Monday, 3 January 2011

Deteriorating Bioethics, Plagiarism, Amateurism and Open Access

My research speciality, Bioethics (including medical and health care ethics (+ law and policy), research ethics of the life sciences (+ law and policy), public health ethics, and so on) has been an expanding, successful and increasingly influential international academic field since the early 1980's. While moral philosophers, like myself, have played an essential part in this process (people like Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, Rosalind Hursthouse, Dan Brock, Ruth Faden, Richard Hare, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Daniel Callahan, Jonathan Glover, Mary Anne Warren, Bonnie Steinbock, Tom Beauchamp and Frances Kamm come to mind), there has always been a consciousness in the field of the importance of having also far-reaching theoretical analyses being informed by accurate facts and up to date empirical research and theories. With time, more and more bioethics has come to be descriptive and empirical rather than theoretical and normative – applying some presupposed (as a rule not very well worked out) normative standard as a backdrop to investigating phenomena that are supposedly ethically relevant against that background (the endless series of studies of the practice of informed consent against the backdrop of "the four principles" is the most obvious example). Gradually, this development has led to a situation where more and more authors of bioethics papers lack any deeper education or training in the theoretical subtleties of the field (at best they have some sort of biomedical education topped up with a relevant ethics master or some-such, but often not even that). In parellel, more and more bioethics papers are being published not in the renowned specialised journals of the field, but in regular medical or health research journals and numerous new "open access" journals of uncertain repute.

Now, while I have been hearing more than just a few grumpy comments on this development among my more theoretically inclined colleagues, I am not of the opinion that it is necessarily for the worse. It may be viewed as a natural consequence of the success and relevance of the field that a division of labor is developing, where some concentrate on theoretical detail, analysis and innovation, others  doing the empirical investigations of relevance against the background of formulated theories and yet others engage in the tricky activity of moderating the application of bioethics research results in the context of policy making. However – and this is a big but – as in other areas of science and research, such developments are for the better only to the extent that the integrity of the field is not compromised as an upshot. Such a threat may arise in many ways, one of which being lack of intellectual contact and interaction between the "labor-parts" – for this reason, I'm a big supporter of multidisciplinary team research, where the theoretical, empirical and pragmatic sides of the field are forced to interact in the very process of doing the research. Another source of the threat is that the development brings into bioethics some bad habits and disgraceful ingredients that – alas – have been part of the biomedical research world for a long time. I'm thinking about things as journals with questionable quality standards and research fraud.

Quite recently, both of these sources of a threat against the integrity of bioethics research have been exemplified in the form of a multi-layer scandal in relation to a paper published in the "open access" journal BMC Medical Ethics. The paper in question, "End-of-life discontinuation of destination therapy with cardiac and ventilatory support medical devices: physician-assisted death or allowing the patient to die?" by Mohamed Y Rady and Joseph L Verheijde, was recently retracted because it was found to repeat substantial passages from a paper by Franklin Miller, Robert Truog and Dan Brock, published in the very well-seen journal Bioethics. At the research ethical blog Retraction Watch, Franklin Miller describes how BMC Medical Ethics conceded to retracting the article only after some substantial pressure from the legal department of Bioethics. Udo Schüklenk, editor in chief of Bioethics, demonstrated his outrage at the attitude of BMC Medical Ethics by cross-posting the Retraction Watch piece on his own Ethx Blog,  just a few days ago.

As noted in a further comment made at The k2p Blog, one of the main points made by Retraction Watch is that the BMC Medical Ethics retraction note is not honest about what has actually occurred. The note reads:

The authors have voluntarily retracted this article [1] and it is no longer available for online public display because portions of the article are similar to a previous publication [2]. While there was no intention to use pre-existing work without appropriate attribution, the authors nonetheless extend their apologies to Dr. Miller and all others concerned.

So, let me get this straight: The article plagiarised another article, but – then again – it didn't, since the plagiarisors claim that there was no intention to plagiarise. Well, how very odd then, that same (not) plagiarisors find reason to apologise to the (not) plagiarised authors.... eh....., for not plagiarising their article, I guess. As The k2p Blog puts it, "[w]hen is plagiarism not plagiarism?", immediately answering:

Apparently when the editor of the journal BMC Medical Ethics finds that a paper published in his own journal has copied large chunks from a different (competing?) Journal.

