Editorial: How (bio)ethical are bioethicists?

- Darryl Macer, Ph.D.

Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba Science City, 305, JAPAN

Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 3 (1993), 43-44.


Parts of this may sound very critical, but I think bioethicists could do with some criticism and thoughtful changes in attitudes and lifestyle. I have meet many nice people who are doing bioethics from their heart, however, I have also meet many seemingly thoughtless self-centred academic "bioethicists". This makes me ask whether a bioethicist should be more ethical than any other academic, or whether sadly bioethics has become just another academic discipline.

I will divide this critique into several topics, and ask readers to think about each one. Of course no one is perfect, and we must all think deeply.

1. Replying to letters or gifts

(No respect for persons)

Do you reply to letters or complimentary books? Over the past few years I have sent out quite a few books and letters and it would be very interesting to print a list of those who reply and those who do not (don't worry I will not). In my opinion those who do not reply lack common ethics and cannot be trusted for good bioethical thinking. Even a delayed letter is better than nothing, and everyone is "busy" so that is no excuse.

I have numerous experiences of no response from letters. A particular case that I cannot understand is of a well-known Japanese Professor who was introduced by a mutual friend and bioethicist. He wrote a detailed letter and telephoned for me to visit him, but when I visited him he was not there. After waiting for several hours, I had the good fortune to meet another person who has been a stimulating academic friend ever since. However, the Professor who forgot to come has never replied to letters, or books sent much later. This person when speaking on television appears quite reasonable, with some similar views to myself, however, silence is the only response. Perhaps the embarrassment is too great.

Another recent case involves one of the newly established networks of the International Association of Bioethics (IAB). A request I sent over 6 months ago for urgent information has yet to be answered. In the absence of any member list for the IAB how can people get in contact with members with similar interests.

2. False words & anti-social behaviour

(False information / No respect for persons) Although I do not have much problem personally in speaking to people, some people do. When I observe behaviour at big international conferences (a bioethics study in itself!), I often see people left on their own. People may casually say "let's have lunch tommorrow", but tommorrow they don't even know your face.

3. Too many conferences and no coordination

(Waste of money / Self-centredness...)

A look down the list of conferences on the back of this or other journals will show how little coordination there is between different groups and societies in timing of conferences. For example, in Japan both in 1992 and 1993 there were two bioethics meetings on the same weekend in November as the Japan Society of Bioethics Annual Meeting. Every year there are overlapping international bioethics meetings. In November this year there are two big international meetings on cross-cultural ethics themes that clash somewhat. Where is the coordination?

Who can coordinate? One would hope that the International Association of Bioethics may do something but there are just too many societies and groups with their own interests. This is someting to work on in future. If you have any news about conferences please send them to journals early so that they can list them, this is some help. Of course some international meetings are only advertised to certain groups anyway, and can not be really said to be international.

4. Conferences, money and productivity

(Waste of money / Justice)

Do we need conferences? I often doubt that we need so many. For many they are excuses for travel grants and paid trips, a waste of money that could have been spend on productive research with international telephone and E-mail/fax conversations. I have a low view of large scientific meetings, especially when they start to have parallel meetings. Although we can meet people (the most valuable function), we can also write letters to them. Perhaps the problem is that letters are not answered.

Small meetings or workshops may be more useful, and often are. Visits to fellow researchers and visiting scholar programs are more valuable.

Who pays for the visits? A lot of research money is wasted on conferences and travel; this is common to academics but is a feature of many bioethicsists because the other research costs are relatively small compared to many natural sciences. Personally I can not receive money for overseas travel in Japan. (Japanese national universities also have no sabbatical system, even for Japanese staff). In the ELSI programs of Human Genome Research too much money has been spent on conferences. Communication is more efficient through written media or television, radio.

Another topic is the waste of money in fliers/advertisements about conferences. For an upcoming international conference I have received 8 separate copies of the same advertisement. What a waste of money. I do like to receive one copy, but not 8! Perhaps it reveals another purpose of conferences - to make money!

5. Too many journals

(Save trees,...)

We don't need so many journals. There are dozens of journals now, and so much written about "bioethics", a lot of it is a waste of paper. If you are making a new journal, then it should have a different niche to those that exist already (unless it is cheaper). When someone can perform the task that this newsletter does more efficiently and cheaper, than I will be happy to spend time on other things. (It takes about two weeks to prepare one issue, including copying of papers.)

6. Journal Review Times

(no respect for persons, fraud?)

The reviewing of papers in bioethics journals is often very slow and inefficient, and some would say unethical. I will give some examples of personal experiences for a contrast. I also have heard of similar experiences from other people - especially those whose English is even worse than mine (because they are not native speakers). I wonder whether I will be able to publish papers in the "slow" journals in the future. Generally I do not try to submit articles to journals after such a bad experience, this may be useful advice to others.

The review times range from less than a month (or in the case of this newsletter usually a few days), to over a year! What a waste of time, and brake on research. Publishing a book also takes a long time, part of the reason for establishing this publishing "institute".

There have been comments about the ethics of reviewing in science magazines, such as Nature. In the big science journals the time between submission and publication for a top paper is under 3 weeks. More commonly it takes a month for a review, and two months or more to publication. If a journal takes a year - one can really question whether they are ethical, and also it raises doubts that reviewers may be writing papers on the same topics. The copying of ideas is much easier and common in bioethics than in natural sciences - though not always intentional.

A list of examples: (Time from starting - in months)

Journal: 1st review; 2nd review; Accept/ Reject ; Time to publication;

Nature 1 1.5 A 4
Nature 1 2 A 4.5
Human Gene Therapy 1.4 1 A 5
Bioethics 2 1 A 7
Bioethics 1.5 1 A 6
J. Medical Ethics 12 R
J. Med. & Phil. 6 R
Social Sci. & Med. 3.5 8 A 16?
Women & Politics 4.5 R
Health Care Analysis 5.5 + ?
Hastings Center Report 2 10 A 20+

Our conclusion may be that if the journal Bioethics can usually review papers in 1 month, as their stated policy, why won't the other main bioethics journals do so. If bioethics is to become more professional, all journals should set standards like that - it is ethics!

7. Conclusion

Try to practice what you preach, and think about the ethical values of ordinary interaction. Without a working knowledge of ethics how can good ideas come. As the old proverb says, good water and sour water do not flow from the same tap.

Research Update

International bioethics survey project report

(see previous issues, or contact me). Surveys of public (P), medical school students (M) are nearly completed in New Zealand (P=325, MS=96), Australia (P=197, MS=110), and Japan (P=340, MS=435); and are continuing in India, Russia, Thailand, and other countries. Questionnaires are available if you are interested in conducting such research in other countries.

High School Bioethics Education Project

I have also just begun a project to look at the introduction of bioethics into the high school curriculum in Japan, funded by the Ministry of Education. As part of this project, yet more surveys will be done of biology and social studies teachers in Japan, New Zealand and Australia from July 1993. Questionnaires are available. See also the letter below.


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