Skeem and Cooke's universities may have still feared he would file one, possibly in the United Kingdom, which has a reputation for favoring plaintiffs in libel and defamation cases. "My understanding was that Hare could file anywhere he wished. My co-author's university in Glasgow was more concerned than mine but [agreed to the article going] ahead after months and months of deliberation," says Skeem.

The initial paper, a response by Hare and a colleague, and a reply by Skeem and Cooke, are all now available online. A more detailed account of the fight over this psychopathy article, along with a feature examining U.K. libel laws and science, appears in the 11 June issue of Science.

John Travis

John Travis is the News Managing Editor at Science and also plans and edits news coverage of biology and biomedical topics.