And, ending the post on a similar note:

...perhaps it is only plagiarism when other Journals copy material published in yours but not when others are copied and published in your Journal?

Amen. Together with Franklin Miller's account of the lack of willingness to even acknowledge any reason for retracting Rady's and Verheijde's paper in spite of irrefutable evidence, we here have as good an illustration as we want of the poverty that may result when "scientific journals" are able to mushroom under the protection of the presently sacred buzz-headings of "open access" and "online". As we all know, of course, this format for a journal is a financial prerequisite for having these sort of below sub-standard periodicals in the first place, at least as long as bioethics does not become tasty prey for the Big Pharma sponsored "manufactured scientific journal" industry, that have been scandalising biomedical scientific publication in recent years. 

Further evidence of the dungeon-like quality standard of BMC Medical Ethics is provided when inspecting it's website; priding itself as it is with a shining silver medallion at the top, announcing this fine journal's "unofficial impact factor" to be a handsome 1.93. Who's that when he's at home?, you may rightfully ask. The mystery clears, when clicking the shiny little badge – lo and behold:

Do journals published by BioMed Central have Impact Factors and are their citations tracked?
Yes; for any journal to have an Impact Factor, however, it must be tracked by Thomson Reuters (ISI) for three years. Although many BioMed Central journals are tracked by Thomson Reuters, others are still relatively new. The tables below show those journals that are already tracked by Thomson Reuters (ISI) and so already have Impact Factors, and journals that are due Impact Factors for which we have calculated their unofficial Impact Factors.

In short, BMC Medical Ethics does in fact not have an impact factor, but the management of the journal apparently hopes that it will one day receive one (to be precise, as transpires further down, some time in 2012). In the meantime, the same management has done its own little dabbling with its pocket calculator, coming up with the nice little "unofficial impact factor" that, just as so happens, holds out BMC Medical Ethics as a more influential journal in the field than longstanding leading periodals such as Journal of Medical Ethics, Bioethics, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, Health Care Analysis, Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics and Hastings Center Report. Truly impressive (footwork of a con-artist excuse for a scientific journal editor, that is)!

Now, although – as I said – the "open access" and "online" options opened up by the internet are presumably prerequisites for this sort of scam, it is of course quite possible to have journals that are both open access and online that meet the quality conditions one would expect of an academic journal. The problem is, with friends in the trade such as BMC Medical Ethics (and, one is prone to suspect, the whole Biomed Central lot) these journals need no enemies. The only way in which a researcher has any chance of deciding the actual quality is to inspect a sizable amount of paper and submit them to intense scrutiny. I can vividly hear the bitter laughs rattle the offices and rooms of my colleagues, as they ponder this suggestion for what to do with their precious time...

Well, I thought, then maybe I'll do it a bit for them! Because, as revealed by Udo Schüklenk, the retracted paper is in fact not fully retracted – or, to be precise, it is indeed still available through the BMC Medical Ethics server [RETROSPECTIVE NOTE: this has now been taken away, but the paper can still be accessed here], just not to be found via clicking a link in the table of contents. Not that we needed any more evidence of the morass that is BMC Medical Ethics, but there we are!

But anyhow, how about the paper itself? Well, you are all welcome to read it and make up your own minds, but to me this paper illustrates exactly the sort of threats to the integrity of bioethics research due to lack of adequate knowledge and skill mentioned earlier. Here allowed to be made public thanks to scam operations such as BMC Medical Ethics. The whole paper is based on the assumption that there is a comprehensive, sharp and self-evidently morally relevant distinction to be made between "active" killing ("physician assisted death") and "allowing" patients to die (without that assumption, the authors would be unable to make the argument they try to make and advance the thesis they want to advance). Recognize that one, perhaps? Isn't it one of those conceptual traps that are laid in the shallow rhetoric of high school debate contests that a minimally trained and educated bioethicist is supposed to spot and unpack instantly by applying some conceptual analytic ointment? Yes indeed, it is (and, as it happens, this is what Miller, Truog and Brock do in their paper). I'll tell you, Rady and Verheijde wouldn't have passed my basic course on medical ethics or bioethics theory. In spite of one of them waving the flag of an affiliation to a center for biomedical ethics, this is the indisputable work of amateurs whose only accomplishment is to send a stinking cloud of incompetence over my favored field of inquiry.